Twin Palms, 2013
Reviewed by Leo Hsu
Surreptitious photography often plays off of a certain possibility of the medium, that there’s a truth available in the observation of subjects who do not know that they are observed. This idea lies at the heart of a 20th century trajectory of clandestine photography that sought to locate the individual in growing and rapidly modernizing cities: Paul Strand used an angle finder in 1916 to get close to subjects on the street, including a blind woman, the subject of one of his most well-known photographs; in the 1930s Walker Evans photographed subway riders in New York with a similar method, and also through the buttonhole of his coat. To witness people as they are, on the street, on a train, is to recognize the vulnerability implicit in their individuality, something that even the armor of impassivity cannot conceal.
John Schabel’s Passengers, published last year by Twin Palms, both embraces and frustrates the expectations associated with this idea, that by witnessing subjects who are unaware of us, we have access to some kind of evidence about them. Passengers presents a series of photographs made from 1994-1996 of airline passengers seen from a distance, through the windows of their planes as they await takeoff. In Schabel’s pictures we can imagine the subway-riding strangers of the early 20th century city repositioned as global citizens of the imminent 21st century. They sit in the essential vehicle of the global economy, the commercial airliner, with pre-9/11 confidence intact.
The passengers in Schabel’s photographs, waiting in the liminal moment between boarding and takeoff, are, like Evans’ subjects, waiting for time to pass. We glimpse strangers on paths that we can only imagine. The pictures are deliberately repetitious in format, the subjects consistently framed by the oval cabin window, and rendered in the coarse textures of film grain. At times the passengers in Schabel’s pictures seem to be interacting with the viewer, and at other times they appear to be completely lost in their thoughts. Resting passengers do not seem to be relaxed. In some of the images the face can barely be made out.
The twenty years that passed between Schabel’s impulse to make these pictures and their publication in book form only last year produces an intriguing dissonance. While Schabel could make these pictures today (noting that photographers with long lenses photographing airports today would likely be viewed with suspicion) these do not feel like contemporary images, and they are not: they reference a different moment in globalization, and the anxieties of that moment, and a different moment in photography.
Schabel made these pictures in the context of global flows of capital, goods and people that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Gulf War I seemed inexorable. The first wave of dot coms had barely gotten off of the ground, let alone crashed down upon themselves. Passengers presents ordinary people as adapting themselves, not entirely comfortably, to the conditions of their participation in the global economy. If the city consumes its denizens, so does the world. The awkward moment of waiting and the physical containment of the vehicle combine to precisely position the passengers on this plane, in this moment, and to hold them there.
When Schabel made these pictures, film was the most accepted medium of photography. The grain, which Schabel uses to terrific effect, was a necessary artifact of the photography under low light and long lens conditions, and had well before the 1990s been well established as part of the photographic vocabulary. Unlike Evans’ subway riders, who are elevated by the attention bestowed on them in close, clear photography, Schabel’s subjects are about to dissolve into the texture of the image.
Notably, Evans’ 1930s subway photographs were not published in book form as Many Are Called until 1966, some thirty years after he made them. The similar distance of years between Schabel’s photography and the publication of Passengers is where the value of this book sits. Passengers is an object on which to meditate, to consider how much the world and how we know it has changed in these two decades. And also to consider how much remains the same: Schabel’s pictures describe the conditions of a captivity that extend beyond the hull of the plane, and there’s a redemptive quality to Passengers, as there was in Evans’ Many Are Called. Schabel draws attention to our smallest human gestures even as we are fixed in time and space by the mechanisms of a world that feels much bigger than any of us.
Leo Hsu is a photographer, writer and photography instructor, based in Pittsburgh, PA.
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