You’ve never heard of Judith Louise Marone, an employee of a Kroger Grocery Store in her early sixties, but then, she had never heard of Joseph Pablo Sobel until meeting him in the magazine aisle. Starting from a quick video of her in front of the magazines as she replies to one question he asks her, the project developed over the course of the next year and a half into what became a 26 minute digital video simply titled Judy. Thats a nice chunk of time to get to know someone, interacting with them through each season, for an entire year plus, showing the audience the transformation of perfect strangers who by chance became entwined in each others lives. Boy meets girl with a bit more realism.
Judy had never confronted the failings and missed opportunities in her life until meeting Joe and agreeing to be the subject of a video project for his graduate work (and later became his thesis). Through several close ups and voice overs, we learn about Judy’s desires and fears, her failings and deeper secrets. She confronts bad habits, personal hurdles and dark childhood memories. She invites Joe and his camera into her home at its most disorganized – completely covered in an intricately woven sea of clutter, with little more than a path to navigate and a spot to sit on the couch. Although at times her monologues become more like therapy at the expense of narrative, her honesty, bravery and stage presence cannot be denied some credit. It is hard, also, not to reflect on your own shortcomings as well, confronting fears of failure while watching her at what she remarks is “the lowest point of her life.”
About halfway through the film, Joe starts inserting himself into the narrative. From the months of interviewing and time spent together, a relationship has formed between the two, and now Judy’s thoughts delve less into her problems and more into their relationship. While she seems much happier, things are not perfect. Instead of reflecting on her past, the topic has moved to their present, even reflexively focusing on the film itself. Life happens on camera, and maybe because of the camera. She constantly fluctuates between referring to Joe in the 1st and 3rd person, even though it is obvious he is always behind the camera, that this is his life too that he is filming.
This presents him equal to his subject, investigating how connectivity between anyone is possible. That Judy is much older than Joe is important: the film starts as she celebrates her 60th birthday and by the time we learn of a brewing romance, they are on their way to celebrate his 25th. The tendency to view this as somewhat shocking allows the truth behind their relationship to be questioned, particularly as it relates to film and the creation of narrative by stressing the creator and creation of the film. Most obvious is when they kiss on camera, though not unreal, it looks entirely scripted. Questions linger to the status of their relationship, as we only hear Judy speak of it, and her thoughts change with every shot. Joe does not speak until the end, and so his opinion carries with it a great deal of importance. In the final shot, the camera is pointed down at a table with a microphone and recorder on it, with only her feet and his arm in the edges of the shot. Joe tries to remember what he had said only moments before. In restating the line over and over, leaving it incorrect (“What the f*** did I just say?”) reaffirms the present over the past, that the past can be redeemed by the present by moving forward.
Tom Friel: What led you to make this work? How is it a departure from previous work?
Joe Sobel: I was an illustration major making paintings before I was a photographer. I nestled myself into the studio from open to close. Drawing nude models and being one myself probably led me to subtly explore the subjection in looking and the gaze. It was such a closed and an immersive feeling that I enjoyed heavily.
I like that word “departure.” In the nautical usage of the word it signifies an east to west distance between two points traveled by ship. When I decided to switch my major to photography, which I need to thank Christine Flavin for, my photography professor at Northern Michigan University. I went on a picture taking expedition (Distortions, 2009-2010) that comprised 200+ individuals that were more or less mentally or physically disabled. They were shot whenever I was downtown or on a breezy Lake Superior walk. The intention was to show how subjective a photograph could be by severing its objectivity. At this point I was taking a photo history class and was kind of amazed by the fact that this medium of picture taking had such a political difference in its upbringing from Edgar Allen Poe, Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, Charles Baudelaire, Emerson to Valery, Benjamin and Roland Barthes. It questioned its historicity and shined light on such disparities like class and gender. So coming full circle, I don’t want to create this mythology about me of how painting kept me inside away from prevalent issues and photography allowed me to create a documentary work, but that is basically how it went.
I was in the second semester of my first year at Cranbrook and for the most part I was already thinking about thesis, which was about a year away…. I was producing work in critiques surrounding the effects of subjugation, power and exploitation; enslaving qualities, that John Tagg would attribute to photography as “tool[s] of repression that signify and objectify the other.” I guess I took the more serious, out dated approach to picture making and conveying, but they were subjects I really had a problem with. Maybe somebody can see the correlation of how photography gave a nation its cultural identity and how somebody like Judy could get a role in my first filmic endeavor.
