In Samuel Beckett’s classic play Waiting for Godot, Estragon and Vladimir do their best to kill time while they wait for someone whom they wouldn’t even recognize if they saw him. It’s absurd, of course, but it can also be understood as a life-affirming allegory: it doesn’t really matter if you take an active or passive approach to life, either way will work. The photographer Hai Bo (pronounced: High Bo) employs both strategies. He creates scenarios in which old friends and acquaintances interact, while he sits quietly behind his large-format camera releasing the shutter when it all feels right.
Hai Bo was born in 1962, so most of his friends are getting grey. Old men figure prominently and frequently alone. There is an inherent kind of sadness to such images, but the subjects don’t seem lonely or worried or anxious. They appear at ease. Part of that, no doubt, is due to their connection to the land they live on and care for. “Passing Traveler,” for example, depicts a man walking along a barren stretch of road that seems to extend infinitely into the hazy distance. The ‘passing traveler’ here is actually the photographer; the man in the picture is the road’s caretaker. He walks that road daily, has for years, and is likely familiar with every ditch and divot. Were it not for the caretaker’s sanguine disposition the desolation of the landscape could quickly feel haunting.
The locations of the shoots are also loaded with personal significance. The roads lead to places Hai Bo has lived. He likes to shoot in his mother’s hometown. Perhaps most evocative, however, are the two photographs he made in the classroom where he once studied painting. In both images a human skull sits on a table against a wall, light streaming in through a large window. One of the images portrays a painter seated at an easel eyeing up the skull, in the other the painter and easel are absent. This isn’t some trite exercise in symbolism. As the titles (“Shadow I & II”) make clear, Hai Bo’s focus is on the light, or rather the darkness. It’s a formal study of the room in which he learned to make formal studies.
There is an ethereal quality to Hai Bo’s photographs, a sensitivity to light and atmosphere that betrays his early training as an oil painter. The portrait of his uncle, “Untitled 6,” could be a Rembrandt. It’s serious, but it’s also a shade humorous: the old man has one ear bud in. Like Hai Bo, he’s both actively engaged and one degree removed from the action in the frame.
Images courtesy Pac MacGill Gallery.