Drifting into the harbor

Inside the studio with photographer Roi Kuper.

beach 88 248 (photo credit: Roi Kuper)
beach 88 248
(photo credit: Roi Kuper)
As I sit in the studio of photographer Roi Kuper, he reads aloud from "It's the Dream," a poem by Norwegian poet Olav H. Hauge: "It's the dream we carry/that something wondrous will happen... that one morning we'll quietly drift/into a harbor we didn't know was there." "His poem says what I think photography and art should do," explains Kuper, sitting at his desk in his modest but impeccable studio on Sderot Har Zion in South Tel Aviv. Kuper reads a lot, and especially poetry. For many years he was engrossed in 20th-century German writers - Brecht, Frisch, Grass - but more recently he has moved on to Scandinavians, among them Hauge and the Finnish poet Sirka Turka. It isn't surprising that Kuper, a heavy set man who exudes an internal heaviness, is drawn to poets like Hauge, who spent most of his life isolated in his hometown of Ulvik. Though Kuper grew up in Ashdod, a far cry from Hauge's hometown, his serial landscapes are often stark, even cold, desolate photos that are almost always without people. He is drawn to open, empty spaces - especially the sea - where, as he says, "everything is possible." He began taking photos in the 1980s, quiet, meditative landscapes that reveal what has always been there, but which most of the time we fail to notice. Placing almost identical photographs side by side, Kuper shifts our attention to the subtle variations between them and teaches us to see drama where we least expect it. "You cannot step into the same river twice," Heraclitus said. The phrase was the inspiration behind Kuper's series "Like Stars in the Water" (2005), but serves as the photographer's overall guiding philosophy. No two landscapes are exactly alike, and Kuper uses his camera to prove this time and again. "It is not the landscape that interests me, but the small movements between them," he says. "It matters to me where I take the picture. I have a connection, maybe even a feeling for that place. It moves me, but it's only a starting point." Kuper shows me a group of four almost identical photographs of the sea that were part of his series "No Escape from the Past" (2002). Subtle variations in the waves take center stage and alter the way we are accustomed to looking at and thinking about landscapes. Meaning is revealed, just as the poem suggests, by drifting into "the harbor" - or in this case by drifting back and forth between the photos like a pendulum. The movement is slow, and one needs time to get there. Kuper, 52, has a quiet air about him. He is soft-spoken and doesn't seem to be in a rush to go anywhere. It has been eight months since he touched his camera - the first time he has taken a break since he began photographing more than 25 years ago. For almost as long Kuper has been teaching photography and has exhibited widely both here and abroad. His work appears in several museums, including the Tate Modern, the Israel Museum and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, as well as many private collections. Kuper is comfortable, even content with silence, but something lurks behind his calm exterior. The same can be said of his photographs - they are quiet but unnerving. Kuper's use of repetition is extreme, and his photos tend to arouse extreme reactions. He recalls an exhibition of his work at Tel Aviv's Noga Gallery of Contemporary Art in 2007, the year he completed his ambitious trilogy "To Eat of the Leviathan Flesh" (2008). The title comes from a phrase in the Gemara which says that the righteous will enter paradise and "eat from the flesh of the Leviathan." All three parts - Atlantis, The White Cliffs of Dover and To Those Who Were Supposed to Be With Us - touch on human aspiration, the need to believe "that something good will happen." During the exhibition, the stark white room of the Noga Gallery was covered wall to wall with 23 almost identical photos of the ocean off the coast of south Portugal that make up "Atlantis," named after the legendary island that sank. "I wanted it to be very white, and very clean, nothing disturbing." Some people entered the gallery, took one look and walked out, while others sat down in the middle of the floor and stayed for hours, Kuper recalls. "This is Atlantis - to live in a room like this," he says. "To wake up every morning in that room and notice something different, is heaven for me." What interests Kuper, some critics have called "boring." That doesn't bother him. For Kuper "boredom" is not a bad thing. Quite the opposite, he tries to bore the viewer. The tactic is similar to hypnosis, he explains - "to make the viewer fall asleep and then to open him to a different experience." Early in the interview, Kuper suggests to me that spending a whole hour in silence would likely be more interesting than having a conversation, "but we have developed a way of communicating through images and words." In the two hours I spend with him, there are long moments of silence and Kuper takes to them well - silence interests him, and his photos are evidence of this. Recently a man requested to visit Kuper's studio. He was interested in a photograph from his 2002 series "No Escape from the Past" that was hanging on the wall. The man came in and sat in front of the 126 cm. x 126 cm. color print of a woman closing her eyes without saying a word, Kuper recalls. After an hour in silence the man got up, bought the photo and left. "When you look at the woman for a long time, there is something disturbing," says Kuper. During the 2002 exhibit of "No Escape from the Past," the photograph of the woman with her eyes closed, one of the few portraits Kuper has taken, was hung opposite images of the sea. The placement wasn't accidental. Starting from the age of six Kuper used to sit in front of the sea for "hours, days, years" at a time watching and waiting. "Sitting in front of the horizon of the sea is like waiting for hope - everything is possible," says Kuper. "The woman is closing her eyes to the past and to hope, but you can't escape from either." Growing up in Ashdod, Kuper had little exposure to art. Becoming an artist never crossed his mind. First he wanted to be a sailor and later a physicist. "I started taking photos by mistake," he says. He spent a year as a sailor on commercial ships before he joined the navy, which "killed all my wishes to be a professional sailor." After his military service, Kuper traveled extensively in the US and Europe. When he returned, he rented an apartment in Jerusalem near Hadassah College. With no definitive plan in mind, Kuper enrolled in a photography class. He was 20 before he entered his first museum. "I remember the day, it was a Saturday in the winter and there was an exhibit of Impressionists at the Israel Museum," Kuper recalls. "I couldn't speak the whole day after." Almost all of Kuper's landscapes beginning with "Necropolis" (1996-2000), in which he explored deserted areas in the South alongside local military semi-archeological remains, through his most recent trilogy are beautifully layered. He uses the natural landscape to create crisp, clean horizontal lines that build one upon the next in an orderly fashion. We are looking through his book No Escape from the Past, a collection of his photographs from the 2002 series of the same name, when I ask Kuper about his attention to horizontal lines. "Like Rothko," Kuper says. And he gestures towards a book of Mark Rothko's paintings sitting on his book shelf. "I was studying him a lot." The resemblance is noticeable. But where Rothko's lines are fuzzy at the edges, Kuper's are clean and stark. They create distance, where Rothko's paintings pull you closer and threaten to swallow you up. "It's me," Kuper says of the photos. "I am very organized." Kuper points to his studio as proof. The space is immaculate. "I didn't clean up for you," he says. There are freshly cut flowers in a vase; a black leather couch which has been the recent setting of paintings by Jan Rauchwerger; a red bike leans against a wall; a bowl piled high with tangerines which have been carefully ordered into a pyramid-like structure - nothing seems out of place. Kuper is hesitant to say anything about his childhood, he calls such talking gossip, but lets one thought slip past his censors: "In my childhood, I was always waiting for something to happen. I thought that if things were more organized, I would have a better chance that something good would come."