TWO  WOMEN

In “typological” photography—which groups individual photographs of the same subject matter in one frame—the camera becomes an actual tool for research, just like the microscope or the telescope. It enables the research subject to be tracked for a brief or an extensive time period—in other words, to track a phenomenon: whether social, political or urban. Over the course of five years, and through her lens, Tamar Shalit-Avni has conducted research on the relationship between adolescent girls and their mothers; an interpersonal-relationship between the two which emerges in facial expressions just as through body language.

Here, one has to make a distinction between the character of photography as it was up to the 1970s—when typological photography strove to provide an “objective” view point, and contemporary photography, which is consciously subjective photography.

 

Among the earliest photographers of the genre of typological photography were Auguste Sander, and Hille and Bernd Becher, a husband and wife team. The Bechers, who founded the school of Düsseldorf, taught at the Academy of Arts in Düsseldorf. Auguste Sander took photos of various working men over the course of many years, whereas the Bechers photographed “portraits” of industrial structures over a period of more than forty years. These structures became, in their way, landmarks in the landscape that bore witness to bygone times. All the structures which the Becher couple photographed were vacant. It is only through the placing of photographs in a continuum that an observer is able to grasp the urban and industrial history of the structures photographed.

            The first thing that anyone looking at Tamar Shalit-Avni’s photographs will ask are questions that touch upon femininity and female identity—the central axis in this body of work. Here is the biological clock, ticking away and beyond the control of those being photographed; here is budding sexuality versus sexual maturity. And it is only at the second or third look that body gestures and facial expressions are revealed. Shalit-Avni relates that she has not “staged” her photographs. Her subjects have freely chosen how they wish to pose themselves in front of the camera, what to wear, and even what expression their faces will take on.

 

At this point a different question arises which touches upon the link between the photographer and the women she is taking pictures of.  This sort of question runs like a golden thread throughout most contemporary photographic work. Boris Mikhailov, who was born in the Ukraine, has been taking pictures of the homeless and of people living in the streets of Ukraine for over twenty years. Most of Mikhailov’s pictures are from his home town of Harkov. The status of an “involved” photographer living in the midst of a community which is not his own, raises issues that probe the extent to which the relationship between a photographer and the subjects of his pictures is a patronizing one, and whether this is the case in Mikhailov’s pictures. Does Boris Mikhailov pay those whom he photographs, in this way “buying” the cooperation of the homeless? Or has he earned their trust simply by virtue of the fact of having lived among them for so long?

The matter of staging the scene photographed relates to a complex question which brings us back to Roland Barthes. In his seminal work on photography, Barthes debates this issue: “The powers at play in a photographic portrait operate within a closed field. Four guises intertwine, encountering each other, interact, and in this process, distort one another. In front of the lens, I am at one and the same time whoever I believe myself to be; who I want the person with me to believe me to be, who the photographer sees me as being, and whom that photographer uses to represent his craftsmanship.”

Susan Sontag also deals with the exploitative nature of photography in her book: On Photography.  The question of whether something has or has not been “staged” actually brings us back to the question of objectivity or subjectivity as a consequence of what the photographer does. In the words of Tamar Shalit-Avni, the women she takes photographs of are self-conscious about being photographed, but even their self-consciousness does not enable them to hide. One can see how the girls try to look “cool”, to imitate the impassively cool and sealed-off faces of the models in the pages of the fashion journals; or to be like those who simply choose to be there—facing the camera.

            “Moreover,” Shalit-Avni says, “on more than one occasion I would ask myself whether the pictures had been staged. They were not staged in the sense that the women being photographed themselves chose how they positioned themselves opposite my camera, and the changes they underwent in the course of the five-year project took place naturally: the girls budded and matured, while their mothers acquired additional wrinkles. All that was there. However they were staged in the sense that the mothers and daughters were put in empty rooms and asked to ‘create’ themselves opposite the camera. The reality of daily life is not to be found in the photographs, but outside them.”

 

In conversations held with the artist, I discovered her admiration for and identification with the work of Thomas Ruff.  Ruff, a leading senior contemporary artist from Düsseldorf school and one of the most famous of Hille and Bernd Becher’s students. Ruff believes that “alongside each photograph there is what it does not contain; and this is central to the photo.” It is in fact the observer to whom the task falls to complete the entire photograph in his own mind. A tension is created between the image photographed and the way of looking at and interpreting on the observer’s behalf. According to Ruff, the observer plays a part. He finds himself involved and torn between identification and resistance. As Ruff argues: “No one picture tells the whole story. The photo exists, but it can never describe everything that exists. There is always something that remains outside the photograph.”

 

Tamar Shalit-Avni’s work recalls the work of two other contemporary women photographers whose work has dealt with photographing girls in the genre of typological photography, which is also post-Modernist. The first is the Dutch photographer, Rineke Dijkstra, whose impressive series taken in Israel featured shots of girls before their army service, during the army service, and after completing it. The other photographer, Sarah Jones, is from Britain. Jones has taken photos of girls from middle-class homes inside their designer houses. Despite their obvious attempts to camouflage emotions, the work of these two photographers does document the states of mind and the emotions of those they photographed.

