Ori Gersht is an Israeli fine art photographer. Gersht studied Photography, Film and Video at the University of Westminister before graduating with an M.A. in Photography from the Royal College of Art, London. He is represented by Angles Gallery in Los Angeles, CRG Gallery in New York, Mummery + Schnelle Gallery in London, and Noga Gallery in Tel Aviv. Gersht utilizes both video and still photography to create a dialogue between contemporary photography and the history of art, between the present and the past, between imagination and memory. His works allude to tragedies from the Spanish Civil War to the bombing of Hiroshima. His exhibtion History Repeating at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts last year featured images drawn from the history of still life violently blown apart.
Your work spans both video and still photography. What interests you about being able to bridge both media?
I see them as being complementary of each other. Each medium allows me to exploit areas that are otherwise limited. My work with photography is very much about a resisting the passage of time; it’s an attempt to hold on to something that is slipping away. Many of my images are happening when I try to capture a moment that is either happening at an extraordinary speed or during a very long exposure; time is leaving its impression on the negative. By doing this, it’s recording and erasing information all the time. It's very possible to hold on to something and fix it in time with photography.
The films are offering something else; in film I can present a much more grounded, multifaceted impression of the passage of time. Recently, I have found that a lot of my films focus on some form of portraiture. I explore the relationship between the history of painting, the history of portraiture, to what it means to make portraits today. The moving image can illustrate with an almost hyper-realistic quality. It can expand and continue: this effervescent thing that we were addressing 500 years ago.
I think moving through the two mediums has to do with certain conceptual and formal questions. These questions dictate the medium that I choose.
I understand the opportunities in both, but what are the challenges that you might find in either one?
I can talk about specific works. For example, the exploding flowers is a very large photograph. In this photograph what interested me was the relationship that existed in technology and the way technology is expanding our perception of reality. I wanted to create a moment that Fontaine Le Fleur from the 19th century could not even comprehend; an idea of exploding the flowers at such a tremendous speed. I photographed the explosion at the speed of seven and a half thousandth of a second. It's a speed that is too fast for the brain to process, but because of technology, a moment like this can be depicted, and become a powerful and conscious reality.
The original Fontaine le Fleur is very modest in scale so it was crucial to blow up my images large enough so as to introduce all the information sufficiently. This expanded the tension between that of Fontaine Le Fleur and my work. By raising questions about, “what is reality?” we begin to ask, “how do I deal with reality?” The camera created its own reality by recording these things.
Have you heard of my film, Will you Dance for Me? It is about a dancer in a rocking chair named Yudica Norm. She died two weeks ago. I filmed her two years ago, dancing for the last time. She was 84. She was dancing in a rocking chair so her movements are very minimal. She is rocking between light and darkness and by doing this she is also contemplating and reflecting on her life.
When Yudica was 19 she was sent to Auschwitz. The Germans tried to make her dance for them at a Christmas party and she refused. They punished her by leaving her in the snow for a very long time.
She made a vow that night that if she survived this she would dedicate her life to dancing. She did and moved on to form a very successful dance group. The film is basically a meditation on her face and on her body. The camera is slowly tracking back until she disappears and then re-emerges; it's almost as if she is constantly fading away as she rocks into. She becomes very small and then suddenly returns as a very powerful presence. It is portraiture. There is no narrative in it, but the camera is constantly moving throughout the duration.
You mentioned that you used a very high speed camera for the flowers. What kind of camera did you use?
For the still photograph we used a Hasselblad. It’s entirely digital which was important because I wanted production to be as removed as possible from painting. Painting is a sensual and physical process. Here, the images are created through a lot of technology to achieve phenomenal quality and details. We took these photographs with ten Hasselblads. Because the refreshment rates are so slow, at one frame per second, we built a mount that allowed us to fix ten cameras very close to each other. For every photograph, the cameras would shoot one after the other. The idea was that as least one camera would be able to capture the moment.
What is it about the image of a flower that interests you? And why do you relate them to ideas of violence?
I think flowers relating to violence is an idea that was established long before me. Their fragility, their beauty, the moment they blossom and the scent they produce, it’s all so temporal. Then, like a butterfly, it's going to disappear so quickly. This tragic quality is interesting. With the flowers I am introducing a natural fixed environment against something that is so fragile and delicate.
What was the inspiration for this?
It started with Dutch still life of the 18th century. It introduced 101 different flowers from all different seasons: a representation of the cycle of seasons, of blooming flowers, all in one bouquet.
I had this image I wanted to show and it is this beautiful bouquet that explodes. I wanted it to explode with sound. I wanted to represent the idea of maturing and gaining clarity. It's difficult to pin-point just one thing.
How does the flower series relate? Without the explosion it could be a still life painting. What do you think it says about the contemporary place of photography?
The explosion is critical because that's what makes them so different from a still life painting. It can only be depicted by photography. When the viewer looks at them, there is an extension of delay, but it is an impossible moment for a painting to capture. A painting can depict the photograph, but not the moment.
