All images: Copyright Barak Zemer. All rights reserved.
BARAK ZEMER’S PHOTOGRAPHS are fragile creatures. They expose the frailty of our cover-ups and projected dreams. The pictures are about what glimmers beyond reach: nostalgia, impossible hopes, or the terminally foreclosed. Zemer’s camera always seems to be tracking an urge, in both animate and inanimate matter — an intention lost or misdirected; a desire that misses its mark. The photographs’ fragility springs not from their subject matter, but the way they reveal the concealing power of illusion in a glossy finish, a reflection on glass, a somewhat run-down shine. Hiding in plain sight, those are the material traces of our obfuscations.
Influenced by David Perlov’s self-reflexive documentary, or Daidō Moriyama’s grainy renditions of the tectonic shifts in Japanese culture after World War II, Zemer’s photographs also display a pop sensibility in their use of color and composition, reminiscent of a grittier William Eggleston. As digital images, color corrected or reworked in Photoshop, these photographs refuse any purity of medium. They also traffic in a loose handling of the documentary: some are composed exercises or posed subjects, while others are images of the quotidian caught off guard. They are not naive. They know their history. And they want to punch a hole in the gloss of illusion, whether it is the dream of wealth, art, freedom, untouched nature, youth, beauty, or representation. But that puncture is delicate. It acknowledges that the photographs themselves are caught up in the fantasy.
Corner (2011) is one example. In it, we see the angle of a gray room where floor and walls intersect, taken at a slight slant. On the right, the carpeted wall has a wound: one long horizontal line, doubled by a short piercing running underneath it. This is not an ordinary accident. The wall appears oily (it is in fact a freight elevator), the picture grainy, the scene gray, but the puncture is perfectly composed and in its haphazard way, beautiful. It seems a careful mistake: the trace of a clear intent somehow gone wrong, what remains of a precise goal after it has backfired.
Aquarium is another key photograph: a view of embedded images in a series of frames. In the background, the blue depths of aquarium waters reveal some rock shapes indistinctly crowding a corner with their lurking, if hazy, presence. In the foreground, in front of the glass, are three women’s hands. Two of them frame a view of the water through their fingers, and closest to us, the screen of a digital camera held by the last hand repeats the entire scene. The view on the small screen is another version of the puncture in Corner. It breaks through the photograph and deconstructs its apparatus of vision, the way photography is supposed to distribute reality and representation. The view through the digital camera also has the most detail; we can see from its position what we can’t see from our own, including living matter in the blue waters: fish, anemones perhaps, some life-like shapes. We also see the two hands repeated in the frame, and through the doubling of perspectives we become aware of the reason for this picture within a picture: the hands are cupped into a heart shape. In this way the photograph bores a long tunnel through nature, animals, humans, technology, from underwater origins to contemporary technological life, where the women’s corny gesture reveals the pulse of sentience and affect. Zemer’s photograph breaks its own cliché back down to something inescapable about life. It’s heartwarming. The hands and camera fold into a complex intertwining. We’re all in it together, our illusions, our technological dreams, our stupidity, our love.
I met Zemer in 2011 in the theory class I was teaching at the Roski School of Fine Arts MFA program, University of Southern California. Born in Jerusalem, he’d just moved from Tel Aviv to Los Angeles to pursue his degree. Coming from Israel, he met the climate of USC, a gated university fencing out the mostly working class neighborhood around it, with wry disillusion. His MFA thesis show, Pretty Sure It Was Then, exhibited a series of composed scenes from both Israel and the United States: animals, family members, anonymous passersby in the street, and the built environment. The photographs wove together a network of thematic and formal similarities among this fairly wide range of subjects. Elemental, however, was their expression of constraint. Zemer staged this simply. In My Hand, Chinatown, for example, a glossy, shiny hand (is it sweat, water, lubricant?) swells with blood because of a rubber band tourniquet choking the flesh beneath the wrist. Massive yet nearly ridiculous in front of the succulents and the low out-of-focus buildings of Chinatown in the distance (where the Los Angeles art world settled in the early 2000s), the hand — with its fingers stretched, its veins bulging, a pinched fold of skin caught under the rubber band — is almost too uncomfortable to behold.
Zemer used formal similarities between the photographs to compose a narrative of coercion and limitation. The way Zemer’s mother is seated in one photograph resembles the pose a gorilla takes in another, and the play of reflections on water and on glass in both images refines the equation between the two. The woman sits in a muddy, golden pond, her feet distorted through the liquid. She gazes straight at the camera, seemingly lost in thought, all the imperfections of her aging skin rendered beautifully, as precisely as the multicolored jewels on her fingers, wrists, and neck. As for the gorilla, he looks the other way in his glass cage. But the reflection on the glass shrouds his entire body, and the human figure seated on the other side of him — on the viewer’s side — creates a gossamer double, a Siamese twin captured, like him, in shining surfaces. The photograph Orange Blue shows a dog, its furry underside glowing orange in a ray of light, staring intensely at something in the distance outside the frame. The animal is illuminated by sources coming from beyond the photograph — an expression of the power of external circumstance, perhaps — and it seems transfixed, idiotic, without a hint of expectation of what might befall it, good or bad. Another picture suggests the social constructions of race and class: a view rendered through the spotted screen of a windshield shows what looks like a distressed man lurching forward along a wire fence on an empty, overgrown, and dilapidated city block. It seems he has no shoes; is he running from something? I read the framing of the windshield as standing for the frenzy of criminalization and constructed fear around the blurred blackness of the running man. This ideological obscuring echoes against the pinkish orange of a child’s naked skin in another photograph. Here, the small boy is shown from the back with a trail of water at his feet, inside the golden guts of a cave as in the ancient parable, precariously hugging the wall as he inches forward along the only possible pathway away from us.