 

In this series, Tamar Shalit-Avni’s works raise moral and aesthetic questions that touch upon the art of contemporary photography. Beyond this they are also a riveting social document that allows us a glimpse into the personal worlds of Israeli women. Tamar enables us onlookers to become partners in her study of a fascinating social process.

 

 

Yehudit Matzkel, Curator






Hadara Scheflan-Katzav:

Women in modern Jewish and Christian societies are orphaned of their mothers, argues Phyllis Chesler in Women and Madness, (1972). Referring not only to the world of symbolism and imagination, but to the real world as well, Chesler claims that in patriarchal societies there is no significant representation of women, nor are there really models of a mother-daughter relationship with which women and girls can identify or imitate. Representations of the mother in Western civilization, with its overridingly Christian connotations, tend to show figures of a mother and son. The origin of this image is Mary and Jesus, the Madonna and Child. However, in the modern age artists have continued to develop this image until it has become secular in essence, while in a secret, invisible but sophisticated way it continues to rely upon Christian convention.

This religious justification is hardly disingenuous. Its indirect aim has been to bestow an aura of sanctity upon secular Middle Class mothers, who were at first pioneers in  the new bourgeois accent on art at the end of the eighteenth century, when it turned away from the purely religious, and flourished in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A secular mother only takes on an aura of sanctity if a male baby is lying in her bosom.

Artists of both sexes have produced many depictions of the happy mother with her newborn babe. Very few have depicted mothers and daughters. Only in the second half of the nineteenth century was there a context for special avant-garde art. However, it was initially the female, Impressionist artists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who served as pioneers in forming this new image of a mother and daughter.

Male Impressionist artists liked to depict bourgeois daily life, and focused on leisure themes. As for example, the famous scenes by Georges Seurat of lazy Sundays watching boats on the Seine. Or Monet’s waterlilies. In contrast, female Impressionist artists preferred household themes among the same bourgeoisie.  For the first time, particularly in the art of Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, images could be seen that stretched the boundaries of previous traditions. Both female artists lent a new, subversive and interesting slant to the mothers they painted—showing them in realistic situations with their young daughters. Yet, contemporary critics found their paintings excessively “sweet”. Unlike the iconic and “sanctified” image of the mother and her son, Morisot’s and Cassatt’s mothers and daughters undoubtedly came over as too simple, redundant, verging on Kitsch.

In light of this grating criticism, which obviates the possibility of regarding the work of these women as properly avant-garde in the modern sense, Impressionist female artists were left high and dry; so the extent that, with exception of a few outstanding ones, they did not renew their effects in this direction for well over a decade. After all, would anyone want to be considered a Kitsch amateur artist in the modern age?

Chesler aims her remarks about motherless girls at modern Western civilization, with its underlay of Christian culture. Could her argument, by extension, be applied to most patriarchal cultures? How many images of mothers and daughters do we know from different mythologies? In so many famous legends, after the death of the biological mother, the “mothers” that are depicted are usually vicious stepmothers. A mother and daughter, who support one another, rely upon and stand up for one another, would entail an extremely close and intimate relationship. There is one relationship of such outstanding closeness, whose presence is the exception to the rule, which elsewhere is remarkable through its absence. Demeter, the Goddess of fertility and the Earth and Persephone, her daughter, the Goddess of Spring—is the famous couple in Greek mythology, which provides the exception to the rule of the uncaring, predatory mother. If this couple is so outstanding and if all the other images of motherhood are so different, what would be the exemplary image, the model image for those women in reality? It is therefore hardly surprising that the image of mother and daughter was bound to re-invent itself.

 

In 2002, the Arad Museum hosted an exhibition titled Mothers and Daughters: Enskeined within Magic Ropes. Curated by Miri Targan, the exhibit ? showed a variety of work by eleven women artists. It presented a tangled world, but actually one that was far from magical. Most of the works threw light on the interpersonal relationships between the artist and her mother, a relationship charged with one of the ideologies or traumas that are common in the daughter’s childhood: the Ideal Mother (by Timna Shahar); Zionist motherhood, the Shoah Trauma, the Dialectic Relations between Motherhood and Womanhood, Phallic Motherhood, and a Mother-Daughter Contest (by Pazit Bar) ….

A study of this exhibition, like other works of art dealing with the subject, leads one to the conclusion that it is impossible to address a mother-daughter relationship without some reference to the relationship that preceded it between the mother and her own mother.

            Tamar Shalit-Avni has spent most of her working life as a photo-journalist. This exhibition is based on a process to which she devoted five years, starting in 2000, by taking photographs of mothers and their Bat Mitzvah age (twelve-year old) daughters, and placing them in front of a camera every year. Through the medium of her lens, Avni gauged the unfolding, developing dynamic.

