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Book Review: Passengers

Passengers. Photographs by John Schabel.
Published by Twin Palms, 2012.
Reviewed by Adam Bell

Photographs by John Schabel.
Twin Palms Publishers, Santa Fe, 2012. Hardbound. 112 pp., 85 duotone illustrations, 8x10".

From the relatively new fear of terrorist attacks and catastrophe to the maddening inconvenience of flight delays and endless security lines, commercial air travel elicits a combination of fear, frustration and tedium. Nevertheless, flight is miraculous. As a technical achievement, it is as marvelous to contemplate, as it is convenient. While documenting and conveying the complex emotional and psychological effects of travel is particularly challenging, it is not impossible. John Schabel's evocative new book, Passengers, collects a series of portraits of people shot through the windows of airplanes waiting to take off on the runway. Elegantly restrained in both design and concept, Schabel's book powerfully captures the tedium and vulnerability of modern air travel.

It is hard not to look at Schabel's work and read it against the backdrop of post-9/11 air travel. An impossible project in today's world, Schabel photographed his subjects in the mid-90s at various airports in the United States as they awaited take off. Shot with a long telephoto lens far from the tarmac and closely cropped to the windows, the photographs give us an intimate look at each passenger. Mostly shot at night, and often during inclement weather, each window frames the person and seems to glow. Like an illuminated screen, the windows offer a voyeuristic peek at the waiting passengers. Shielded behind thick glass, the faces are obscured by rain and incidental reflections. Most are distracted and sit patiently, quietly reading newspapers or books. Others are turned to their travelling companion or are already fast asleep. Some peer out the window to meet our gaze or simply contemplate the journey ahead. In one image, a woman with large framed glasses looks out the window, her expression both startled and afraid. In another poignant image, a small boy raises his hand to touch the window – reaching out to the photographer and us, waving goodbye.

Passengers, by John Schabel. Published by Twin Palms Publishers, 2012.
Passengers, by John Schabel. Published by Twin Palms Publishers, 2012.

Passengers and modern travel have a rich history in photography. Among contemporary photographers, Michael Wolfe's images of torturously compacted Japanese subway commuters strike a similar vein – albeit in a more brutal manner. Alternatively, Andrew Bush's Vector Portraits offers an amusing twist on cars and their drivers – each passing window framing their idiosyncratic personalities and offering a glimpse into their mobile world. However, the most obvious touchstone is Walker Evans' seminal book and series Many Are Called. In this work, Evans surreptitiously photographed fellow subway travelers in NYC through a hole in his trench coat. Tired and guarded, Evan's fellow commuters slowly make their way to work or journey home below the city. Both Evans and Schabel capture resigned tedium and vulnerability of modern travel – be it the New York City subway or modern air travel. Forced into close proximity to our fellow passengers and trapped inside, we must all surrender to the plane or train that carries us.

Passengers, by John Schabel. Published by Twin Palms Publishers, 2012.
Passengers, by John Schabel. Published by Twin Palms Publishers, 2012.

There is a curious phenomenon that occurs on airplanes. Hovering above the world, protected only by metal and glass, our emotional fragility is laid bare. Forced to watch a limited selection of movies on our tiny screens, even the worst Hollywood treacle can cause us to cry. Faced with our own mortality, defenses drop. Will we make it? Why did the seatbelt light go on? Trapped in a narrow seat, we have nowhere to go. There are no tears in Schabel's images, but he does capture the coerced fragility and state of surrender. The hope that the plane will take off, land and arrive safely, that the miracle of flight will hold true if just one more time.

Passengers, by John Schabel. Published by Twin Palms Publishers, 2012.

Twin Palms and Schabel have taken a long time putting this book together and it shows. Although seemingly simple in design, the spare elegance of the design allows the work to shine. As the illustrator, graphic designer and author Christoph Niemann recently wrote, "Simplicity is not about making something without ornament, but rather about making something very complex, then slicing elements away, until you reveal the very essence."* In this sense Schabel's book and images does exactly what it should and no more. The book contains no explanatory or self-justifying text and instead presents each image almost full-bleed on the page – sometimes facing another image, and other times by itself and facing a black page. Moving through the book, one has the sense of scanning the horizontal rows on windows on a taxiing plane. As distant observers, we can only watch, knowing we are all travelers at some point - alone, surrounded by fellow travelers and waiting to depart.—ADAM BELL

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ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and his work has been exhibited and published internationally. He is the co-editor and co-author, with Charles H. Traub and Steve Heller, of The Education of a Photographer (Allworth Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Foam Magazine, Afterimage, Lay Flat and Ahorn Magazine. He is currently on staff and faculty at the School of Visual Arts' MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department. His website and blog are and

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