writings blog

Interview: Yoav Friedlander

- I am always fascinated by a photographer’s hybrid background and how that inspires and influences their work. Tell us a little about your journey from the Holy Land to Queens (I think you are in Queens?) and how this transition influenced your work.

This is an essential question to ask because the transition from Israel, the Holy Land, to Queens not only influenced my work, it redefined it. There are two parts to my background, one that I had control over and the one which I was born into. I was born in Jerusalem in 1985 after my Grandfather lost his family in Auschwitz, survived the Holocaust, fought with the British Brigades and then joined the Israeli army when the country was established. I was born after 3 big wars - Independence 48’, Six Day War 67’ and Yom Kippur 73’- all of which posed a threat to the existence of my birth country and the latter, my father, had fought himself during his army service. But then I was born, after. Every piece of land in sight is multilayered with history, conflicts and ethos. Supposedly I am the continuation of thousands of years of Jewish history and traditions and then I decided to leave everything that everyone was fighting so hard for and move to the U.S. - now that’s a burden. The transition in my perception worked in both directions - how I started seeing Israel, and how I stopped seeing America. Because Israel was right in front of me for 26 years of my life I couldn’t see beyond the given layers of context. For each place there is a picture that name’s it and relate it to the history of the place - it is an unquestioned given fact that shaped my perception. Across the ocean was America but through the television set it seemed so close. In Israel we try being like the Americans that we see on television - we copy, imitate and embed an American like culture into our own culture based on movies, television and pictures. We ended up being Americanized through the surface layer - which is the one that can be mediated. Only when I moved to the United States I started comparing 26 years of America through pictures to the own the pictures are based on. Understanding that we are often being exposed to a place through a contextualizing image of it first, and before physically being in that place, changed my perception. These revelations made me doubt my perception of my homeland. I know wanted to use photography and make photographs that investigate the process in which a mediated place becomes iconic and familiar under a certain context. My work then shifted its focus towards the influence of photography on our perception of our reality and history. It was then when I first explored photography through miniatures and scale models - which are a great tool to explore the idea of similarity through the indexicality and the concept of the copy, and what that copy can still contain from its origin. The transition completely made me the photographer I am today, and I am not sure that if I had chosen any other path I would have discovered what I have discovered today.

- You have served in the Israeli army and looking at A Form of View project I see entities, which relate to your experiences in the army. Tell us a about your concept behind this body of work.

The part in A Form of View you are asking about derives from memories that are on a spectrum between personal memories to collective memories that are also highly influenced by common signifiers - too much of a big word for visual ingredients that many remember vividly, and also derives from places that have restricted access and sparsely photographed and are indeed related to the armed conflict - and also related to fears.

Some of the images, for example Camera Lucida which is of the gas mask on the bed attempts to recall memories that exist both as a personal memory that is based on one's own experience and which at the same time is part of a collective memory - when they share a similar memory with a great part of the people in Israel from the same period. Not every visual memory that falls into these criteria is as interesting to explore through its recreation first as miniature and then as a picture. I am searching for memories that were also influenced by photographs and beyond the photograph the restriction on what we can’t see. Camera Lucida is a recreation of my childhood room during the first Gulf War - Operation Desert Storm. We were fearing Biological or Chemical warfare from Saddam Hussein and we were supplied with gas masks and instructed to close the shutters and “seal” the windows using packing tape - specifically brown packing tape - everyone remember the brown packing tape.

I was a kid sitting in a room with my gas mask on and shutters down hearing the siren go on and off as the news anchor used the code word to get into the sealed rooms and put our gas masks on. Isolated in a room with a television being the only window to the outside world reality became a floating place. The war was as far as it was near. Through the television set the war was outside of the room, but since we were never hit it was as if it never happened.

We all share few things in common from Israel and of the First Gulf War - closed shutters, brown packing tape, fears that were never realized and a television set with Public Broadcasting station that mediated the same pictures to all of us at once. These memories are both personal and collective and represent a war that happened for many only through the television set while experiencing it as if it was right outside the Camera Lucida. Many years later and during my mandatory service in the army reality has flipped. Then in Camera Obscura - my recreation of a drone control room from the second Lebanon war- we were bombing somewhere else, and it all happened on LCD screens.

A hit on the screen represents a destroyed target in reality - somewhere far - not really a proxy war but very close to be one. Camera Lucida and Camera Obscura represent a deep exploration both of the personal and hopefully collective influence of the mediation of conflict and its great part in our perception of our reality. Things we see affect us perhaps more than things we touch. We are afraid most from the things that are least likely to happen to us.

