A time for everything

"Fleeting Still Life," a new exhibition of photographs by Tel Aviv photographer Ariel Yannay explores memory, self and the transience of experience.

‘Studio Window’– Yannay’s studio window brings the outside indoors, and vice versa (photo credit: ARIEL YANNAY)
‘Studio Window’– Yannay’s studio window brings the outside indoors, and vice versa
(photo credit: ARIEL YANNAY)
We tend to think of photography in terms of freezing a single transient moment in time. Ariel Yannay wouldn’t argue with that perception, but he is not so sure about the accuracy of the timing. That is just one of the issues he addresses with his “Fleeting Still Life” exhibition currently under way at the Hadassah Academic College, curated by Nimrod Bar-Am.
“There is the matter of missing,” Yannay suggests. “You always take a photograph a moment after you would have wanted to take it,” he adds somewhat enigmatically. Apparently that is partly down to plain old mechanics.
“When you press the camera button, at the moment of the click, you don’t see what you are photographing.” It should be noted that Yannay uses analogue cameras, with real, physical shutters. “Technically, at that moment, you don’t see what you are taking. That’s something that we should think about.”
It may be argued that art is an intuitive pursuit. You can acquire all the requisite technical skills, know just how to work your camera to get the best results – whatever “best” might mean in the circumstances – or, as a painter, be fully versed in the colors and the mixing thereof. But there is always that subliminal element over which you have no control. That is part of the magic of the creative process.
Yannay is perfectly happy to go along with that amorphous flow. “People [artists] don’t always know what they are aiming for. Things surface and they have a life of their own.”
There is plenty to consider in “Fleeting Still Life,” which comprises a couple dozen or so monochrome prints of varying sizes. The exhibition is located in a windowless display area in the Department of Photographic Communications. Then again, there are quite a few portals on show, of the photographed variety. The left-hand wall of the first section of the room is entirely taken up with pictures of a window, taken in Yannay’s studio.
The five photographs ostensibly present the same vantage point. Looking through the observer’s eyes, we peer out on a typical south Tel Aviv urban scene, with closely packed apartment buildings and the accumulated pockmarks of daily life. On closer examination, one begins to notice the nuances. The partial reflection of the studio interior superimposed on the pane of glass, and thereon an event outside provides for an intriguing visual, cerebral and emotional viewpoint.
The row of window prints adds another – almost physical – dimension to the display venue. “They are almost like peepholes, along the wall,” says Yannay. “In a way they sort of define the exhibition space like the studio.” You also get a sense of the photographer’s state of mind as he gazes out of his work area, albeit through his camera’s viewfinder.
Yannay’s presence is, naturally, felt in his works. You get the feeling that the scene in the window shots would have been quite different had someone else taken them, even from the same physical perspective. Yannay feels his work is augmented by his corporeal presence too.
“I am the center of the exhibition,” he says as he faces a captivating photo of a family event.
One outsized print shows several of the artist’s nieces and nephews and three of his siblings. They are standing around a long table in a field, with a tree behind them. None of the individuals appears to be aware of the camera directed at them, except for one of the younger boys, who looks at the photographer in a semi-defiant, semi-quizzical way. Each of the figures in the picture is facing in a different direction and has a different demeanor. It is almost as if Yannay asked each of them to strike an individual pose, but without appearing to be following instructions. The fact of the matter is, they were all just acting naturally.
Trees are a sort of leitmotif in Yannay’s oeuvre, and there is plenty of foliage in the aptly named “Fleeting Still Life” exhibition. It is difficult to discern a thematic thread running through the show, but besides the one behind the family picnic table, there is a monumental tree in another photograph. Yannay’s last showing, at Beit Lohamei Hagetaot, was based on the vicinity of the Treblinka concentration camp. Nothing of the original camp remains but, when Yannay made the trip there, following in his father’s footsteps – his father’s entire family perished there – he took lots of pictures of the woods near there.
The result of that foray, one of two he made to the site of the camp, was Black and White Forest: Two Journeys to Treblinka. At the time, Yannay noted, “The day I arrived at Treblinka was a beautiful day. I left the monument area and headed for the surrounding woods. I was lured by the magic of the forest and light. I knew that this pastoral beauty concealed an atrocious truth.”
Perhaps that is the nodal subject of “Fleeting Still Life,” the subtext the photographer proffers to us, but which we have to work to uncover. Stones, in Yannay’s work, are also silent witnesses that encapsulate stories as yet untold.
“What sort of evidence is there in a place where there is no testimony?” he posits. “What memory can there be? I think I see the stones even more than the trees. They have presence. They even represent life,” he adds surprisingly. “Particularly at a place like Treblinka, where there is nothing left.”
Yannay returns to the theme of completing the picture, where nothing seems to be as it once was.
“It’s not like Auschwitz and Birkenau. The entrance today is where the camp barber once was, and the shoes were somewhere else. The question is whether we really need these things. Do they serve the objective? Maybe they serve the opposite objective? Sometimes the tangible can be confusing.”
Memory plays a central role in Yannay’s ethos too, particularly following the death of both of his parents in recent years. He ponders whether the very act of documenting someone pictorially, and looking at a picture of someone who is no longer with us, can in - fuse the departed with new life.
“A person looks at a fading photograph of a laughing girl,” he writes. “She innocently, curiously, looks into his eyes, in other words, the eyes behind the viewfinder, the photographer who stood there many decades ago and who is probably no longer alive. Without losing anything of her innocence and curiosity, the girl has been looking that way for 70 years, at anyone who looks at the fading surface, directing her laughter straight at them.”
At the end of the day, Yannay leaves us hanging.
“There are some themes, but they are not the subject. There is also a certain kind of restraint in my works. That leaves a certain magic, or mystery, something that has yet to be deciphered.”
Then again, if you go searching for the latent message you are likely to come away empty-handed, or even frustrated. “My approach is that there is no deciphering. We will never arrive at the definitive solution – that’s that and this is this. I think that is less interesting.”
There is no lack of interest in “Fleeting Still Life.” The images, the textures fascinate – particularly of a shot of the sea near Yannay’s home in Jaffa and another of translucent sap seeping out of some branches. “I want things to be themselves, and also their opposite. Then it works. It’s not one-dimensional.”
“Fleeting Still Life” closes on April 26.