New exhibit showcases masked famous women

'I asked them to forego their face, their professional calling card,' says photographer Iddo Lavie.

 SHIRAZ TAL and Ilanit Levi with their masks. (photo credit: IDDO LAVIE)
SHIRAZ TAL and Ilanit Levi with their masks.
(photo credit: IDDO LAVIE)

As we grow older we, hopefully, become a little wiser and begin to focus our declining reserves of energy on a more distilled, tailored and personally meaningful approach to life. That clearly happened to Iddo Lavie.

For the past 20 or so years, fifty-something Lavie has been primarily known as one of the country’s top fashion photographers. “There’s no one famous I haven’t worked with,” he says. “I’ve taken pictures of them all.”

Lavie’s bulging portfolio includes shots of all the 31 women whose faces appear in the Mask Project exhibition, curated by Dana Gordon, which opens at the Beit Maerov municipal arts center in Holon on October 19, running through to December 31. The exhibition signals the start of the new Israeli Design Season, Holon. In fact, it would be a little misleading to say that the beauties’ faces are on show right across the display. As the title infers, in many of the monochrome prints the attractive countenances are totally or partially obscured.

Therein lies the crux of Lavie’s oxymoronic endeavor, and the most threatening question mark that hung over the project from the get-go. “I asked these women to do something that was really challenging for them,” says the seasoned snapper. “I asked them to forego their face, their professional calling card.”

The roster of sitters includes former and current models, TV presenters and largely comprises a bunch of women who, by light-of-day mainstream marketing standards, and some are way past their glitzy prime. The lineup features 60-year-old Ilana Shoshan, a former Miss Israel, model and actress who is now a powerhouse on the women’s rights scene. Thirty-nine-year-old Ilanit Levi is another former national beauty queen who developed a career fronting TV shows and as a thespian.

 SHIRAZ TAL and Ilanit Levi with their masks. (credit: IDDO LAVIE) SHIRAZ TAL and Ilanit Levi with their masks. (credit: IDDO LAVIE)

Then there is 42-year-old model Keren Michaeli, and 50-year-old actress and makeup artist Shelly Gafni, with 32-year-old model-actress Yaara Benbenishty and German-born 31-year-old model Miriam Roth bringing the average sitter age down a couple of notches.

Lavie, with his insider industry connections, was able to put together an illustrious cast of women who, despite their advancing years, would probably still make several heads turn in any room they chose to enter.

Mind you, some took more than a little persuading to agree to be shown – or not be shown – to something less than their best aesthetic advantage. One finally consented to go with the Lavie flow after two years of intermittent pestering while others were entirely happy to contravene everything that any self-respecting beauty industry professional holds dear to their heart, if not their face.

The visual end products are fascinating, alluring and immensely revealing. One in particular, a delightful shot of Shiraz Tal shows the 47-year-old former model delicately holding the plaster cast of her facial contours in her right hand while appearing to remove some pesky traces of the plaster from her cheek with the other. It must be said that her left hand does reveal some pockmarks of time and there are definitely some wrinkles and puffy stuff coagulating beneath her eye.

That unforgiving exposé of the cold hard facts of life is primarily the result of a precondition Lavie set for the women. As if concealing a part of their physical entity that has gotten them so far in their chosen line of work and, presumably, generated a concomitant comfy lifestyle, wasn’t a bitter enough artistic pill to swallow Lavie set the challenge bar even higher.

He is aware of the minefield not only his subjects ventured into, but that may very well blow up in his face. “I hope it all passes peacefully. None of the models has seen their pictures yet. I hope they don’t come along to the exhibition and pelt me with stones,” he laughs a little nervously.

Then again, the sitters did have some idea of what they were letting themselves in for, and that it was not going to be just another snapping session carefully crafted to convey a sense of glamor. “These pictures weren’t taken for some [advertising] campaign, or a magazine cover or article,” Lavie notes.

That meant a different interpersonal dynamic was employed. “The dialogue between me and the subject was very different. Normally [with fashion shots] we meet up to discuss things. And there is makeup and styling and all that sort of thing.” There were absolutely no artificial aesthetic safety nets spread out for the Mask Project sittings. “They came without makeup, wearing black clothes and their hair up. That was it. They had Vaseline applied to their face, and then the mask went on.”

The women experienced their sessions in different ways, and came out of it with all kinds of food for thought. Fifty-year-old former model and actress Yael Reich certainly gleaned some emotional and informative collateral going forward. She had struggled with some serious health issues prior to the shoot, and it took some time before she was ready to face Lavie, sans makeup.

“After we finished she took off the mask and looked at herself in the mirror,” the photographer recalls. “She told me: ‘I want to thank you because, for the first time in a long while, I can finally look at myself in the mirror and see how beautiful I am. I feel wonderful with my appearance.”

Seems like everyone involved in the project, on both sides of the camera lens, came out of the protracted exercise with more than they expected.

Lavie was also looking for some sort of epiphanous departure. In fact, he started expanding his artistic and spiritual sphere some time ago, when he trained and then began working as a phototherapy practitioner.

Still, his encounter with the 31 sitters enhanced his grasp of himself and the world about him. “Part of my motive was to find something with meaning in my work in this [fashion] industry. I have been on that road for a while, but this project certainly helped to move me along in the desired direction.”

Regardless of street-level learning curves, the prints on show in Holon over the next couple of months make for compelling viewing. And, if the photographs alone don’t grab you, there are texts to read too, with excerpts written by the women about their Mask Project experience.

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