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Keeping Score

In a new collection, One to Nothing, Russian-born photographer Irina Rozovsky portrays an unsettled Israel in struggle with itself

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Detail of an untitled image from One to Nothing. (Irina Rozovsky)

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.

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While Irina Rozov’s pictures are artistically and aesthetically pleasing they are almost alienated, even autistic. They are closer to Norway (or Siberia or New England as the case may be) in the coldness of their lens, than Israel. The images far too ‘neat’, too “crisp” and too “unconnected” to one another to say anything significant about Israel – and suggest that the observer feared being swept up in the confusing crazy quilt-like milieu that epitomizes her object of study. By remaining aloof and uninvolved, she missed the point.

The essence of Israel is its rich tapestry of contrasting and conflicting worlds colliding – secular and religious, Jew and Arab and a host of other dichotomies. Its ironies can be captured and capsulated – sometimes in fleeting iconic moments caught on film that ‘says it all’.

One finds this missing “human quality” in the work of another photographer – this one Israeli: The in-house photographer of the Israeli daily “Haaretz” – Alex Lebak.

I suggest readers not waste their time on Irina Rozov. Their time would be better spent getting acquainted with Lebak, whose work can be viewed on the “Haaretz” site and elsewhere on the Web – just key in his name and surf.

My favorites (in terms of colliding worlds that epitomize Israel) are this one (http://halemo.net/edoar/0039/alexlevac02.jpg ) and this one (http://nadav.weebly.com/uploads/3/0/7/4/3074156/7659602.jpg?423) – although the last shot (of Arab contractor – Achmad & Mohammed Stonemasons, who won the tender to renovate the iconic water tower at the entrance to Herzliya boasting Herzl’s ‘silhouette’ – unmistakable even at night and a wellknown landmark) requires the observer be able to read Hebrew to uncover the irony and chuckle.

In all three one can sense how the photographer reaches out to touch his subjects. This human element is totally missing from Ms.Rozov’s work.

Dani ben Leb says:

Yes, I agree with Daniella. Including photographs of camels, Dead Sea mud and the Med beaches when covering Israel is never a good idea. It has been photographed many, many times.
These photographs are not “Israeli” but just like all the other contemporary photography from Berlin, London and New York or Tokyo. The cold washed out colours have been about for over ten years. It’s no better than photo stories in inflight magazines.
The image of the image of the image.

If you want good Israeli photography look at http://www.noabenshalom.com/ or
http://www.inga-gallery.com/eyalfried_e.html
as an example.
Noa ben Shalom’s photography essays Boxing and Haunted is some of the best social documentary there is at this moment in time coming out of Israel.
Ben Shalom’s work has a poetry and nuance which eschews all cliches. Her deep emotion’s and hunger for answers are ever present. The fragility of life and its impermanence is Noa ben Shalom’s opus. Like a mother being shown a deep bloody cut in her child’s hand, she is present. Unflinching, with great compassion.

I have to agree these photos are very unconnected..they just don’t convey much, either israeli or universal. Oh and thank you Dani, for the link. Eyal Fried’s photographs are exactly the opposite – they convey a lot, and are very interesting.

Great photographic art. Thanks for bringing the artistry of Irina Rozovsky to my attention.

I disagree with these comments. There is no one way to approach photography of Israel, or any other subject. Israel has been portrayed in terms of alienation and existential solitude in many media for many years. The desert is a natural, almost cliched setting for this approach.

Social documentary photography is a whole other genre–not what this artist was exploring.

seems more like pictures of a summer in the catskills.

I like Rozovsky’s photographs very much and I like all the recommendations other commenters provided links to. Why should it be a zero sum game? What’s with the “don’t waste your time on…”

There’s a great deal of good photography in Israel these days. I hope Tablet will highlight more innovative, and presumably young, photographers’ work from Israel, as well as young Jewish photographers working elsewhere.

I have to admit your website is actually outstanding! I’ll undoubtedly appear back again once again!

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One to Nothing

Untitled photographs by Irina Rozovsky
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