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Magnum Photographers
November 12, 2013
by Jacob Aue Sobol
You are invited to the opening of my exhibition "Avec Toi" at Maison Du Danemark during Paris Photo. Thursday the 14th of November at 7 pm.

Copies of Sabine, I,Tokyo and Veins (with Anders Petersen) will be for sale.

Also the new catalogues Avec Toi and Arrivals and Departures will be presented.

On the 16th there will be an artist talk at 4 pm.
At 6 pm Anders Petersen will join to sign copies of "Veins"

By Johan Zimsen
A direct line connects the photographs in Danish photographer, Jacob Aue Sobol’s (b. 1976) first important work, his highly personal book Sabine from 2004 with its images from a small seal hunting community in eastern Greenland, with his grainy and rough city portrait in the series I, Tokyo from 2008, and his tranquil and comprehensive rendering of the conditions along the Trans-Siberian Railway in Arrivals and Departures from 2012. The materiality, the high degree of a physical sensation, that penetrates the black and white exposures, creates a tension and intensity in the photographs, making them vivid. The Danish writer, Karen Blixen (1885-1962) gave two radio broadcasts in 1951 with the title Daguerreopies in which she paradoxically related the earliest photography to an oral transmission, to the spoken word . It is a similar combination, the wish to let photography transmit itself and speak to other senses than that of the eye, i.e. to that of smell, taste, feeling and hearing, which in reality is at stake in Jacob Sobol’s work.

Examples of this are the many contrasting registrations of skin and the body’s both soft and rough hairiness. A woman’s face, the pores that stands out, and the fine hair that falls across her forehead, are sharply caught by the objective camera in I, Tokyo. The portrait almost changes the photograph’s character – by looking at the photograph the viewer can feel or sense the skin’s nature. This way of transforming photography is to a high extent the result of the hunter’s experience and language: The taste of salt from a warm body; the movement behind the cut forelegs of a killed animal; patient observations in the surrounding environment. The knowledge and the many impressions gathered are thus used by the photographer Jacob Sobol, who himself trained for two years as a seal hunter in East Greenland, to articulate his own condensed iconographic language.

At the same time, there is in Sobol’s photography a reticence, similar to the mental distance that the photographer Raymond Depardon (b. 1942) has described in his lecture Dans le nu de l’image, held at the Centre Roland Barthes in 2005. The mental distance ”refers to the modesty and the respect, the ethics and the violence” in the photographer’s work and is in accord with the lack of sentimentality, that even the most intimate of Sobol’s photographs are characterised by. The difference between the picture of a pockmarked or spotted woman’s back and a killed seal being brought home is therefore not big. In the registration of the naked body as well as the conditions for human survival in a tough climate lies a calm outlook, which rationally controls and maintains the motif.

Sobol’s photographic work with both its sensuous involvement and distance thus lies precisely in continuation of Blixen’s interest in oral transmission and its relation to photography. With Blixen, the spoken word frames a human fellowship with space for the listeners’ own insertions and questions and at the same time inherently carries a little bit of death, a regular distance, an absence . The words disappear as soon as they are said, which is why the spoken language can also be considered as a temporal medium with chronology and simultaneousness and the writing with its permanent character as a spatial entity .

Precisely this last point is not without interest in relation to photography. When the photographer incorporates a temporal dimension in the photograph, the seed for a minor turbulence, a tension arises in the otherwise stable and spatially demarcated registration. In a paradoxical manner, time renders the frozen photograph sensuous and dynamic, the depiction acquires movement. An excellent example of this is Sobol’s portrait of a young nursing mother from 2012. The picture is marked by huge concentration and friendliness and taken in the moment where the infant is focused on suckling at the breast and ought not be disturbed. In a way the photograph, and with the photograph the viewer, here actively holds its breath in order not to interrupt the child unnecessarily. Somewhere latently in the photograph is a howl about to break out.

The balance between the physically concentrated and the objectively registered in Sobol’s photography deals therefore not merely with human relations internally in the photograph but also with communicating or establishing a relationship, an oral tradition’s fellowship, between the photograph and its viewer. This vulnerability, which time can bring to the photograph, here perplexes the viewer. The viewer is affected and is led to believe that the woman really is breast-feeding at this very moment. The viewer is involved and takes his place. Both the semiologist Roland Barthes (1915-1980) and the anthropologist Marc Augé (b. 1935) have each in their own way described a similar temporal disorientation in the meeting with a photograph, just as both through literary and not oral references have pointed at an emotional dimension in the photograph .

The parallel to the oral tradition is then something particular for Sobol’s photography. Sobol himself emphasizes both the Greenlandic spoken and everyday language and the meeting with a drum dancer in the brief accompanying texts in Sabine, just as he notes a lack of conversation in the city’s metro in I, Tokyo. The orientation towards the spoken word with its implied bodily gesture and facial expression indicates, in both cases, a different kind of sensuous photography and a different kind of perceiving photographer to whom the static picture’s metamorphosis into a kind of action in progress is decisive. In this regard, a photograph of Sabine washing herself stands out as a sublime. The distortion of the face and the body that scrubs or ”performs” becomes reality in the meeting with the viewer. As ”oral transmission” the photograph here takes over the girl’s body language in order to involve the viewer in a mundane occurrence . Time and the oral narrative in the photograph break up with the objective registration and provide space, increasing the photograph’s sensibility or sensuousness.

As Sobol insightfully insists on the qualities and the gesture that the oral tradition represents, and as he stands by the necessity of a mental distance, his physical photograph is lifted to a complex level from where it speaks to several senses. The traditional seal hunting communities as well as people in general have, at all times (and mostly), appreciated their storytellers . A direct line connects these storytellers to Sobol’s photography.