Janus Faced: Light/Dark

 

"Biblically, God’s creation of light was the beginning of the universe, setting up a dichotomy between light and darkness that continues to fuel the imaginations of prophets, philosophers, and artists of all media. Neither side of the dichotomy can be understood without reference to the other.  The origin of the word light means “to shine, be white” and darkness is a state of being unilluminated. Subsequent to this crisp division, complex levels of meanings evolved referring both to light’s physical properties and actions and to constructs and conditions associated with the polarity. Metaphorically, light and dark are linked to concepts such as good and evil, truth and deceit, and joy and despair. A thinker can be described as enlightened or light-weight. However aware Ziv Koren is to these associations and their role in “reading” his photographs, he is first a visual artist. Light is the agent of sight and he uses it to see and then to capture its play across the physical world.

Most photographs emerge from the action of light or other radiant energy on a sensitized surface. Whether the critical reaction is chemical or, or more commonly today, electronic, reflected light is the first step in the technical process that yields an image. Every serious photographer must gage the available light and corresponding darkness in any situation, then adjust his lens’s aperture, the exposure time, and other technical options relative to the desired picture.  The skillful use of light and dark directs viewers’ perceptions. For instance, if making a portrait, a highlight in the eye or soft halo to define the head are often employed as options, by others if not by Koren. Regarding the iconic landscape “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941,” the American photographer and master printer Ansel Adams darkened the sky to dramatize the full moon and enhanced the brilliance of the clouds hanging low over the mountains when making prints from his negative. Clearly, Koren knows as well as Adams how to tease highlights and shadows into the effects he deems essential.


For several years while on assignment, Ziv Koren has made personal pictures in which light and dark are the subjects, or at least as much his subjects as whatever activity is described in the pictures’ captions. The titles remind us that Koren is a working journalist, covering lifestyles in Israel ranging from the ceremonies of ultra-Orthodox Jews to transgender fashion shows.  Koren, who began his career as a military photographer for the Israeli army, still covers their military operations as a journalist including training exercises and dangerous raids. Included here are other pictures taken on assignment covering the AIDS epidemic in South Africa, Haiti’s earthquake, Indian pilgrims at the Ganges, Jews in Ethiopia, and Holocaust memorials throughout Europe.

 

Koren is known for his ability to take fresh approaches to common subjects and his capacity to make complex pictures with a clear intent.  At the Memorial Wall in the concentration camp at Auschwitz, he isolated a lone visitor in a sea of victim’s portraits that were doubled by their reflections in the shiny floor. The multiplication heightens our awareness of the relentlessness of human desecration during the camps horrid operation, while the portraits preserve a sense of the individual identities and diversity of the victims.  The lone viewer confirms the intent of the display that this history must not be forgotten. A very different “sea” emerges from the waves of dark hats and sunlit hat brims on thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews demonstrating in Jerusalem.  Most of the men face away from the camera or offer profiles, drawing our eyes to the lone full face individual in the mass of dark hats. Koren is drawn to crowds, which is a difficult subject to contain with any pictorial coherence. Many of the surging masses documented throughout the book were photographed at night, with rims of reflected light all that differentiates their bodies from the surrounding dark. He relies on the rhythm of alternating light and dark to draw our eyes across the images, slowly mining the relevant details: gestures, expressions, textures, gender, ages, etc. A third “sea” of light, shadow, details and patterns presents the largest hand laundry in India.  It is a tangle of contrasts: strong diagonal lines, mounds of soaked fabric, light reflect by water and fresh white clothes, and people barely discernable in the mix. It’s both beautiful and heart wrenching.

 

Throughout most of the book, Koren balances journalistic narrative and pictorial pleasure. But he didn’t hesitate to weigh a few pictures toward the latter value.  Some of the most dramatic pictures employ low light situations in which distant, single light sources backlight and silhouette trees, structures and people.  In pictures of a West Bank shepherd gathering logs and of an Israeli fireman spraying flames, the light is a power source implying something greater than simple illumination. In other landscapes, Koren takes full advantage of shimmering lights reflecting off expanses of water and of light’s undulating migration through towering clouds.  In cities, Koren takes pleasure in the incongruities of window reflections that layer mannequins with passing pedestrians and pensive customers with decorative plantings.   Spaces are compressed and solidity dissolves.

 

While light holds dominance in most of the pictures, Koren is just as skilled giving sway to a dominance of black.  The large segment of these pictures are of nighttime military operations. While the subjects are radically different from those in the Hungarian/French photographer Brassai’s legendary series Paris de Nuit and Secret Paris, the way Koren and Brassai situated figures in minimally lit interiors and against shadowy exterior walls and receding alleys links two skilled photographers who gave considerable thought to the issues of photographing at night. They both often obscured light sources behind trees or architecture and both enjoyed the phantasmal play of shadows. One distinction is that Brassai’s buildings never lose solidity.  Koren’s pictures catch patches of light that land on architectural elements that are otherwise unmoored in black voids.  Dark depths dissect Koren’s interiors in which Arabs and Israeli soldiers may be unknown individuals but easily distinguished from each other in both dress and postures.  Postures on both sides are braced and tense versus the languid decadence of Brassai’s inhabitants of the night.

 

Koren often refers to his library of photography books and these pictures make it clear that the books are well perused. His pictures pay homage to the medium’s history in the sheer pleasure his predecessors took in also writing with light."

 

- Anne Wilkes Tucker

Anne Wilkes Tucker is an American museum curator  of  photographic  works
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