Although Sage Sohier took the photographs in her series Americans Seen in the 1970s and ‘80s, she didn’t publish them until this year, with Nazraeli Press. She’s been plenty busy in the interim, though: among other projects, she published At Home with Themselves: Same Sex Couples in 1980s America (Spotted Books, 2014); and Witness to Beauty, portraits of her mother, a former model who was photographed by Richard Avedon, was published last year with Kehrer Verlag. On view at Joseph Bellows Gallery through May 31, the black-and-white photographs in Americans Seen capture the texture of a particular time and place in the United States: cigarettes and cutoffs, Dr. Scholl’s® and trucker caps (not worn ironically), chain-link fences, and laundry on the line. Many of the photographs were taken in and around Boston, but also in Pennsylvania and Florida and a few other states, and most include children or teenagers. Those were the days before smart phones and personal computers. There was a lot of hanging around, fending off boredom and inching toward trouble.
Sohier’s working-class subjects – families, groups of teenagers and children, father and daughter pairs, or picnickers – take their leisure where they can find it, on porches and in yards; a shaggy dog often loiters nearby. What is most noticeable in her photographs is the casual intimacy: it’s summer, and bare limbs are everywhere. Children wrestle, teenager smoke and talk, arms draped over shoulders, couples flirt, babies sink into parents’ laps. It’s street theater, and no doubt there’s a performative quality to many of the photographs (including the lean teenager who’s drawn a small crowd to watch him lift a set of weights), but the unselfconsciousness of it feels nostalgic, as does the connectedness. Sohier’s photographs bring to mind Removed (2014), Eric Pickersgill’s pictures of people in his native North Carolina who, whether alone or in groups, appear ultimately isolated, gazing down toward their hands, which would be holding smart phones or iPads, except that Pickersgill removed them before he snapped the picture. Each of his subjects seems to exist in his or her own electronic bubble, where the people in Sohier’s photographs – like the four bored teenage girls sitting on a stoop in South Boston – feel like they’re intimately connected, even when they’re gazing into space.