YESTERDAY'S SUN | Uri Gershuni
Design: Gila Kaplan and Nirit Binyamini
22 x 28 cm | 160 pages | Hardcover
Text: Gabriel Dove, Nissim Gal, Rotem Rozental
Language: English | Publisher: Sternthal Books
Support: Mifal Hapayis (the Israel Lottery) for Culture and the Arts,
Spielman Institute of Photography, Chelouche Gallery for Contemporary Art.
THE BLUE HOUR | Uri Gershuni
Design: Gila Kaplan
22.5 x 17.5 cm | 248 pages | Hardcover
Language: English | Text: Hagai Canaan
Publishing: The Green Box (Berlin)
Support: Mifal Hapayis (the Israel Lottery) for Culture and the Arts,
Yehoshua Rabinovich Foundation for the Arts, Tel Aviv.
Interview conducted: December 2020
[Leafing: Shiraz Grinbaum]: It's a challenge to talk about two books at the same time. It clarifies the dual aspect of your creation, and maybe it's a good prism to start the conversation with. You are undoubtedly an artist who makes books, and also teaches a course on making books at Bezalel and WIZO Haifa. The first book - self-published - is called DAY NIGHT, and is made up of two parts: the night you dedicated to your mother Bianca Eshel-Gershuni, and the day to your late father Moshe Gershuni. The two books we are discussing are also a two-pronged journey: one is a physical photographic journey in the English village of Lacock, where the British inventor of photography Henry Fox Talbot worked, and the other is a virtual journey in the same village, which you did use a computer screen and Google cameras. Perhaps in the spirit of the opening of YESTERDAY'S SUN, it's right to start from the end. Who did you dedicate the two books to?
[Uri Gershuni]: I dedicated YESTERDAY'S SUN to Talbot himself, but on a deeper level I can say that it is also dedicated to my father because the project is mostly about the father figure. I went out to "meet" Talbot at a very critical stage in my relationship with my father, in which I was conscious of the time that was running out. He was then very ill. And that awareness of finiteness led me to embark on this journey as a kind of preparation for parting. I went to a meeting in order to say farewell.
It is interesting when I think about it now for the first time: I arrived in the village at the blue hour, at twilight. Talbot's house, which over the years has become a historical museum, was already closed. I wanted to look for his footprints, the remains, and my legs took me towards the cemetery. The first thing I photographed was the epitaph, the inscription on his tombstone, and the book opens with that photograph. I remember encircling the tombstone, with almost religious feeling, a bit like encircling the walls of Jericho and waiting for them to collapse. At the same time, I thought about the analogy of tombstones and photographs, how a photograph freezes life and is the actual thing that is left behind when life ends.
I did not dedicate THE BLUE HOUR in real-time. But from today's perspective, I can only say that I dedicate it to both my parents, who passed away. By the way, my mother, was very upset that in my first book I dedicated the night 'part' to her, she thought she should have gotten the 'day'. It reminds me of a sentence that’s very significant for me by Roland Barthes from his MOURNING DIARY: "If I was convinced that when I died I would meet my mother again, I would be ready to die immediately."
It can be said that the two books are a kind of grief work, each of which deals in its own way with absences that are also related to the medium: Talbot - the father of photography, the specific time in which he lived [mid-19th century], the photographic techniques with which he worked and contemplated photography. How does one decide to walk "in one’s shoes"?
First of all, I took a step, without planning the whole path. The initial urge was simply to get up and travel, to reach the specific place where photography was born. There was a paradoxical dimension to this urge because it came after a relatively large exhibition of mine at the Tel Aviv Museum [Salon, 2010], which for me, wrapped up a period of time engaged in portraiture. This was a period of re-examination, which was tied up with the death of the option of analog photography. For me, photographing on film was an essential part of the whole being of those portraits. At the same time it became difficult to develop film, essential functions began to disappear. Today there is a return to analog photography, but in the first decade of the 2000s, it felt like a watershed moment. At the time, lively debates concerning the death of photography were floating in the air, and all sorts of important figures in the field described straight photography as a dying entity, as a corpse.
That was before Instagram launched (late 2010).