Showing frailty, the photographs also communicate resistance. One of the more direct self-portraits of the show was an image of Zemer’s head seen from the top, with a small child’s dirt-encrusted fingers supported by the slightly balding skull.
Zemer’s sensibility cuts through the structures that keep the weak separate and controlled, herded into minorities as opposed to majorities, animals versus humans, children versus adults, women versus men, and begins to show the cracks that weakness exudes into the partitions.
What do you do as a newly immigrant photographer in Los Angeles? You start by taking the bus, because that’s where the people are, where there is still some remnant of a public space among the automobiles and overpasses. From the bus, you try to see Los Angeles, and grasp what the whole constructed landscape means. During one of these excursions a woman was sifting through some new purchases. Zemer asked if she’d show him, and if he could take a shot. What we get is a hand fanning out like a peacock’s tail around a fake gem pinched between the thumb and forefinger, on an unfolded slip of white terry cloth, the elaborately painted nails on the purplish brown hand, chipped yet gilded. It’s the empty beauty of the dream.
This picture was part of a recent collaborative show between Zemer and fellow USC graduate Lila de Magalhaes that took place last summer at the gallery Private Island. Titled Sealed and Punctured, the exhibition was about skin, the passage from inside to out, coverings, and containment. The treatment of these themes, in the photographs, a video, and objects in the gallery, also spread to the way the show was installed. Zemer’s pictures were inserted into the walls over de Magalhaes’s intricate tie-died fabric, lining the entire back end of the gallery, so that they lay flush against the surface like jewels encrusted in an ear — strange beauty marks, or perhaps moles. Zemer presented seven images in which different types of sealants made human and animal skin strange and left glossy finishes on objects. He also installed a light box at the entrance of the main gallery space, which illumined five feet of blown-up manskin — a photoshopped collage of images from his own body with different textures of hair indicating provenance: arms, torso, groin, flattened and stretched into a swirl of dark lines on olive skin. A gossamer self-portrait, there was something self-deflating in its grandiose explosion of manliness colliding with a child’s game of recognition, but the human-size scale was strangely gripping in a phenomenological way. Another photograph presented fish skin wrapped around a small, square object, and held it out like a present in Zemer’s outstretched hand. Reminiscent of My Hand, Chinatown in its construction, the image hovers between animate and inanimate; there’s something eerie in how the hand gleams with a fishy gloss, in the residual fish scale caught between the fingers, in the perfectly formed, artificial shape of fragile skin. Similarly, a photograph of Zemer’s nephew unlooses the border between human and animal. Cut just below the head and taken from a top-down perspective that reduces its legs to a shaky foundation, the torso seems to watch us from strange, fish-like nipple eyes. Blown up into a mouthless half grin, the animal quality of the body unhooks the child from its zone of innocence and purity, sliding it into another, timeless, undefined region where its disconnected organs seem to morph into an almost undecipherable form of sentience.
We might say Zemer is a photographer of the third estate, showing what is neither inside nor out, the in-between zones where things can’t easily be torn apart. Take the tenuous scrapings of animal tracks in the photograph Hole, a still undeveloped hill outside of the Six Flags Magic Mountain theme park in Valencia, California, just north of CalArts. The earth is dry, the grass yellow from the drought; a sewer spots the center of the photograph, reminiscent of a child’s navel. The animal tracks are the faint traces of those still surviving on the outskirts of a constructed idea, an untouched nature now tottering close to erasure. But being a photographer of the third estate, Zemer does not want to occupy a position of power and knowledge, lording behind the camera button or the computer screen. His photographs distribute agency horizontally, or at least they try to. A truck driving down an incline in Ramp (2014) suddenly perturbs the entire scene. Maybe it’s just the angle of the truck on the incline, but when you stare at the picture for a while suddenly the lines and corners of the built environment appear slanted, mobile, uprooted, and you notice a traffic cone stranded on a roof. It’s as if the truck had as much eerie agency to uproot its white surroundings as would a human. What Zemer shows us is a banal reality that, if looked at long enough, begins to shift. Looking, we can tell it’s not definitive. So there’s a power of seeing that resides in being not quite inside, not quite out. Let’s call it immigrant photography.
My Hand, Chinatown