Photographer Irina Rozovsky's first publication One to Nothing begins with a quote from Mark Twain's travel journal The Innocents Abroad:
I can not comprehend yet that I am sitting where a god has stood,
and looking upon the brook and the mountains which that god looked upon…
I can not comprehend this; the gods of my understanding have been always
hidden in the clouds and very far away.
Loneliness, closeness, awe--these are all qualities that go hand-in-hand with the human experience. Mark Twain attempted to make sense of these present feelings as he journeyed across the Holy Land a few decades before the turn of the 20th century. As a foreigner in an unknown place, Twain attempted to reconcile an honest moment of terrestrial connection with the implications that accompany occupying a space already defined by its weighty history.
Venturing to Israel on an intuitive inclination, Rozovsky calls the trip serendipitous. Her Jewish roots impart the photographer with a certain longing for return, but the call moves beyond religious terms. "I felt like I was part of this big trajectory of humankind. [I had] these really strange contrasting feelings, on one hand critical of what's going on there and on the other hand, forgiving and confused." It is true that Israel has become synonymous with the tumultuous violence characteristic of political unrest and religious extremism. Amid all of this upheaval, it seems easy to forget the meaningful presence of family, friends, and community. Yet, Rozovsky's photographs relate another view of Israel that is incredibly human: sometimes close, sometimes distant, but always present-- a message of light and darkness; the magic of physical touch and a peaceful solitude.
When I looked at your book, the first thing I noticed was this Mark Twain quote. Why did you choose to begin the book about Israel with a quote from Mark Twain?
I was reading The Innocents Abroad before my second trip to Israel and this phrase struck deep. It encapsulated what I had tapped into by looking at this place through a camera—this uncanny sense of being physically and plainly present in a mythic place that previously has only existed in our spiritual imaginations. And it was my aim for the book to give this feeling to the viewer, by presenting this cherished, larger than life place and a whisper of its grounded, common reality. In a way, Twain’s words are echoed in every photograph.
Was the literary connection purposeful?
Absolutely. Mark Twain has been a model for me for years, his stories are especially astounding—the way he writes about real life situations through a fictional lens, creating a fiction that feels more real than certain aspects of reality. And I admire his tone: he's both critical and embracing of his subject, he’s a massive humanist in my eyes. That's the feeling I found reflected in this place I was photographing, and the many visual moments that I imagined to echo a larger story inherent in this place.
Are you trying to tell a story?
Sure, but not a classical photo essay or linear story. I don’t know if you learn anything by looking at this book. I’m more interested in an open-ended narrative that builds upon itself like the cotton candy effect, where each picture links onto the next and together they culminate to pull out of the viewer what he or she already knows or feels.
Is there a connecting thread?
The story develops like a travel log, similar to Innocents Abroad, which takes you through a landscape through observation. The photographs move out of darkness into light, a sequence we’re all familiar with, echoing Genesis and evolution. It’s hard not to think about ideas of origin in Israel—the place smacks of creation. And the sunburned tonality and taste of dust and sand are also unifying factors, casting a haze over everything under the sun.
Is it difficult to create with these already established themes impressing onto your work? Like the biblical theme being synonymous with Israel, for example.
I think it starts with what the photographer Garry Winogrand said: "If you already know what a picture looks like, what's the point of taking it?" I’m not consciously trying to create something new, because I think everything has been talked about ad nauseum. I’m interested in mixing and matching content to new visual forms, to give a certain idea or feeling a new way to express itself. Of course it’s not very original to conjure the Bible in Israel, it’s the most obvious thing. But I’m hoping to express it in an indirect, surprising way.
You could have been a writer to tell a story. Why choose photography as a medium?
It's faster and good for people with little patience. It's a way to interact. As a writer you can't just sit down and write in the middle of a conversation. That happens after the fact. Photography is about the moment. And I usually feel more comfortable behind the camera. And in Israel, it was really a way for me to grapple with an understanding of the place. It was like a window through which to see.