Yes. The feeling was of the impossibility of working as a photographer, that the world outside has nothing to offer me anymore because photography had already consumed the world in its hunger. I thought about how I’d proceed. From a feeling that my path led to a dead-end, I decided to travel. I wanted to preserve in this journey the primacy, the ancientness of an unplanned encounter, a bit like a tourist with a basic level of awareness. I knew of only very few things that I did not want to do. The first of these was that I do not want to try to recreate the 19th century. This from the recognition that one can only look at it from the distance of time, to go back in order to go forward. And I knew I did not want to use Talbot's techniques. I only took the digital camera with me. When I was already in England, I stopped over in London for a few days. There I realized that I wanted to shoot with the camera of the 'now' a little differently, in a way not entirely in sync with the contemporary. I did all sorts of experiments, and ultimately I converted my digital camera into a pinhole camera. And in this way, the project was photographed, which created the specific materiality of the images in YESTERDAY'S SUN, which is, as mentioned, my first journey following Talbot.
THE PENCIL OF NATURE is the first photo book, which was printed in several hundred copies. The book, as a textual space that validates knowledge, was reborn under Talbot's hands as a material hybrid display space that integrates photographs. The texts he wrote and published in the book contain his meditations about the future of the new medium from a personal, scientific, artistic, and philosophical perspective. How did the book itself affect your journey?
I listen to Talbot and his writing about photography and hear a polyphonic piece. His text was really written in several voices: scientist, artist, an intellectual, English gentleman. But what interests me most about him is the spiritual dimension, the philosophical, the poetic. His motivation in the study of photography is different from that of the French inventor of photography, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, who was an artist and entrepreneur. Talbot explores photography in the scientific sense and is curious about the epistemic implications of the medium for society and art. He is torn between the validating aspect of photography and its fictional-literary aspect. For him, photography and the book oscillate between their being a mechanical product - in the case of photography, drawing light without human intervention - and his being an apparatus for the human imagination, [see: Vered Maimon, SINGULAR IMAGES, FAILED COPIES: HENRY FOX TALBOT'S THE PENCIL OF NATURE].
And it is absurd that of all people Daguerre, who was an entrepreneur and took interest in the general public, ultimately produces a very intimate and unique invention, the daguerreotype, from which copies cannot be made. And Talbot, whose research was intimate, one of a thinker, produces the positive-negative method, which allowed for the replication of images and their mass distribution. His book contains the same contradiction between reproduction and singularity. It was printed by hand, copy by copy, and very quickly fell through because Talbot and the printer he worked with did not meet demand. That is, the book itself was simultaneously reproduced and intimate. These tensions interest me.
When I went looking for Talbot, I searched for his spirit (in the sense of his ghost as well). His vision shoots arrows all the way to us in the present. The first thing I knew was that the works needed to manifest in the form of a book. The manifestation entailed a desire to conduct a dialogue with nature, and to address the big bang that Talbot created. What’s known as "In the beginning, he created a book." When I worked on the exhibition of these works, I planned for the book to be a distinct individual object in the exhibition, and for the works in it not to appear in the gallery at all. I built a model with other works for the gallery space, but very close to the opening of the exhibition, on one dazed night, accompanied by insomnia, I decided to throw out everything I had planned, and rather to create congruence between the book and the exhibition. So instead of the book being a catalog of the exhibition, the exhibition emerged out from the walls of the book.
You photograph in Talbot’s footsteps the English nature of the village and the surrounding area, trees and leaves, still life; alongside frames of his library, the famous lace, porcelain, and tables. You add a lot of interior photos of the house. How did you think of this axis, nature-culture?
The second and third images in the book continue my movement around Talbot's tombstone. When I reached the back of the tombstone, I observed the lichen that grew there and covered the stone. It seemed to me like an abstract painting, or alternatively like sperm stains. These are remnants of life, and this connects to the circularity within which the book is arranged. The image of the spores reminded me of Anna Atkins who integrated photographs into her book PHOTOGRAPHS OF BRITISH ALGAE: CYANOTYPE IMPRESSIONS (1843), which came out a few months before THE PENCIL OF NATURE. My spore photograph is also kind of "botanical," a photograph of the chaotic nature, which captures on paper the moment of death of the living thing. I try to hold the rope at both ends. Although it is impossible, I still try, knowing that it is doomed to failure.
The image of the spores is also reminiscent of a negative that disintegrates or gets burned.