The film Judy was more of an extensive project. I still used a lens based medium but instead of the interaction and snapshots being so immediate through stills, the condition of time and moving image was key. (She said it was divine intervention but I don’t believe that. This is one disagreement out of many that separates us from being compatible. If you asked her she would tell you we are complete opposites. Ironically, this is what I was looking for.)
TF: The idea of cultural identity via photography is important to note, with Walker Evans being a prime example. Film has taken over this condition in terms of supporting American Mythologies. Photography has led to seeing the subject as equal to the viewer. I think in this way your documentary, focusing on an average person and explicitly shown as equal to you still has a closer relation to photography than to film documentaries, which serve to mythologize the person.
JS: And that’s the thing about film, even photography sometimes. It’s that intention to hone in on somebody and once you do that, boom- they’re like quasi-famous. Plus, it makes the subject feel wanted in that way. That way of recording can be quite humanistic and rewarding, but apprehending at the same time…. I am really glad you mentioned Evans because like him, and unlike him, August Sander had a huge role, too. [Sander had the] ability to capture these people from all kinds of different backgrounds in a time of complete destruction. Evans, too, but if you didn’t know the history, you’d think that Sander’s photographs would be completely genuine. Most of his subjects paid him to portray them how they would want to appear in the future. But he didn’t name his subjects, leaving them with an uncertainty as to which ones were commissions and simply ones of his own expressive aims. The clothes they chose to wear were more truthful than the expressions on their face. He ended his seven-volume book with the face of his son who was murdered by his jailers of that time. So because it’s a blend of truth and metaphor, and talking about American mythologies, I find a correlation in Walker Evans’ set of portraits he took with a Polaroid camera in the ‘70s, a couple years right before his death. They are wholly private, taken without an ounce of calculation versus his earlier, public aims in objectivity and eye of the photographer.
TF: You have had a steady screenings of this work since graduating this past spring. (Congratulations, of course!) Is the ideal place to show the work film and video festivals, or more traditional art galleries? Since the space and type of event where it is screened alters your audience and how it is perceived (closer to the fine art world or documentary and film culture), how are you trying, and are you trying, to dictate it’s future?
JS: Have you seen Miranda July’s newest film, The Future? Even though she is so odd and interesting, doesn’t she seem like a brand to you? It’s almost like people put on a sort of
mimesis of her in the morning. I don’t know, man. I know she can’t help it but still. Maybe we’re in a cultural identity crisis or something.
I think restricting it to a specific audience is limiting, and taking the Joseph Beuys approach is a little more satisfying on this issue. Context matters indefinitely, yes. If you place it in a whole bunch of different scenarios and environments, each one is going to have a multitude of interpretations. Just like the artist and subject is in contrast, so is the film in its environment and vice versa. Although a film is inevitably inside itself referencing the outside maybe it doesn’t matter if we position that kind of ontology that way. I think it’s an interesting idea that a film, especially one made for projection no matter where it is, is a displacement for the viewer; novel introductions. It’s this mediation between somebody and their environment that matters most for me. It’s like, they’ve decided to come here instead of somewhere else. Oh! Now I see Judy’s point in divine intervention; but I still disagree with her.
TF: Haven’t seen it but I think I know what you mean. Overall, I like her work though. I imagine there were a lot of hands in that film, as it is nearly impossible to get a feature length film out otherwise. So, just from seeing the trailer, which I doubt she is responsible for, as well as a few clips, it looks like a lot of current indie dramas: dry jokes, physical action replaced by rapid fire dialogue and frail people with big hair. So its more that is branded by a system that bases everything on archetypes.
Do you mean that by watching a film, we choose to enter an environment within the one we are physically in, and this is different from a home viewing experience, or am I missing the point?
JS: Well, yeah. Instead of being in your private home you’re somewhere else. I guess it’s as simple as being in a space you’re not familiar with, or maybe being confronted by it or something.
TF: How much of the film is scripted, where you may be filming Judy responding to a previous undocumented conversation, or giving her time to think about the questions you may ask, and how much of her responses are completely of the moment?