How did you end up in Israel?
When my family was emigrating from Russia, we were supposed to go to Israel but ended up in the U.S. Many of our friends and family ended up in Israel. The trip I took there was serendipitous and felt strangely like a return of sorts. There was no project in mind and at first, the photographs essentially found me, as newagey as that sounds.
Is there something you were looking for in your images that forced you to go back to Israel a second time?
The first time I went was an eruptive process. I was thinking so quickly, and the pictures were happening so fast—everything seemed worthy to be included. It felt like living a life time in two weeks. That’s a very rare creative wave that’s hard to tap into, I’ve learned. When I returned the second time, I worked slower and more methodically, I wanted to capture an older, wiser, heavier sense of place, and to go deeper than the first time. Where as in the first group everything in the images seemed to be floating and ascending, the second time they are pulled down to the ground, heavier with gravitas.
There seems to be a juxtaposition between relationships, closeness and isolation. Is that intentional?
Well, I had a peculiar connection to the place—it was very foreign to me and distant. But at the heart, I also picked up on an ancient, ancestral connection to it. I'm Jewish and being there triggered this dim sensation of being part of big trajectory of humankind that you don't feel too often. So it was an overwhelming contrast impulses ranging from anger to love. Many times the vulnerable, isolated figure in the landscape appeared to embody this idea in my eyes. Also, photography is a lonely medium. It connects you but it also separates. It’s like a glass wall between us.
Israel held a lot of meaning to you. Do you think if you had traveled anywhere else it would have moved you in the same way?
It's hard to say. My trip to Israel was a mystical alignment of circumstances. The year before, I had travelled to Russia, to Moscow, exactly twenty years after having left as a child. And although I was emotional in anticipation of the return and moved by being there, it didn’t speak to me on a universal level. I saw the place where I was born, I saw real, tangible aspects of my family history, but felt it was too personal and too specific to take further. Israel just blew me away. It struck me on a universal, human scale and seemed to be the nest of all human troubles and celebrations. A kind of stage where life plays out again and again.
What's the story behind some of the specific photographs?
In a lot of the pictures, you see a curly haired guy, whose face is never shown. This is my cousin who I was traveling with, who turned out to be a kind of a daredevil muse. He was constantly trying to hurl himself above and around all physical obstacles and barriers. In this was I saw him as a symbol of what goes on there, as people are forever at odds with and push against their circumstances, their history, the land, each other, and themselves.
Do you feel like pushing is necessary in creating an honest piece of work?
I think so, and I'm just starting to realize that. It's really hard to know what you're doing while you're doing it. You keep learning after the fact. I want my work to be positive and affirming, but I think the place they come from has to have a bit of pain. It's hard to create with pure happiness or ease. That only leads to apathy.
Does it bother you when people try to analyze or categorize your work?
No, I find it really fun to see what people are thinking. If they put it in a certain category, it doesn't mean it has to stay there. I also hope there isn’t just one interpretation of any image, although I like the idea of triggering a common, universal feeling. It is important to me to try to make work is accessible on many levels. I want someone I bump into on the street to get it as well as a smart person at Flaunt Magazine [laughs]. I feel like a lot of contemporary art doesn't have people in mind. When I was making this book, I was working in this library at Harvard where I was assisting at the time. The guard would always see me leaving in the middle of the night, and one day I showed him the pictures and he was flabbergasted. He said, "Oh, my God, you went to Israel? If told my family in Haiti that I know somebody who went to Israel, they wouldn't believe it!" That was such an important moment for me. Like, this was a real place, with real connotations for real people and not just an art piece.
The human experience is universal.
I think that's why Israel is so important. What I found in Russia just applied to me. But in Israel, it's not about the Jews. It's just a little bit about the Jews. All the distinctions within one social group, one religion. It feels as if whatever is happening there is just the DNA for human behavior, in a way. It's not just specific to the geography.