Yes, and that goes back to the first question you began with, about duality. I love that photography is inherently saturated with duality. We started with DAY NIGHT, with YESTERDAY’S SUN, as opposed to THE BLUE HOUR, and all this really goes back to the basic division between light and darkness, and of course closeness and distance. Photography demands the performative indexical dimension, "I was here," or as Barthes put it, it "flows like milk towards its signified." But even though photography seeks to be inside things, to be in touch, what is taken from it is precisely touch, because it needs the distance. From zero point there is no image because observation requires perspective. This pendulum reflects my inner need, which photography illustrates. The camera is a gateway between me and my subject. I travel to meet my father, by moving away from him. I have to leave my homeland, my father's home, to meet him in a kind of bypass surgery, in a meeting with Talbot. I search to reach the point of blindness.
Speaking of blindness and materiality, you mentioned in our preliminary conversation that a strange thing happened with the cover, which made it seem stained. It connects to the chaotic aspect of the organic quality you talked about. What actually happened?
The covers of the two books were made from the same material with different tonal versions, a paper that imparts a sensation of plastic and organic skin at the same time. There is no image on the two covers, only a name, blind embossed. I wanted people to approach the book a bit like the blind, with no insight as to what was inside it. That the initial encounter should not involve conceptualization, but rather touch and sensuality.
They warned me at the printing house about the type of paper I used for the cover of the book, which caused the cover to get a kind of "skin disease" retroactively. This only happened with YESTERDAY'S SUN. When they wrapped the copies in the machine (a 'shrink' machine that wraps each copy of the book in plastic), moisture was created that became trapped inside the plastic. They didn’t really know how to explain to me why this happened. It did not happen to the second book, which I printed in Germany. It created a kind of stain on the black cover, similar to the lichen on the tombstone. A kind of metonymy for this negation, which I talk about in both books.
Further to the connection between the chaos of the spores, the stains, and the sperm. In YESTERDAY'S SUN, you weave together photos of a character named Mr. Kronnagl who is a kind of alter ego of yours, a phantom of Talbot, and an object of passion. You take portraits of him, echoing your earlier homo-erotic photos in DAY NIGHT. Among other things, you photograph him in the moment of completion on a spacious bed. How does erotic, sexual gratification relate to the process of mourning?
An hour ago, the photographer Boaz Aharonovitch visited me at my studio, expressing his passion for one of the semen works I exhibited at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. And we conversed about just that: about the duality of semen. The erection is also the flimsiness. Growth and collapse, vitality and negation, it is not possible to separate them.
You also did 'semen pieces', can you elaborate on them?
During an artist residency in Düsseldorf, I took with me a package of 120 blue cyanotypes that I had prepared in advance in Israel, which are created when the emulsion is exposed to the sun. I took these virginal papers and fertilized them on German soil. On the one hand, these works look like the essence of vitality, Jackson Pollock style, the squirting man, full of potency; and on the other hand, there is, in this very moment, when the substrate absorbs the liquid, a moment of collapse. Only two of 120 papers, were exhibited at the Israel Museum.
In this context, there is a quote from Kafka about books that I love, that talks about how books have to wound and stab us and affect us like deep grief. Books need to affect us like a disaster, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, such that "the book must be the ax that will pierce the frozen sea within us."
It reminds me of works with an indexical dimension by your father, Moshe Gershuni. For example, his margarine works from the 70s and works from recent years, in which it is obvious that he really painted with his fingers. Is there a dialogue with your father here, in this context as well?
Absolutely, yes. Already during my bachelor's degree at Bezalel, I took my father's handprint and worked with it as raw material. I had in mind then the texts he put into his paintings. For example the text, "I am here," is an interpretation of the indexical action in a painting, one that imprints itself one-for-one. This declaration about presence, also had a dual dimension for me, an existence that declares itself out of a great absence.
In this context, Hagai Canaan very nicely links the indexical aspect of Talbot's light drawings, to the melancholic structure of the psyche according to Freud. He writes in THE BLUE HOUR: "The object casts the shadow of its absence on light-sensitive paper, thus creating a negative, or shadow." How was THE BLUE HOUR born?