The other point of interest that I mentioned above is places with restricted access and that often only fragmented pieces of televised documents or occasional photographs are the public access to them. Places of restricted access fascinate us and being exposed to partial visual evidences of their existence we use our imagination to glue together these places that are inaccessible to us. For me there are places from my service in the army that I had a chance to visit or utilize but are no longer accessible to me. My memories of these places are inseparable from my army service and experience, and I am drawn into revisiting these locations, rethink their function in the construction of my perception and understanding of the reality of the conflict. It may sound overly complicated, but I am trying to cheat and recreate a restricted space and place in a scale model based on a collection of photographs or visual evidences of these places to gain access and revisit these places, while at the same time rethink their layered meaning.

One of these places is a miniature of the Israeli Army’s urban warfare training facility named ‘Chicago’ in the Negev Desert in southern Israel. Just to clarify the name probably derives from the common Hebrew phrase ‘Chicago’ that refers to a situation where shots are fired everywhere, and historically points at the actual city of Chicago, Illinois as it was mediated through television probably in the 1970’s and 1980’s. There are several aspects of Chicago that I was interested in exploring. The photograph exposes a space that functions as a simulation of urban, house-to-house, warfare and the space in the photograph represents a potential Palestinian home into which the soldiers will enter expecting close range encounters with the enemy. For the majority of Israeli soldiers this type of a training facility will be their first so-called visit to a Palestinian home - or at least its simulation. When making this model and photograph I realized that the training facility contextualizes the Palestinian home as a battleground.

To expand on that, growing up in a settlement near Jerusalem, Maale Adummim, the Palestinian village was a hill apart from us and only a split in the road far - turn left and you enter Maale Adummim, turn right and you are in Azariya. For 26 years I saw these buildings on the hill next to my hometown from afar, and not once in my entire life did I visit inside any of them. Palestinian families typically build a building for the entire broad family, over the span of several years. They populate the house while it is still bare concrete and sometimes with no glass windows installed. One of the things that for many years distinguished the Palestinian and Arab architecture in Israel was the arched window while the Israelis use rectangular ones.

If you look carefully at my photograph of Chicago you will start seeing the visual signifiers that trigger the understanding for the Israeli soldier that he is inside a Palestinian home. First it is the arched concrete window frame and after the bare concrete interior. The accumulation of these aspects invokes the realization that Chicago is similar in its function to photographs and photography - it is an indexical representation of a place and its scale under a specific context.

I made a miniature of Chicago to investigate its functionality and effect on soldiers perception and the Israeli army created Chicago to train soldier to familiarize themselves with combat inside real Palestinian houses. The Israeli Army’s practical use of bare concrete for economical reasons also accidentally recreated the building style of the Palestinian home that due to low funds remains bare for years until there is enough money to finish the exterior. My immediate goal is to gain access through the scale model, build it based on the surface layer visual instructions given in photographs, and make a photograph of it that will mimic the immersive sense of space that we are accustomed to from seeing our world through photographs.

- Cliché, but who cares so, why a view camera? Why film? I ask because your work is deliberately created, highly personal and symbolic. Why go through the process when you can appropriate all these images from other sources and still portray your message?

You say cliché, and maybe I am romantic about it, but for me the view camera is the right tool for the job. Maybe I can do everything that you mention by appropriating other images but the truth is that my work is the result of a thought process that certain aspects inspire. Appropriating existing images is using the same cycle of materials; I have an urge to add material to this pool of images. I am unashamed of being romantic about the view camera and film. I can’t shoot 150 versions of a photograph because I cannot afford it. With a view camera I need to make one or two that count. It makes them feel precious and important and inspires me to look more at what I photograph and less at the camera. I like working slow, and it seems that the tools we use inspire our approach towards our actions using them.

Now to the technical part; the optic distortions of color and geometrical types in smaller cameras are very visible to me. The sharpness of landscapes just doesn’t really exist on these smaller cameras in my experience. The ability to do shift, tilt rise and be unlimited in how close I can focus since I can stretch the bellows indefinitely - all of these just don’t meet any parallel in the digital world. I am not willing to compromise on the quality and flexibility that I have with the view camera. We are seeing photography that follows the concept of one size fits all while photography used to be a medium that could be customized.

I might move to the digital realm when it will offer something in return - if I will give in now, no one will remember that there was other types of photography. We must not forget that photography was scaled down to the 35mm camera for certain purposes of mobility speed, and not necessarily for the quality it offered. That said, some of the most important photographs of all times where shot on 35mm cameras.

