Interview: Irina Rozovsky

Irina Rozovsky (b. 1981, Moscow) studied French and Spanish literature as an undergraduate at Tufts University and received an MFA in photography from Massachusetts College of Art in 2007. Her work has been featured in numerous national and international exhibitions and publications, including: 25 under 25: Up and Coming American Photographers, powerHouse Books and Duke University; 31 Women in Art Photography, curated by Charlotte Cotton and Jon Feinstein; Exposure at the PRC, curated by Mia Hamm; the Magnum Expression Award juried by Martin Parr; Humble Arts Collector's Guide to New Art Photography; Rencontres, Arles; PHotoEspaƱa, Madrid. Most recently, her work was the subject of a solo exhibition at the New England School of Photography, Boston. This spring she published her first monograph One to Nothing (Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg). Irina lives in Brooklyn, NY and teaches at Parsons the New School for Design and the International Center of Photography.

fototazo: It’s been said that The Americans is an example of a body of work that could only have been made by an outsider, someone who could look at the United States with the distance necessary to see the country clearly. This is something that has been said several times in reviews of One to Nothing about you and your perspective on Israel.

The counter-argument to this line of thinking has always been that an artist should focus on whom and what they know best – themselves, their world, their community – in order to speak about the world beyond themselves. What do you think of these arguments - that now extend to your work - and what gives you the motivation to make work as well as the faith in making work about the world outside your own?

Irina Rozovsky: I never know where my own world ends and the outside world begins. Since I came here as a kid and had to learn to adapt, I've held onto this idea that I could dissolve into any context and kind of belong, at least temporarily. The camera let's me in close, yet permits a skeptical distance. My immediate world is small and there is so much I want to see beyond it. This wanting allows pictures to happen.

One to Nothing has images that were made out of pure curiosity, surprise and awe that you can only feel when you're confronting something for the first time. Thank you for the Robert Frank analogy, I'll take that anytime, but I never really felt like an outsider. The inside/outside point of view is a complicated thing — I actually believe you can be closer to something you don't know, that is not yours. So at the same time I was a tourist in Israel, I had a very strong sense that I was home in a big way. It sounds new-agey, but it was like suddenly tapping into a living, breathing human history and realizing you are part of it, not just an individual molecule floating in space.

f: In comments on your work, reviews have also frequently talked about how you show the "other side" of Israel and have stayed away from a direct encounter with the traditional storylines and themes that dominate the news and that form the common impression of the country.

How much are your images a conscious - however oblique - look at the dominant themes commonly connected to Israel such as the role of religion in shaping the territory, settlements, Palestinian-Israeli dynamics, violence and the army, and how much are these themes inevitable because of the work having been made in Israel? Or would you disagree that these themes exist in the work? In short - how consciously are you addressing issues in contemporary Israel?

IR: I think no matter what kind of art you make in Israel, it will always be read for a political message. It's in the air and comes with the territory. Oblique is the perfect word here because One to Nothing is apolitical, I'd say — more concerned about the effects and absurdity of conflict, rather than its details. This book wouldn't make for an informative news report, but it intends to convey in a subliminal way this land's complexity, riddled by never ending tug-of-war face-offs. There is no knowing the facts in Israel. Whatever you hear is coming from one side or the other. I'm curious about neutrality, an empathetic distance.

f: In one of the book's two essays Jon Feinstein says that you sought to explore the territory with an "uninhibited whimsy." Looking at your work, however, it seems too consistent, too carefully considered, too conscious of a deeper content to be called whimsical. How would you connect how he describes how you approached making the work and how the images read?

IR: I didn't really go with the idea to take pictures, it was a surprise. I fell into this project but when I landed, my feelers went up and I realized this was very important. The pictures came very quickly, almost violently fast. I made two years worth of pictures in two weeks. I think that's what Jon has picked up on—that there is an instinctual thinking going on rather than an analytical one in the images themselves. Coming to terms with what I'd gathered took longer. The edit for the book was endless in comparison. But even in the sequence and edit it was important to hold onto a sort of whimsy, to avoid obvious combinations and overt statements. The "whimsical" Jon addresses, I think, is a beating-around-the-bush that might be present in this project.

f: We are almost never allowed to connect with the people in the book– eyes are closed, averted, or covered; people face away from us. Talk about your relationship to your subjects, why you keep the observer at a distance from them, and how that helps you to develop the themes in your work.

IR: I might be jinxed because many of the people in my pictures have their eyes closed. I did a small project once where I put all these accidental blinker photos together and it suddenly made all the sense in the world. So when it happens, I want to believe it's a blessing, like the person is trying to tell me something that's very difficult to say. In Israel, the faces averting my camera seem to say there is no time for this, there are bigger fish to fry than posing for photos. The people in these photos are not personalities—they are representations of the human effort dealing with physical and existential challenges. They are stand-ins. Also, I don't want to be visible in this project. I think the only time there is eye contact is the donkey on the back cover, making up for all the missing eye contact throughout.

f: In addition to keeping us from connecting with the characters in the book, you include many unexplained narratives and actions, stripping us of our ability to understand the images through context, and instead use color and location, light and pattern to lace the images together. This abstraction of narrative counters the deep traditional and historical story lines relating to Israel as well as the consistent, almost propagandistic narratives we have heard from all political sides.