It was a bit like the placenta of the first delivery, the important placenta that came out of the same uterus, two years later. They are like siblings, carrying the same genetic load and the same shared childhood memories, but their DNA is mixed in a different way. The book consists of photographs I took using Google cameras, translated into a digital negative, and printed as blue cyanotype prints. They were positioned in the book as diptychs, and the exhibition was also built in pairs.
One Hundred Twenty, 2015 [Courtesy of the Uri Gershuni]
But in the book, the photographs appear in black and white, and not in the cyanotype blue and white that appeared in the exhibition. Why?
I'm trying to recreate what the motives were. I had different desires from the existence of these images in the book. I wanted two types of encounters, first of all for myself. I wanted to attend to the images as a glorified mass and also to tell a story.
This book is linearly edited, it has a kind of beginning, middle, and end. Precisely because the book is matter and the original images are digital, I felt the need to make their physicality within the book redundant, "to bring them back to their roots," in a way that continues the task of the first book. It reminds me of Talbot's sentence, which describes images that appear on the glass at the back of the camera obscura; he calls them fairy pictures, "destined to fade away."
Indeed in THE BLUE HOUR, there are images that "disappear" due to digital disruptions to the transmission of visual information over the web, there is something undermining about them. You said you were trying to create a story, what story? How did you edit?
I wanted the mass to create a pretty boring story. No hysteria or drama, no catharsis. You start and are slowly caught in the dead-end of boredom. I built a script for myself, which does not appear anywhere, but is related to parents and children. In my head the children were abducted from the village, the parents became orphans, and then the children returned to the village. This is the story that guided me as I edited. It's a hidden story, like a latent image. I'm not giving it like a key, but it’s there. I wanted to entrap the viewer in a story of continual discomfort.
Interesting. So one could say that the first book deals with a fascination with photography’s past, and the second deals with boredom with the current state of photography, or with the state of affairs of "everything is photographed and permission is given"?
They both swing back and forth. I think of these books as a midpoint between wakefulness and dreaming, between reality and fantasy. For me photography is always like that, it requires you to meet with the world, only to turn your back on it.
With whom did you work on both books?
I worked with Gila Kaplan, who is also a very good friend and a super talented designer. We made the first book while she was still here in Israel before she moved to Berlin, and we printed it here too. We made and printed the second book in Germany.
We worked on everything together. For example, there were all sorts of ideas for fonts, and in the end, we found a font that came into being in the 19th century. It felt right, that the birth of the font would be close to the birth of photography, a kind of index for that time. Nirit Binyamini, who worked with Gila at the time, designed the logo of YESTERDAY'S SUN in a particular way, which did not rely on existing fonts, a bit like THE PENCIL OF NATURE’s cover has graphic elements that wrap around its name.
And the perfect papers?
We went to the printing house together to go through papers, to talk about how they feel. We were looking for a paper that, on the one hand, generated an 'ancient' and 'historical' sensation, something that has withstood time, and on the other hand also very much belongs to the present. In addition, in several places in the book, we used thin Bible paper. It is also a kind of humorous wink to Talbot because this type of paper was used to protect photographs and illustrations in 19th-century books, as wrapping paper. I don’t have any precious photographs, my book was not printed manually, everything is offset printed. But I try to give the photographs a gem grade quality with this paper. To make the cheap expensive, the "basic" rare.
Similarly, I used the term Plates in the titles of the photographs, just like Talbot. But I don’t have any plates or negatives in the material sense, there isn’t even an original print. It's a game of opposites. In the same train of thought, YESTERDAY’S SUN has a straight spine, which is a convention of the present, and THE BLUE HOUR has a round-spine, which is a convention from previous centuries.
So to sum up, making this book was like…
The obvious analogy is the experience of birth, and there is a lot of truth in that. It's something that carries your genetic components, edited and bound DNA. But in the context of our conversation today, I think it really is a kind of grief work. Because it’s prolonged, intensive work, it makes it possible to deal with the loss over a period of time, rather than being overwhelmed by melancholy. It has an active dimension. It's a bit like looking into the printing press, into the gearwheels of time.
Whom should we invite to Leafing.co.il?
Eran Naveh and his wonderful book GOD ALMIGHTY published by "Golem Publishing."
Where can you get the book?
Contact my gallery - Info@chelouchegallery.com
Father Never Sleeps
Moshe Gershuni & Uri Gershuni
Video courtesy of the artist