- What are some of the similarities and differences you witness when photographing in the United States and Israel and where do you derive inspiration from when photographing in each place?

The biggest difference between here in the U.S. and back in Israel for me is that here I am not driven by fear. Yes we in Israel are considered to be the oppressors, the conquerors, but the truth of the matter is that I didn’t feel free to go through areas populated with Palestinian or Arab Israeli populations. In the settlement that I grew up in there was a mall. Palestinians from the nearby village and even Jordanians that drove for a shopping day were visiting that mall frequently. Never in my lifetime, not even once, was there any hostility towards them. They were coming into town and except for the security check in the entrance there wasn’t anything going on that could cause any friction. I on the other hand would think twice before entering the nearby village. I would think ahead when going on a walk in the hills next to my hometown calculating escape routes and possible surprise attacks. I know it sounds very dramatic on my behalf, but it is the way things are.

This situation led me to photograph the land in Israel from the perspective of the road margins reflecting on my childhood understanding of the areas I grew up in, fantasizing on climbing hills that for my entire life remained out of reach. I am not complaining here just trying to explain how the perception of a land might be shaped by the lack of accessibility and its view from a distance. This is where the greatest similarity, in my view, between Israel and the U.S enters to the equation.

Although I am not driven by fears here, again and again I encounter an invisible fence that limits the landscape’s accessibility; they are the ‘POSTED PRIVATE PROPERTY’ signs. It is the privatization of the land that led me back to the shoulders of the road, observing a landscape that I seen for so many years through pictures and now again I am close but also far. I am not interested in the emotional effect it has on me but rather in the role it plays in the shape of one’s perception.

- You are the also the editor of Float Magazine. Tell us about this endeavor, what the magazine is about and any future plans you might have.

Float was established as a magazine with no funds - we didn’t want money to dictate content and we didn’t want ads. Also we wanted a magazine that mitigates the work of known masters with that of emerging photographers. We don’t have a deadline; we don’t try to play and pretend as if we are some big magazine. Our attempt is to be a critical, serious and alternative to other platforms. We are still trying to figure out who we are and what we offer. I think that our bigger goal - and this is where my bigger partner in crime, Dana Stirling, comes in–is to make a gallery space that is also a library for photography books. We support and welcome people for whom photography is not just a tool but a medium that inspires them.

- Through your work I get the sense of an alternative and subjective documentation of issues past and present. There is a lot of push in creating something new; the after documentary and photojournalism, a push on innovation and the ordinary and cliché, “This has been done before”. I have been pondering for a while the idea that we do have a lot of trends; I fear that we might lack substance. What are your thoughts on this issue?

Trends fetishize the success of certain images and try to replicate the impact of these prototype images. The problem as you mentioned is the lack of substance. Trend is a nice word for other more problematic things - lack of originality, lack of ingenuity, lack of imagination. To be clear I am not talking about the trends that turned into traditions in the old culture where a work of some kind inspired other similar works exploring the same subject matter and shared visual similarities. I am referring to trends that are viral, that are at the surface layer imitated by appearances with no meaning attached. There is nothing underneath the surface of these trends, and it equals the use of the word “like” as a substance for many words and many feelings.

In the creative world there is always a tension between the new and the old - the success of the old burdens, those who produce currently, and if they choose in making something new the burden is the fear of failing in a new path. But there is no such thing as new, because nothing we create is separated from the world we experience prior to our own work. It seems that for some, making something that doesn’t look like anything - amorphic, chaotic, alien, abstract - they reach the realms of the promised new, as if they uncover the unseen.

It is funny to refer to physics, but ‘nothing’ always exists in comparison with ‘something’. The unfamiliar is dependent on the familiar. Something only appears to be new because we compare it to what already exists, or simply because we forgot it already existed. It is arrogant to think that we can transcend the world that we are part of. I see a great problem in the viral trend because usually things that are easy to adopt and adapt are temporary and superficial - too easy - they don’t attempt to explore beneath the immediate surface.

If everybody creates no one listens. If everyone makes the same thing, we become one dimensional. We are limited and cannot be aware of everything that is simultaneously being made to make an impression on our perception. The viral trend throws critical thinking out of the window. It turns us into an army of zombies doing mob justice to the visual form. We can be a complex society with many virtues or we can be a herd that craves for attention. The turn of the camera towards the self, and the rise of the selfie clarifies that people are in denial of the existence of the fabric of society - the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. When we put ourselves in the center society crumbles, culture crumbles, because our uniqueness should contribute to the greater good, the selfie is empty of content.

