Heatwave | Ronit Shany
(English Translation by Jenni Tsafrir)
© Ronit Shany and Xargol Books Ltd., Tel Aviv. It is forbidden to copy, duplicate, photograph, record, translate, store in a data base, or distribute this/these works or any part of them in any form or by any electrical, digital, optical or mechanical means without written permission from the copyright holder.
Once, twenty or thirty years ago, when anyone asked me what I photographed, I would answer: people. It was true and it was clear, and it felt as if everyone knew what I was talking about. Then things became complicated. I no longer photographed people, and what I was doing became more difficult to define. I often found myself thinking about the answer instead of replying, while I observed the ever-increasing perplexity on the faces of those before me.
In retrospect, I can divide my years of photography into two sections. The first period began with the decision to photograph people in the street, unstaged and without requiring permission. This was in London, 1973, my final year of photography studies. I was enthusiastic: to go outside, look for the next 'good picture', read 'body-language'. Here I was influenced by the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, amongst others. To photograph day-to-day lives as if they were on a stage. To seek the absurd, the unusual, the decisive moment.
A recollection from that period: Dave Lavender, my photography teacher, talking to me about unphotographable moments. We were walking along a darkening street, close to sunset, the sky above us changing hue with European slowness. Today I think he was simply referring to the difficulty of photographic film having to cope with too little light. Something magic remained with me from that early conversation; the thought, and with it the longing, for things which cannot be photographed.
When photographer friends said to me, "So you're a photojournalist," I would feel disappointed. Was it possible that people couldn't see my inner world through my photographs? I always distinguished between the photojournalism, which I did for a living, and the art I was endeavoring to create. Did my artistic photography in fact resemble my journalistic photography during those years? I felt ever more strongly the need to photograph non-people. I didn't know how. I had indeed already made a name for myself as a photographer of people in the street, and enjoyed a sort of professional pride in this.
In New York, 1984, I am still a street-photographer. At the end of my first year of study for an MFA degree at the Pratt Institute, things seem to close down on me from every direction. Am I capable only of photographing people? Is this a trap? How do I set myself free from what I already know?
At this stage my second photography period begins. My teacher, Phil Perkis, gives me his full support in my new approach, which I suggest to him as initial sketches. I have eight months to go before the end-of-year exhibition. I feel relief and a great sense of freedom, together with a fear of failure. I have never before done the sort of work I am planning now. I want to use an 'idea' (a little late, but conceptual art all the same), to incorporate words and/or oil paint into the photographs, to produce works of various sizes. The new Postmodernism gives me the liberty to quote, to use the 'ready-made'. I am now allowed to do so, and I enjoy this: to play with the photographs and see what emerges; to spoil, with my own hands, the 'holy', pure, straight photograph.
Perhaps I should state clearly that I did not produce Postmodern art. It didn't make sense to me, then as now, to do what was considered relevant for the period. This is not out of disregard for the spirit of the times. But I will not embark on a new project unless the need to do so first originates and arises within me.
Back in Tel Aviv, 1985. I hold a postcard photograph of Haifa, the city of my childhood. With scissors I scratch, above the printed title 'Haifa by Night', the words 'This is where I grew up' (p.43). I write this in English to send to a friend in New York, and suddenly I realize I will not send this to anyone. I want it for myself. This was the beginning of the postcard series.
They whitewashed at the neighbors and
Longing (p. 92 and p. 34) were my first attempts, after returning to Israel, to use words in the body of the photograph. At this stage I am still using a 35mm camera, with a regular rectangular negative. The relatively small negative and the physical difficulty of etching onto it resulted in the words appearing quite large in the final print. During the '90s, using a two and a quarter inch camera with its square frame, I photograph urban scenes. To the words which appear in the photos - advertisements, signboards, road signs - I add a word or words of my own. This will be a dialogue. I add manual etching to the photos, sometimes using chemicals to dissolve parts of the image on the negative. If there are figures in the photos, I erase them. Computers and Photoshop already exist, but I want to do without them. I enjoy the sensation of danger: either a treasure will appear, or I lose the negative. It's as if only under perilous circumstances - existential danger to the negative - is the game worth playing.
I cannot explain how this happens and why, but always by surprise, unexpectedly and uncontrolled, a dramatic change takes place. Thus, overnight,
The alien's story was born, and immediately demanded - like a newborn baby just brought home - my undivided attention. The alien has landed in my neighborhood in Tel Aviv, completely by chance. All that he sees here is new and amazing to him, raising questions. He holds a camera, and with it he tries to investigate what he doesn't understand. My challenge in this project was radical - to view as if for the first time, in a different way, things I had long ago ceased to observe: grass, the floor, a glass, a doorway; not to neglect the most ordinary things only because they have always been there; to just take the photograph, without imparting additional significance on the object.
All the photos were taken close to my home. I work with an open aperture, close up, not always in focus, often without looking through the viewfinder. Hoping for that 'miracle' which occurs when there is no control, for the photograph that will appear in spite of, and contrary to, my professional skills. To return to the excitement of photography as a surprise. As if only when I am on the verge of, or touching, failure, is there a chance for art to emerge.
Basel Street Compound, the nickname given to my neighborhood, eventually becomes the title for the exhibition at which the project is presented.
The urban landscape replaced people for me: not landscape in the broad panoramic sense, but rather a scene in close-up, sometimes part of a scene. Looking back, I can see that in fact the theme of all my work is people.The urban environment, for me, serves as a metaphor, as a spiritual mood. Perhaps this ties up with the longing I mentioned earlier, to photograph what cannot be photographed. I agree with the photographer Robert Frank, who said, I want to photograph what I feel rather than what I see.
When Paul Graham, the contemporary British photographer, was asked what he had learnt from his photographic project in Ireland, a war-riddled area, he replied that art isn't about providing answers. It's more about questions-asking thought-provoking, unexpected, unarticulated questions. It in no way tries to explain anything or to enclose within meanings. This is how I feel about my selection of photos for this album: a selection made not in any conventional sequence, chronological or thematic.
Perhaps it would have been easier for the viewer if my work had been laid out, chapter by chapter, as it developed over the years. But, rather than listing my achievements or presenting an orderly retrospective, I chose to focus on my view of reality, to tell an intimate, personal story; to bring together, in no hierarchical order, different works from different periods on different subjects; to include works that had not previously been exhibited, either because I had already moved onto another project or because they were not created as part of a project.
The link between each photograph and the ones preceding and following it is associative; through similarity, contrast, a shared detail, irony. I mixed up the photos in order to recombine them. I discovered, after several attempts, that the new combination provided new significance to the photos. Even when my styles and techniques changed, I sensed that I always spoke with the same voice.
It is very important to me that the observer should allow the photographs to accommodate his own world view, rather than assuming at the outset that there is a single correct solution and searching for it. Whatever is not immediately visible to the eye will, I hope, reveal itself at a second and third viewing - like re-reading a book, or like a second encounter with someone you would like to get to know better.