            The situation in which these mothers and daughters found themselves was not always so simple: it was hardly pleasant, rarely convenient; never natural. The women and their daughters were put in a studio and asked to project themselves “naturally”… They had to ignore the amorphous space and the artificial context, striking poses as they saw fit. However, the outcome was different. It seemed as though there is a hinterland, a whole world behind each and every scene, directing it, zooming in or out, getting the mothers and daughters to stand straight or look the photographer in the eye. Each scene brings together overlapping worlds: the world of the mother and the daughter; their relationship from the mother's point of view; their relationship from the daughter's point of view, the history of the relationship between the mother and her mother, and even the viewpoint of the photographer, herself a mother of two boys and a girl.

 

The reading that I propose here is of a double entendre: its first side or fold is irrelevant to those photographed for it only deals with the photographer herself, who chose the subject of the project, its duration, its location and finally the individual pictures (which she chose from among a significant variety of pictures that were taken) that will ultimately be presented to the observer. I would like to discuss the viewpoint of the photographer and what she herself is seeking through the photos: What is she looking for? What is the significance of her repeated return to the same place–of revisiting a mother and daughter at different stages of their lives? Where does the photographer actually place herself in this situation—which she has taken such pains to create?

Shalit-Avni began this project one year after her own daughter, the third of three children, was born. A close look of the girls photographed during various stages of their puberty could be taken as bemusement and wonder about the future life and the inner world of her own infant daughter. It can also be seen as projecting herself ahead to their mother-daughter relationship, when her daughter would one day reach adolescence. Another position is the viewpoint suggested by the artist—not as a mother but as a daughter—telling the observer more about how she used to be during her own adolescent years, and her view of her own mother.

The artist’s interest in these adolescent girls is consistent. During the project, she chose to interview only those girls who were initially photographed, and she did not interview the mothers. Her research therefore can be seen as springing from the need to check this age group from the point of view of an adolescent girl and not from a mother's point of view.

At the conclusion of her project, the photographer looked through the lens of the camera and saw something different from what she imagined her view would be. At this point I would like to elaborate on the difference intended between “glancing at” and “seeing” something. One can glance at something without understanding what it really is. The verb "to glance at" also carries some connotations of searching; while the verb “to see” carries the sense of understanding or even finding.

One photo after another, one image after another is aimed at grasping on to the remnants of the past, trying to pinpoint the same ghost image that gives no rest. This image becomes ever more elusive, more transparent with each look; its effect present even as it remains symptomatically Sisyphian.  In other words, the artist embarked upon a voyage through time—traversing "entrances" that were known to her, yet every entrance she came through pushed her out, into the next entrance, and on and on…. The artist's inability to empathize with the way the girls see their mothers leads us to a discussion on mothers. Although a time span has been picked that mainly “belongs” to the world of adolescence and the girls, it is clear that this time period also belongs to the world of the mothers—crossing the threshold of turning forty.

The other fold of the text accompanies the photographer's view as a researcher on the history of modern women at a pivotal moment, as they move from their fourth decade to their fifth; from years during which primary daily child care has taken up most of her physical time to years during which the frequency of care would decrease and its quality would change. The importance of the project lies in the exposure of a new feminine image – mother/woman (here is it worth dwelling for a moment on the name of the project: “Two Women” and not, as it could as easily have been titled: “Mother and Daughter.”) 

The developments in the representation of the mothers during this five-year project provide evidence of a new physical presence. They change their hair styles; they emphasize make-up and other accessories, such as jewelry and scarves, their dresses become more feminine through skirts, dresses, lower necklines. Most display a far more relaxed attitude to their bodies, even when it comes to capturing their figure in the lens.

In Israeli art, the representation of Jewish women (from the mainly Ashkenazi spectrum), has appeared in the guise of a mother figure with reference to the Virgin, the Goddess of fertility, Mother Nature, or the figure of sister (a sexually “sterile” pioneer). Eros—sexual desire—has not been extended to Arab women, or, later on, the various forms of femme fatal or prostitutes. Shalit-Avni's photographs successfully evade the sublimation and repression of feminine sexuality. Alternatively, the photographs also avoid the demonization of the images of women and mothers in the history of local art.  These photographs present a new brand of mothers: mothers who are conscious of their bodies and aware of their own sexuality.  It is not the first time that women like these appear in Israeli art, yet it is the first time that we are present at a period of such awareness of it. Shalit-Avni’s photographic research pinpoints this turning point at around the age of forty. For Israeli women this is an age that marks a new vision of women vis-à-vis their bodies, and among other needs, their physical and sexual needs. Moreover, through Shalit-Avni’s artistic domain we encounter a new world in which sexuality is viewed from the woman’s perspective and not from the viewpoint of the observer. In other words, the woman and mother is not pictured here through the voracious gaze of a male artist whose fantasies about her body are essentially for his stimulation and pleasure, nor are they depicted with the aim of fitting them into a mold that might match male cultural values. These mothers are described as feminine subjects who create a dialog with the “other”; who look out at those who observe them from an active perspective. It is from this stance that they generate a meaning with its wellspring in their own world, and not merely in the world of their “creator”.

Hadara Scheflan-Katzav