It almost seems, ironically, that one of the ways that you are humanizing the space and the people is to make both more abstract, and that your approach to rejuvenating the stale narratives about Israel is to scramble all narrative completely. What's your sense of the role of narrative in your work and how it fits the narratives frequently repeated about the country? Are you actively trying to change the narratives perpetrated by and installed upon the country by giving us different images of the country?

IR: To tell the truth, I hadn't really seen any photography about Israel before going. The only narrative running through my mind, unsurprisingly, was what little I'd read of the Bible. As such, my pictures were a response to the place, to its mythology, to its pre-historic legacy, and to its heart. I had seen a film by Avi Mograbi called August: A Moment Before the Eruption (2002) which I liked a lot. It blends documentary and drama to address the political conundrum in a powerful but deft and humorous way. I think what you're talking about is a broken narrative, where you have to piece things together with all your might, a confusion that reflects the reality itself. Also, it was important to go from dark to light, to emerge from a cave and end in the blistering sun where the image is burned out and hardly there. In that, I saw a type of hope, romantic but impossible.

f: You approach making the images in One to Nothing in a number of ways, but tilting horizons, a warm golden light and a unifying beige palette are among the formal hallmarks of many of the images in the book. I thought about these aesthetic qualities as perhaps a response to the space and light of Israel and as a way you were developing the themes in the work, but then I saw a number of the images from your current work in process - In Plain Air - have similar formal traits. How much of how you make images is about you and your aesthetic interests and how much about the place or subject you are photographing?

IR: I respond so strongly to bright light. I can deal with bleak, blank light and thank God for without it the book would have been like cotton candy. It's hard for me to explain, but I think in the sun I have more options in regards to mood. When the light is diffused and gray, the images can't help but be sad or contemplative downers. But in the sun I have more to work with and it's interesting to try to make sad images despite a bright and cheerful sunlight. It's the same with In Plain Air. It's mostly sunny and bright but there's a strange sadness in the atmosphere because you know this day will run out, it can't last. I am big on Kodak Portra film, which adds to the warmth of the light. So it's both a combination of place/subject and the visual language I lean towards.

f: Let's pick two images and have you talk us through the making of them and use them to continue to explore your answers to some of the previous questions.

First, how about the cover image of the two young men in a wrestling embrace. How did you make it and what does it mean to you? Is this a photograph you set up, a moment you noticed and recorded or something you saw and asked the two men to repeat? Is this a straight-forward slice - out of context - of ordinary life from "the other side" of Israel? Or is this image also a metaphor of Israel and Palestine, or of Israel's past and present, or of Israel’s secular and religious communities or an abstract representation of the struggle between all of these dichotomies of Israel, intertwined and interdependent?

IR: These are my cousins I was traveling with, and this is the Dead Sea. They are brothers. Dan was at one point on the Israeli National Wrestling team and Mark also wrestles. They were messing around and I asked them to hold it, took a couple of shots. It's one of those few moments when a photograph can turn reality into myth. Two very real people become the figures on a Greek vase, they’re dead-locked, they seem equal, their forces zero-out. They could have been like this since beginning of time and will go on indefinitely. I knew immediately it would be the cover: two individuals locked in stubborn confrontation, melding into one unit, something resembling a four legged animal. Strangely, they seem stronger as one. Leaning on each other, the face-off becomes an embrace. Intertwined and interdependent, yes.

f: How about the image of the wrecked car in the distance, seen over the shoulder of a man in the foreground. What is the story behind making this image? How much does it capture a de-contextualized moment of everyday life, a moment out of the ordinary but that could be from anywhere, and how much is it a reference to the violence of the region or to the lack of a political way forward in the region at this point in history?

IR: On our way south, we took a detour at a canyon that was advertised on road signs. Mark wanted me to drive closer to it, around its perimeter on the narrowest path I have ever seen. We argued and I refused to go, I was mortified. Then we noticed a car that had fallen to the bottom of the canyon, and it settled our dispute. Mark sat silent, watching it. I have always thought the back of the onlooker in this photo has a strange tension. In the face of destruction it seems both tranquil and unnerved, hesitant and defiant. Looking down at someone else's demise, you wonder about your own, you feel both mighty and insecure. I have also thought this might be how God looks down on this land. When a curator in Israel saw this image, she said: "this is so banal, we see this all the time." I was shocked, for me it's one of the most outwardly violent images in the book.

f: What are your next steps and plans?

IR: I'm loving the slowness of my current project In Plain Air. I have until recently been an "on the go" photographer, grabbing and running according to a subconscious mind map of image-making. But I have slowed down, I return again and again to the same place, I comb through it, I remake the same image. I am so interested in this place and mean to keep going, which means I have to be in New York. Besides that, I would like to go abroad to make work at some point in the future.