John Schabel

Grant Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles, USA

Foregoing the distance that separated him from his subjects in his earlier photographic series 'Passengers' (1994-95), John Schabel's newest work places him right in the thick of things, practically breathing down the collars of complete strangers. Shot at night in urban areas frequented by tourists, such as Times Square, Schabel's project 'Night Shots' (2001) blends the noir of Weegee's Naked City (1945) with the scientific precision of Dr Harold Edgerton's Milk Drop Coronet (1957). The premise seems simple enough: take photographs using the flashes from other people's cameras as the only source of illumination. Yet the process of doing so involves a darkly comical scenario worthy of Paul Auster. I imagine Schabel moving cloaked amid the crowds, skulking like a fiend, full of ulterior motives and nefarious aims. (Just the sort of man naive, fun-loving tourists are warned about.) Loitering in public places and keeping an eye peeled for tell-tale signs of imminent picture-taking - people clustering together, posing; somebody raising a camera to their eye - Schabel has, for the past year and a half, led a vampiric existence, emerging at night to feed vicariously off others' lives and light.

Schabel's black and white images are pretty creepy: dark, swirling, indeterminate spaces filled with the type of shadowed, grimacing faces and ghostly figures that Goya loved. Thus, the horribly disfigured face in the upper right of number 11 (a mask, shot on Halloween) or the wide, toothy grin in the lower left of number 9 (not a mask), hover gargoyle-like in the dark edges of the pictures. In the foregrounds we often see the silhouettes of people's heads, close like the POV shots in horror films where the killer is creeping up behind some pyjama-clad teenager. Always active, Schabel's camera probes and reaches out, waiting simply for a camera flash, yet ultimately reveals, as did Diane Arbus, the freakish side of ordinary.

If the incidental background details of the images are disturbing, the darkened forms of the people Schabel captures in the act of taking a picture are downright unnerving. At first it's easy to mistake them for a self-portrait, or assume that the guy wearing a light coloured T-shirt in number 18 is Schabel shooting his reflection in a mirror or glass door, but it isn't him. All these figures are Schabel's doppelgängers. Their faces obscured by their hands and cameras, the two figures mirror each other, mimic each other, though one is ultimately more knowing than the other; one perfectly innocent while the other (Schabel) is deeply guilty. In 'Night Shots' we are witnessing Dr Jekyll confronting Mr Hyde. For if one's double is always something of a monster, this monster is always steeped in immoral desire.

In an act infused with a heightened, sexualized tension, in order to make these images Schabel had to anticipate when the other photographer would push their shutter-button and attempt to release his simultaneously. The successful photographs are, in this way, documents of synchronicity between two strangers. I wonder about the other photo, the one the tourist shot, the one that captures Schabel somewhere in the background, exposed by the same flash that casts his opposite in darkness. Schabel himself refers to these unseen images as the 'evil twins' of his own and indeed they are: bastard others, malformed, irresolute and amateur.

In the same way that Robert Louis Stevenson's gothic thriller is an interrogation of the nature of subjectivity, Schabel's 'Night Shots' confronts us with a subject that has been cloven, destabilized, opened up and exposed in the most profound sense. Schabel not only deliberately initiates this rupture, this loss of self, but seems to crave it. At its heart 'Night Shots' is about a longing for connection, one that risks a possible contagion. Why else would anyone go out of their way to seek that one-in-a-thousand moment when one person's flash reaches through the open aperture of their own camera to expose a frame of film?

In the end, the photographs themselves are by-products of a search for literal enlightenment. The captured flash in each of Schabel's images represents a bright epiphany after which nothing remains the same.

Issue 63

First published in Issue 63

Nov - Dec 2001

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