The discourse of illusion

"I'm interested in how the world uses images to understand reality."

julia by osnat shmuel  (photo credit: Osnat Shmuel)
julia by osnat shmuel
(photo credit: Osnat Shmuel)
'I'm interested in how the world uses images to understand reality, and how the language of photography can express people's reactions to their surroundings," says Osnat Shmuel, a young Israeli photographer who manipulates digital pictures to create unusual artistic images. In her 2003 exhibit Untitled, Shmuel captured a series of mundane objects and closely examined them through the eye of the camera in order to evoke a contrast between the things we pass by every day but no longer see. "I created Untitled during the second intifada, at a time when there were constant terror attacks and people felt a great sense of insecurity," says Shmuel. "I highlighted the contrast between warm, urban settings and their transitory, decrepit elements." A series of images show paint peeling off a wall, missing tiles and decaying apartments in an urban environment designed to evoke a sense of disillusion and disconnection. Part of Shmuel's inspiration came from her own living space. At the time, she was renting a loft apartment that was once an old sewing workshop but had been converted into a large, open area. "At first it seemed impressive, but after a while it started to feel flimsy and vulnerable," says Shmuel, whose habitat turned into a reminder of the outside political situation. "No place seemed safe. Everything felt temporary and transitory." The idea to deconstruct the familiar through photography also partially stemmed from Georges Perec's novel, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (1974), which Shmuel was reading at the time. "In this book, Perec examines his immediate environment and deconstructs it to its bare and essential elements," says Shmuel. "I chose to do the same thing, but with a human environment." Born in Jerusalem and raised in Haifa, Shmuel always had a propensity for art, but she did not discover photography until her teenage years. "I started painting and sculpting when I was very young, but photography came later," she says. At the age of 16, when she went to the United States to study for a year, Shmuel was exposed to the art of photography. "I attended a very good public school in Illinois, just outside of Chicago, and I got to take a photography class there. It was the first time I had used a camera in that context and I absolutely loved it," Shmuel says. After one year abroad in the United States, Shmuel reluctantly returned to Israel for army duty. When the two years of obligatory service came to an end in 1998, she enrolled in the Camera Obscura school of art in Tel Aviv. "In my fourth and last year there, things began to come together for my work. The quality of the digital cameras increased and software applications were starting to play a role in artistic imagery, so I experimented with mixing the two." Today, Shmuel transforms photographs into what she describes as "seamless montages" for both artistic exhibitions and commercial projects. "I have an image bank in the computer I work with, and I use a variety of techniques to change the picture," says Shmuel, pointing to an ordinary house with fluorescent rabbits in its front yard as an example. By adding and removing elements, shifting light and brightening or dimming specific objects, she gives a new perspective to familiar items. Since she graduated from the Camera Obscura school of art four years ago, Shmuel has also taught a course that she helped design entitled "Photoshop for photographers." For the past six months, Shmuel was in Chicago working with photographer Richard Shay, the son of Art Shay. Although the experience was positive, Shmuel says she is uncertain about returning to the US despite her recent acceptance into the prestigious graduate program at Columbia College. "I was disappointed by the US, and I like being in Israel and teaching here," she says, "but the decision is far from simple and I am still debating." Shmuel also says she would like to find a place here to exhibit her latest project, Breathe Deeply. "In this work, I used a fantastic projection of light to create a subtle feeling of strange uneasiness," says Shmuel, whose work also reflects her personal attempt to escape the current political and social reality in Israel and find a safe haven. "My work is not political. What interests me is how people living in this political climate are affected by it." In Breathe Deeply, a series of idyllic, seductive landscapes take on a foreboding tension through the manipulation of shadows and color. The young girl in the corner of the staircase was taken in New York, and Shmuel explains that she eliminated the cityscape and inserted the birds and an azure sky to give the picture a dream-like quality. "This exhibit constitutes a dialectic encounter between realistic photography and computer processing," says Shmuel of her attempt to fuse fantasy with reality. "I don't think art should be separate from life," says Shmuel. "For me, the two are intricately intertwined." For more information on upcoming exhibitions and creative projects, contact Osnat Shmuel by e-mail at