One to Nothing

Irina Rozovsky
© 2011 Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg Berlin

Review by Ellen Wallenstein

Issue 30

Where we come from and where we have been informs our photographs of a place. What we see and respond to depends on our own circumstances and history.

Irina Rozovsky (born in Russia, raised in Massachusetts) made these photographs during two stints in Israel, one in December 2008 and the second in March 2010. She first traveled with her Israeli cousins, taking in the place with a wide-ranging and intelligent eye. Of course the place itself has a very particular history and culture, ancient and modern. Israel - the “promised land”, a nation of discord even while at peace - the desert; the Middle East; the cradle of civilization; wrought. It comes with a loaded set of travel plans for many.

The Israel Irina shoots is unnerving and a little suspicious; after all, she is a visitor here, a Russian-American Jew with an unspoken moral viewpoint that overwhelms any political agenda. The historical disagreements are alluded to but never forced. We make the connection ourselves via her cunningly ambiguous choice of subject matter. These photographs are not about a conflict but are somehow conflicted. They are also surprising, fascinating and beautiful.

First of all is the riddle of the title “One To Nothing”. Is it a score? A disagreement? A Zen koan? A lesson? Does it refer to the scale of the figures in the landscape, or to a search for meaning in the fabled history of a people?

Then there is the work. The photographs are arranged in chapters, starting with night and abruptly turning to day. The square photographs contain all four basic elements. Water shows up as puddles, or as the Sea. Earth and Air predominate over Fire, which shows up transformed into dust and haze. The color palette is muted, chalky and pastel, except in those made with a flash, which are rich and solid.

Enigmatic yet specific, new yet ancient, Rozovsky’s images strengthen each other by intelligent pairings. Four stones hold down the corners of a piece of cloth, the picture opposite a sleeping camel. A fallen concrete structure stands wounded, next to an image of a bending figure covered with mud. Blood on a hand is coupled with the back of a curly-haired woman looking down at a wrecked car. A photo of a ladder askew under a framed picture of Christ is across from a photo of a man trying to get through a tangle of metal fences. These are mysterious images worth many viewings.

A young man seen from the back with hands behind his head walking a literal tightrope above the beach, is juxtaposed with a bird's-eye view of a man & woman by the ocean. The tracks to the wheelchair next to them lead us to them. Suddenly the innocent balancing act of the boy becomes a symbol of surrender. Suddenly I think about why the man might need the wheelchair.

Nothing is innocent in these pictures, charged with the tension of history, and nothing is quite recognizable either. Rozovsky's photographs are about landscape, and our human relationship to it. There are a few portraits, but of obvious strangers. A woman in a burka carries a heavy carton on a street. A man, eyes closed, in a keffiyeh sitting in front of an ancient stonewall holds a broom & dustpan. The heads of an older couple at a photo's lower edge are dwarfed by the array of wires, electrical boxes and streetlights attached to the buildings above them. They are all characters in a Drama.

The photograph that quietly sings out is of a girl in a striped shirt and denim skirt, standing up to her thighs in a body of water. She is looking off into a shimmering blue sky. This image is placed opposite a blank white page and begins the last sequence of the book.

The final image is a white cloud in a beige sky floating like a UFO over a barren brown landscape. Rozovsky has beamed us down for a while, but now we can return to our own world, where we are not strangers in such a strange land.

Ellen Wallenstein is a New York City based photographer and photography professor.
To view more of Ellen's writing and photography, please visit her website.

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