Review by John Sevigny
“Living on the margins of New York rather than in “the city” itself has given photographer John Kobeck a unique point of view of that city of cities, and by extension, all of civilization, for which Manhattan might serve as metaphor. It’s fitting then that the human subjects of his color photographs, much of it set in New York-area interiors, seem distant and marginalized, lost within a labyrinth of lonely, spare, overpriced flats that spread out across the Northeast, and for that matter, everywhere else in America.
Esthetically, Kobeck’s work is informed by Flemish Renaissance painting. Given his decision to work with interiors and available window light, the comparison may be inevitable. But the photographer’s work is far less boastful in terms of technique than that of the Northern masters and relies less upon light than subject, setting, and disturbing allusions to bedroom-community of a nation we have become.
It’s coincidence that Kobeck lives and works in a part of the world once inhabited by Walt Whitman, that most American of 19th Century American poets. Whitman established individualism, and less intentionally, “aloneness” as qualities of our national arts and literature and that quality carries through not just to Hemingway and contemporary novelists such as James Lee Burke, but to photography by 20th Century, camera-wielding lone rangers such as Diane Arbus and Danny Lyon. Which is not to compare Kobeck to either of those artists. Rather, it seems safe to say that his work deals with the invididual, but in an almost anti-romantic spirit that Whitman would have likely found upsetting.
Kobeck’s photographs are haunted by people, mainly women, who are photographed alone or live alone, and whose faces express a lonely angst that seems somehow unexpected in one of the most densely populated metropolitan centers on earth. There is sadness here: lonely, empty and gently aching. Kobeck’s glance is distant, observatory, and documentary in a sense of the word that few journalistic or socially-concerned photographers are savvy enough to understand. Which is risky. The distant approach to portraiture has become a sad cliche of what is called contemporary photography. But Kobeck’s subject is not women but more precisely the human condition in an age in which we are theoretically more connected than ever, and yet, tragically isolated in closet-sized apartments and painfully generic flats across the planet.
In that sense what Kobeck does marks a contrast to Whitman’s celebration of the individual. If there is a single line by Old Walt that might fit these photographs it is an oddly existential one:
“Why should I pray? Why should I venerate and be ceremonious?”
Prayer requires hope and in Kobeck’s photographs, nothing really happens and there is no sense that anything like ceremony is going to happen. Which is not a bad thing. Rather, our 21st Century lives seem increasingly dominated by long stretches of listlessness that has morphed into faithless, cynical boredom backlit with just a trace of sadness that serves to prove we’re alive and here for the long haul.
What Kobeck’s work captures best is this: American individuality, as celebrated by Whitman, bellowed out by Ginsberg, slyly captured by Robert Frank or strutted across the Western plains by John Wayne, has slipped into tragic isolation with each of us voluntarily inhabiting small, sad, cells, pretending to be happy with our ever-smaller phones and laptops. Kobeck examines the results of that dramatic shift, which happened very quietly, when few of us were watching. This in itself makes his photographs, which are marked by their stillness, powerfully surprising”
– John Sevigny, December 2015