Is it possible to take apolitical photographs in Israel? Given the millennial complexities and interminable conflict there, the answer is quite possibly no. But even so, an artist’s political approach to Israeli subjects can be developed within a spectrum of engagement—a noise volume, degrees of bias, touch. Russian-born photographer Irina Rozovsky’s approach in One to Nothing, her striking 2011 first book, lands her on the side of quiet understatement. Part of this muted sensibility is brought to bear through remoteness, facelessness, and emptiness, which take on prominent roles in her textured and highly detailed images, captured during two trips over several years. The 48 color, medium-format, untitled pictures in the monograph, from Berlin-based Kehrer Verlag, together make clear there’s a game afoot in Palestine, and someone is winning by a very small margin. The question is: Who?
Often askew, the frames in One to Nothing offer geometric compositions in a palette of the desert: sand, mud, rust, washed-out skies, and Jerusalem stone. Human or animal subjects are often in repose, with their eyes hidden, such that they become as much a part of the sunburned landscape as a cypress, a bougainvillea blossom, a Jewish star on a gate, or a car that has gone over a cliff. But even in their anonymous stasis, the people appear unaccommodated. Rozovsky—who now lives in Russian Brooklyn but grew up on the north shore of Boston after narrowly missing direct emigration to Israel with her Soviet Jewish parents—acknowledges that though her pictures contain humans, they are not portraits. “They’re more actions and gestures,” she told me recently, “human effort abstracted.”
In one, a man climbs a gated fence from one part of an ancient wall to a seemingly identical part. In another, a young couple—embracing, mourning, or reconciling, it’s hard to say—find the space to fully hold each other between parked cars. A camel’s head is tucked such that it’s impossible to know if the animal is coming or going. A family seems to have made its home in a tent on a remote beach across from a turbulent sea, while another couple has found an idyll by pushing a wheelchair to the coastline. A young frum girl, in her jean skirt, stands glumly in thigh-deep water, while a mud-covered woman pushes against the earth as if to nudge it along in space.
In fact, though, there is no such thing as an apolitical view of Israel—the stakes are too high, and the history too deep. A move toward abstraction could be viewed as the cheapest of cop-outs—the artist might be saying, I won’t take sides because, hey, there are no sides to take. Or it could be viewed as an artful transcendence that subtly and not-so-subtly acknowledges and engages the political background to take the specific land and identity struggles of that part of the Middle East and kick them into the universal slog of existence. That distinction is carried in nothing more than the quality of the art. Here, where that abstraction is successful—where these conceptual images could only have been taken in Israel, now—the overall effect is to suggest that in the harsh landscape of the Holy Land, nothing is much, much greater than one.