Jacob Aue Sobol’s new book, By the River of Kings, plants him in Bangkok. Last year he put out a Leica tie-in book called Arrivals and Departures, composed of shots from his travels across Asia. Sobol’s an impressive photographer, and his work is always strong and vivid. But the books that count are the ones in which Sobol lives in a place, romantically involved or not, and truly gets to know it: He digs deep, finds its curious corners, develops a vision of the city. That’s what he did in his first book, Sabine, living with his then girlfriend in Greenland, and that’s what he did in I, Tokyo, moving there with another girlfriend in 2006. In I, Tokyo, he speaks about how hard it was to begin to know the city, and how taking his shots brought understanding.
So in his book, what do we understand about Bangkok, this city along the banks of the Chao Phraya river? The more I stare at that question, the less of an answer I have. We see interesting faces, contorted pets, some nude women, lots of old people, a snake in a pudgy man’s hand, a twine-tied beetle crawling over a man’s naked torso. Glimpses of the city, nothing straight on.
Which is fine. Travelogue-style subject matter rarely makes for a good photobook. Instead, what counts is a photographer’s style, vision, sense of discovery—at bottom the power of the photography itself. Understanding becomes a way of seeing (the Helen Levitt reference is not misplaced). And Sobol’s way of seeing—what he chooses to shoot, his tight focus on faces, the odd corners of experience he grabs, the textures of his imagery—all add up to one of his strongest books yet.
When I first saw Sobol’s books, I wondered what it added to the work of photographers we already know. Sure, Sabine, his first, had the adventure of his life in Greenland, and many strong, Araki-like photos of his girlfriend, but it occasionally wobbled into the diaristic. With I, Tokyo, he found his next task: to carve out his own space between the intense, high-contrast blur of the Japanese masters Moriyama and Nakahira, and the heavy, close-up, saturated-black visions of fellow Scandinavians Christer Stromhölm and Anders Petersen.
At first look Sobol seemed too much like Petersen, but that’s a worry I no longer have. The book they put out together in 2013, Veins, is instructive. There’s a generational tussle at work, yet in Veins, Sobol begins to pull away from his brilliant forebear. Put side-by-side, there’s a similar sharp vision and hyperfocus to the photos, yet there’s a difference, too. Petersen’s work feels closer to Stromhölm’s, and their strengths come from a certain coolness and distance amid the close-up intimacy of their shots.
Sobol is just as close-up and intimate (perhaps more so), but in his new work I find more heart—and mercy. Perhaps that’s the understanding of Bangkok Sobol comes to: the human predicament, comprised of lost souls, aging flesh, glimpses of terror, faces of fierce determination. This greater empathy doesn’t make his work better than his elders’, but it does begin to make it his own. In By the River of Kings in particular we watch him continue to define his place in the canon.
To Sobol’s credit, as he follows this task of refining his vision and creating unique work, he never denies his masters. By the River of Kings, in particular, is subtly allusive. In one picture he nails the impossible: He’s made a photo of a boy with a toy gun pointed straight at the photographer. The shot works! (Tip of the lens cap to William Klein.) He’s caught children at play (thanks Ms. Levitt). He brings us a scurvy dog reminiscent of Daido’s famous glancing-back-at-us devil mutt (Sobol’s dog at least as tormented).
But with By the River of Kings Sobol also stakes out his own turf. There is an unforgettable photo of wizened hands embracing an equally wizened tree trunk; a small, light-colored image of a boy clutching a bouquet in the center of a huge dark pool of floating flowers; two near toe-less feet hovering above empty sandals. I can’t find a weak photo in the book, nor one that doesn’t manifestly belong.
It makes perfect sense that By the River of Kings is put out by Super Labo, the exceptional Japanese publisher whose recent books include ones by Moriyama, Araki, Kitajima, and Fukase, and the company has done a superlative job with Sobol’s book. It’s one of Super Labo’s best-produced works yet. The inks are an ideal black, the contrast epic, the editing superb. The photos live in a way they don’t quite in the Leica book.
By the River of Kings lets Sobol acknowledge tradition but never be boxed in by it. To the photographer’s great credit he lets his forebears lift his work, move it forward. Sobol’s gone far in this book on Bangkok, and it’s exciting to anticipate the cities—the worlds—he, and we, will come to understand next.
By the River of Kings by Jacob Aue Sobol is available to purchase here.
Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His novels include Meet the Annas and Stations of the Cross. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, and Meeting Robert Frank are in the permanent collection of the International Center of Photography (more info here). In Fall 2016, Dunn will teach a course called “Writing the Photobook” at New School University in New York City.