Think of the photo of the soldier who is being shot in action during the Spanish Civil War. The moment the bullet goes through his body, we are looking at somebody who is neither alive nor dead. He is extended between these two moments and he is simultaneously alive and dead.
The photographs I create with the exploding flowers are addressing similar ideas. The moment of destruction becomes the moment of creation. The viewer is invited to view something that is holding together and falling apart, simultaneously.
I'm hoping these photographs raise fundamental questions, not just of the subject, but of, “What is photography? How does a photograph work? What is the photograph's relationship with reality, with truth? What is truth?” We are looking at a moment we can never experience so we have to believe the camera. “How can we believe the camera?” Various questions are coming up that are moral and ethical about relationships between the camera and truth.
Your video work is often displayed in frames reminiscent of master works of the 18th and 19th century. Can you talk about the significance of framing and display to your work?
In those particular films, suspension of disbelief is crucial. I present them on an extremely high-resolution screen, so that when the viewer comes very close they don't reveal themselves as moving images. The frames suggest the frame of a painting. At the moment of sudden explosion, the viewer's expectations and beliefs are being challenged.
You've developed an interest in landscape. What about landscapes interests you?
I'm interested in landscape voids; those voids resonate some sort of presence. If you go to a place where you know something significant happened, that affects your experience. There is something about the landscape, as if the space is radiating something.
With photography, what interests me is that the camera is very good at showing the here and now and then turning it into a historical memory. If an event has already passed, then the camera is helpless. One of my interests is how you can go to a landscape and capture, bring to life, something that is already gone by the time the viewer sees it; it's a seemingly impossible feat. I am interested in this tension and impossibility.
What do you think using long exposures adds to these landscapes? What do you think doing them in film adds?
The long exposures started with an attempt to destroy the film; the act of photography would be an act of destruction.
I started to do it with the images of olive trees. I went in the middle of the day when the sun was extremely bright and I tried to create very long exposures so the light would actually destroy the film. What I realized was that the light registered information on the film. There was an accumulation of new information. The information is always erasing the information from before.
What are startling are the presented images. The images that I produced were those I thought were destroyed.
Optically, the camera is recalling the light that is bouncing back from the subject. However the image has become very different from the way my eye experienced it; there is a tension being between the subjective and objective experience of being somewhere and believing in something.
What's the difference using film?
I made a film called, Neither Black Nor White, where the camera was locked in one place, capturing a landscape in time lapse. I was on top of a hill in Nazareth and below me were villages. The light of those villages looked like glistening stars. In the film it is very difficult to decipher what you're looking at. As day breaks, slowly the sun comes up and it becomes clear that you are looking at a village.
The aperture of the camera does not change, so slowly everything is bleached. The landscape and village start to disappear until we are left with a bush in the foreground that moves in the wind. You realize that the entire film was of this particular bush. One needs a duration of time to go through this cycle; I could never represent it in a single photograph.
Flowers are a motif that recurs in your, whether it’s the exploding flowers or the falling petals that underscore the tragedy of Hiroshima. Is this related to your experience growing up, or is it all art history related, or both?
Essentially all my work deals with loss and my resistance to it. It's a mixture of various images. There is an image of floating petals – when I was standing on bridges in Tokyo and I saw petals just floating away - the image that popped into my head was the Long March of Mao. This mass of people, this idea of an exodus. I could've thought about the exodus of the Jews but that's what I had in mind, these people are walking across a mountain for long periods of time and suffering from bombardment and diseases and still a desire to keep on walking is something triumphant, a romantic journey. It's not purely biographical but they are all connected. When I think about this image, as a child I was always fascinated by Moa. It's images and memories that are provoking war on one another and they are all related, to my own experiences.
Let’s talk about the German philosopher and critic, Walter Benjamin. You often reference him when you write about your work. Can you explain why Benjamin and his theories are such an influence to your work?
He was a post-modern prophet. A lot of the things he was addressing are so relevant to photography. The photograph is always about the inevitable collision between material presentation and the mystical. The magic of photography is that it’s a concept one can never fully grasp. The presence of somebody who died can appear on this piece of paper and still feel so alive. I feel that Benjamin's writing is almost the same, jumping from one thing to the other and every little thing touched upon illuminates and opens more questions.
Would you say that you're a romantic?
Yes. I remember when I was a student, and the big thing was to discuss postmodernity and it was this cynicism related to the idea of detachment from the real world, no space any longer for originality and only re-appropriation of images. I could never accept that. There is something that fascinates me about going to places, going to physical experiences. There are poetic qualities of a place that start to emerge through physical experiences and the fusion of the physical and something that is intuitive emotional and also intellectual, how they all meld together to create a work. So yes, I am very much a romantic.
If you were to recommend a book for a young photographer to read, what might it be?
A novice one would be Walter Benjamin “Illumination.” Thinking about Marlow Ponti and the Phenomenology of Perception. A book I found to be seminal and very very important as a novice choice is Ronald Bar and Karmaloseeda and also Jeffery Birchim book, something like Burning With Desire. Also, Normand Brison Looking and Overlooked, for still life.