JS: Most of the time her responses would be of the moment but I would insert myself in there somewhere like asking her to repeat things, or telling her to stand in a specific place. Throughout the editing process I repeatedly went back and forth, deciding whether or not I wanted to let the viewer in. I do have to thank Liz Cohen (Artist in Residence in Cranbrook’s Photography Dept.) and some of my classmates for this.
The scene you are asking about where we were inside the dressing room right before her cut and tint? I think that’s the scene you’re alluding to? Where she takes her shirt off and changes? This one is particularly interesting. A week before this I really wanted a formal, well lit and composed picture of Judy. The only stipulation I told her was that she’d have to be unclad. I mean, right off the bat, out of the gate, she staunchly declined. Maybe it was because I asked her to do it in the bathroom, or her room that turned out to be her sister’s… Anyway, this led to this scene where she literally pulled me in and closed the door. I kept asking her what we were doing, obviously with the thought in my mind that she was going to change, but no answer. It’s almost like she knew it was going to be a really good one and wanted to surprise me. I take it as a mixture of good and bad. Judy was explaining how I did her wrong a couple of nights prior to this and because of that, she invited me in this way, cause she felt bad, in a victimless way. Either way we talked it out, and I got her to curse.
Considering there was no official script I was the one who needed to work spontaneously in almost every way, but she gets the credit mostly. To her, I was the male behind the camera. The times they were scripted were when Judy and I were going through something emotional, or when things didn’t exactly sync up. Judy then would cast out and talk about it. There would always be an underlying skepticism between both of us that made it unnerving and exciting at the same time. It’s not easy to wholeheartedly trust another human being, especially if you find them in the magazine aisle of a grocery store. But it worked. I was lucky enough to find such a spellbinding and talented individual such as Judy.
TF: Your role as both documentary filmmaker and as subject is continually in flux. What is the impetus for this approach?
JS: Unlike Leigh Ledare where his mother is his subject for 8 years, it was a developing relationship between Judy and me, so I needed to have a presence. A relationship is not a relationship unless both people try, Tom. Coincidentally, Ledare is showing at WEILS Contemporary Art Center in Brussels until November. I just got an email from e-flux.
Like him, I wanted to show both of our vulnerabilities through difference and what that meant to the viewer. Whether it be provocative, sensual, romantic, disgusting… whatever it may be, my role was to be individually constructed, set up to be portrayed in a specific manner. It’s like when you were an infant and your mother placed you in front of a mirror and told you that it was in fact you. There are mirrors, and reflections and misperceptions.
TF: I think this point comes through very strong in the work. We have such rigid cultural ideas about how we should behave, and class, gender, sex and age play a huge part in this.
JS: For sure. And in a way, we are obligated to play this part. Otherwise we’d be subjects for another photographer in another time, so-to-speak. You just have to abide, because we didn’t choose where and when to be born and into what situation. The cards of life, man. They’re kind of dealt already, but I have this stubbornness in refusing to believe that.
TF: The explanatory letter by Judy that is posted on your website offers viewers an additional view to her thoughts to the project, allowing her to clear up immediate responses to the work as misconceptions. (The first and possible most obvious question “are you exploiting Judy?” with the firm answer of “NO” from her.) Is this sense of transparency, which is conveyed throughout the film, ultimately one of the most important elements of this project? Or does it emphasize a collaboration of mutual trust between the two of you while creating the film?
JS: Having the letter come after the film was really good because it did clarify a few things. The writing is something different from the film all together, though. The issue of exploitation is meant to be there and I am supposed to be questioned. I was scolded, too. This was a primary reason in picking and sticking with Judy. So yeah, Tom, you are right in that the terms were explicated earlier and it was a mutual understanding. It eventually turned out to be an inverted investigation of power, work, exploitation, gender and sex that she understood. Did I answer that correctly?
Joe Sobel is a recent graduate of Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, MI, having received an MFA in Photography this past spring. He has shown his work throughout the US as well as China, England, Poland, and most recently, Scotland. “Judy” is currently on view at the Detroit Center for Contemporary Photography, in the Russell Industrial Building until Sept. 8.
You can watch “Judy” in its entirety on Joe’s website: www.joesobel.com
All images from “Judy”, by Joe Sobel. Digital video, 25 min 50 sec, 2011-12