Book Review: Michal Safdie's 'Under My Window' and the Greatness of Serendipity
By Andrea Farr
Quotidian, ceremonial, romantic, and routine; Under My Window is Michal Ronnen Safdie’s constant observation through her apartment window, giving a face, or many faces, to the layered genesis of contemporary Jerusalem.
Perched along the fissure between Jewish and Muslim Quarters, Safdie’s window has a significantly multidirectional view of her landscape, having the artistic privilege to see, from the north, Mount Scopus; from the west, the Christian Quarter and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; and from the east, the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, and the Mount of Olives and the Augusta Victoria Hospital shadowed by the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. In a space that naturally produces opportunity for both separation and congregation, Safdie is a natural opportunist, capturing the rich duality of mass division.
Under My Window is not unlike Safdie’s previous work focused on the organic, its images adopting a similar quality as her captures of trees, ice, and vapor trails. She photographs in a way that reveals the most natural elements of our humanity in the way we direct, orient, and order ourselves, interact with one another, and live in within our environments.
The book itself is about the size of a small window, large enough to evoke the actual feeling of peering through glass, observing a continuous range of happenings. Women wearing khimars hang laundry. A soldier pledges himself to the Israeli Defensive Forces. Muslim men, Gaza War safety precautions restricting them from a mosque during Ramadan, lay out their prayer mats in the Jewish quarter. A smiling Orthodox man gives a blushing Orthodox woman flowers. These moments are captured by Safdie’s camera from behind the windowpane, and that inherent limitation is maintained by the segmentation that the fences, walls, railings and rooftops have on the movement of people through the space. This series is quizzical to the nature of these limitations and constraints – and how, not unlike history, these things are malleable: shifting, changing and evolving through time.
The true delight of Under My Window comes from the aesthetic serendipity of layers upon layers of feet and people and fences mimicking the architecture of the landscape, stacked tables and chairs standing before the layered stones of the Western Wall, and the repetitive vision of cobblestone and rooftops reproducing into the horizon, evoking the history of this space, and becoming the layers of the past and present. Lingering in the midst of this is the question of ownership, and Safdie’s work renews questions of who owns the in-betweens, the liminal passages between significant religious and cultural pinpoints. This book not only captures the streets and buildings, but the occupants of a contemporary Jerusalem, both changing and destined to change, honoring this history while creating it.