Now to tackle the “this has been done before”, the great wall. To solve this equation simply - what we think we are recreating that has been done before is revisioned when made in the present. Because time marches forward we constantly forget the past and misunderstand the context in which things happened and created. There is a great deal of importance to explore, which questions the conclusions of the past. We make something again just to realize its importance in leading us to a present moment and to understand that we can never really make the same thing as before.

- What photographers have inspired and what motivates you to produce work on a regular basis?

Different photographers inspired me for many different and wonderful reasons - Josef Kudelka for his complete control over transforming the world using a camera; David Levinthal that turned the camera to be a projection of a child’s imaginative brain, and later using the same vision for darker subjects; Andrew L Moore that I have the privilege working with that taught me how architecture of interiors and exteriors can unfold into immersive photographs, and how to capture all the details of a grand structure paying respect to the time that left its marks; Lynn Cohen with her “deceptively quiet” images of interiors that make you think - how the hell did she manage to find and document these places; and lastly Robert Capa with his falling soldier photograph that so many years later we are still debating its realness.

My motivation usually is collision of thoughts. I am usually unprepared for an idea for a photograph, at least when it comes to down to my miniatures. I need things to happen, to see places, to hear voices. I need to be upset by something - usually anger is the thing that triggers my greatest inspiration for making Art. I also like working on certain things that do not fit in any body of work and are not part of a series. I strongly resist the requirements that photographs should be part of a series to make a statement. If something inspires me to make a comment unrelated to anything else I am working on I will be very motivated to pursue it.

- What advice would you give to students and emerging photographers in order to create a successful body of work?

Look at the works that inspire you the most, think of how much you appreciate the different great aspects of great works of art - the quality, the context, the reasoning, the historical importance, the commitment in which they were made. Ask yourself if what you make can stand up to these standards. You cannot afford making mediocre work. Be self-critical, be prepared to change direction and don’t write your thesis down before making the work itself. You don’t have to make something like other people do just because it is trend - be true to your own experience of life - the work should be a projection of how you interpret the world that we cannot do the same.

- Do you find purpose in social media and sharing your work for exposure together with a pastiche of unrelated imagery, and how do you go about promoting your work, considering a very dense marketplace especially in NYC?

There is no right answer to that. The marketplace in NYC is not only dense it is charged with so many different interests - it is a jungle of obstacles. I had some close calls on being represented by a Chelsea gallery, and it all fell apart for the fact my work is considered “too dark” - there is nothing I can change to fix this problem. I define my goals based on the reasons I make my work. I don’t care about the money, I don’t see the photographs as a currency, and I wouldn’t care if I sell any more work to the end of my life. The only thing I want is to show a printed photograph of mine to as many people as I can, and make an impression on their perception. I want to be there for every person who sees my work and have a dialogue - they might argue against it, and if that happens they will probably teach me something new, but if I can give back to the culture I live in I will consider my work as a success. For now I am putting my work on social media, knowing that they immediately disappear in an ocean of selfies, brunches, and other body parts, but for the future I might leave social media simply because it doesn’t seem that anyone truly communicates anything. I am uninspired to share my part in making photography into nonsense.

- What is your opinion on the current state of American Photography both in historical and contemporary terms, and do you believe there is adequate criticism in our field? Yes there were no blogs when John Szarkowski was around, and now for better or for worse everyone writes and analyzes, but... Thoughts?

Now everybody ‘like’s” photography. It seems that museums and galleries are confused by popularity, and popularity defines a work’s worth. I personally believe that there are gifted people that can deeply analyze and critique work, and others that can deeply understand the contextual and historical importance of certain photographers and their works, and those make wonderful curators. Instead of bashing many and use examples of the worse I will mention two of those who I greatly appreciate - Maurice Berger that curated an amazing exhibition about CBS at the Jewish Museum, and which is a sharp critique of the involvement of money in promotion of art in museums and art galleries, and Joel Smith who curated last year’s show of Emmet Gowin’s work at the Morgan Library. These two definitely have the credentials to critique and analyze deeply.

What I see online is a pursue for popularity. Maybe in the past the club of John Szarkowski was too exclusive, but it seems that the majority of write-ups on photography are superficial. Photographers and critics claim that photographs do literally what their caption and description claim they are out to do - for me it is too simplistic. I won’t get anymore specific than that because actual criticism and freedom of thought is not that welcomed in our field.

http://www.yoavfriedlander.com

by Niko J Kallianiotis