Interview With Charlotte Cotton October 21, 2013
CC: When did you first hear about the project? Who told you about it?
JL: In the summer of 2010, Jeff Rosenheim called me and asked if I would be interested in working in Israel. It was a surprise. I mean, Isralel is just so far from where I typically work.
CC: Did you have any preconceived ideas about Israel before you went?
JL: I began to study Israel immediately - reading books and researching the politics and history of the land. I went to a Christian high school. So I knew the basic biblical story of the “Holy Land”.
CC: Do you normally research a place before you photograph it?
JL: Actually, I have never researched a place for my project before. I follow my intuitions. I tend to approach a place with an abstract idea, without having a desire to produce something specific. When I go to a place for the first time, my camera might not come out of my bag immedately. I’d rather meditate, leave my own preoccupations behind me, and truly see the place. But preparing to work in Israel was different. First of all, I didn’t choose the place it was given to me. It was good to have the chance to visit Israel before I making a full commitment to working there, just to see what it was like.
CC: When did you take your exploratory trip to Israel?
JL: In November of 2010. Fazal Sheikh was there at the same time as me. I went for twelve days. I requested a couple of days to travel alone with just an assistant so I could breathe in the air of Israel. When I go to a place for the first time, I just want to feel the land and its abstract atmosphere.
CC: Did you take any photographs on this first trip?
JL: Yes, I did, when I was travelling, with Galit, the first assistant who I worked with in Israel, Accopanying an assistant while photographing a place was another thing that was new to me - I have never worked with an assistant in the field. So it was a little bit frightening for me in the beginning, but it worked well enough. I prefer not to have anyone around me while I am taking photos. My work requires a meditative proecss. I really need to be alone in a place to focus on and feel the place itself. But I could not have travelled in Israel without an assistant. That would have been impossible in the early stages. Later on, as I got to know the place better, I was able to manage to work by myself, mainly on the West Bank and in the Negev Desert. Later, a professor at Beth Israel, Micky Klaraztman, introduced me to a Korean student who later assisted me. Each time I went to Israel, I stayed about a month. The last trip took a little bit longer, five weeks. I made some photographs from the exploratory trip in November 2010, and then started to make my own trips between Jan and Dec 2011. I proposed that my project would be based on the deserts and the land that contains layers of history. The land has always been changing, but there are some fundamental truths that have never been changed. This aspect of Israle was what I wanted to concentrate on and reveal through my photos.
CC: Tell me about how did you choose the landscapes that you worked in?
JL: Durnig my first trip, I tried to visit as many places as possible in Israel. I stayed in Jerusalem and traveled south to Negev, came back and then went to north to Nazareth. I needed to know what the whole country was like.
CC: Did you find the terrain to be diverse?
JL: It looked very different to me. The climates and landscapes were vary throughout the country. Yet I believed that it was the people and communities of Israel that have contributed to the diversity as well, beyond what was physically already there. The diversity of landscapes is not purely determined by nature. You can feel the history of the country in the land. The land embraces fragments of past lives. What have been left there in the present give you a feel of what had happened there in the past. In that sense, the diversity of the terrain can be approached by both a physical and an emotional perspectives. I went into Zone A, and many places where you are between cities and between existing communities. I did make photographs in cities such as Ramala and Hebron but most of the photographs that made it to the final selection were made in the landscapes that had a little distance from the centre of the cities. I was conscious that I didn’t want to judge the place. Actually it’s very easy to say this, but when I was there it was very difficult not to judge the politics and the conflicts between Palestine and Israel. It is very uncomfortable there as if I was difficult to breathe. I tried very hard not to express my personal emotion about the place or my prejudices in my work, to remember that this is not all there is to say about this land. The meaning of the photographs that I made changed gradually as I worked over the months. But I didn’t become more reconciled with being there, it was very painful.
CC: You utilise a meditative state as a way to get to the place where you can see a landscape and photograph it. Was that harder for you to do this in Israel as the other places that you have worked?
JL: In the beginning it was quite difficult. I think the work I was making at first was quite different from my previous work. I have never spent so much time in a place that was uncomfortable. I was constantly asking myself if my mental state was different in Israel and in retrospect I can see that it was and that it shifted my practice. I’m glad that I have changed so much. In the final trips to Israel in 2011, I think I was able to see Israel with some distance and I knew that the body of work had become not just about the Israel. I mean, what I am searching for in my photographs is something about the life. It’s about the solitary state of being human. Life changes on the surface, like an ocean. You have the constant movement of water on the surface but deep down, at the core, there is no movement.
CC: How did you prepare for your final trip to photograph in Israel? Often that final visit can be a time where you are almost looking for particular pictures to complete a project
JL: By the time I went back in December 2011, I knew that I already had enough final visit can be a time where you are almost looking for particular pictures to complete a project work for the project. It felt that what I had made already was strong and that I didn’t need any more pictures. So I felt much more freedom on that final trip. It couldn’t hurt to keep working and not be too forced. In the beginning, I was pushing myself to express something specific in Israel, to directly engage with the conflict between Israel and Palestine. But on the final trip it was more... how can I say? You know the Buddhist term ‘nirvana’? It was as if I had finally let go of my aversions and delusions and could draw on something much more fundamental. It’s like ice becomes water, it was no longer solid, it spread like water. Maybe that isn’t noticeable for anyone else, it’s a very delicate notion.
CC: The experience of your work is very physical, you are responding the material qualities of the print. What was your editing and printing process like?
JL: I made a lot of time to go through the work. I would look at the contact sheet, select and make proof prints. I did some editing in between my trips in 2011, and then started at the beginning of 2012 to see everything together. I made two selections, one that is made up of landscapes, the other is focussed on Bedouin life, including photographing the people.
CC: You have a complex process of printing, scanning and reprinting on handmade paper. Can you tell me more about the processes you use?
JL: First, I make a small size traditional black and white photo print on mulberry paper from the original negative in the dark room. For this initial print, I coat Korean mulberry paper with a gelatin silver emulsion called Liquid Light Then I scan the original print, and adjust tones and contrasts of the image using photoshop. This process requries a lot of retouching from the original image. I make large-scale inkjet prints from the digital negative. For, my work, the darkroom process is just as important as the digital process. Throughout the process, I focus on transmitting on my prints the feelings that I felt at the time of taking the photograph. I try to deliver the essence of what I truly want to express. The most difficult and crucial part of the whole process is finding the right balance between the primary analogue prints and digital versions, as both processes require two totally different states of mind.
CC: Your process is very precise and there are reasons why you have such a specific process. As a viewer, that’s felt in the very material experience of your photographs. All the steps in the making process that you describe have to be really true to what you see and feel. So it doesn’t surprise me that your post-production process is laborious, and not a simulation of something but a tangible, material sense of the real experience of place.
JL: It is true. I have been making prints on the mulberry paper for the last twenty specific process. As a viewer, that’s felt in the very material experience of your photographs. All the steps in the making process that you describe have to be really true to what you see and feel. So it doesn’t surprise me that your post-production process is laborious, and not a simulation of something but a tangible, material sense of the real experience of place. years, it’s a very long time! What was different for the Israel project was that I begin to use digital processes, so I am still learning and struggling with that but it was absolutely necessary. I think the dangerous thing for me using digital processes is that I try to be a perfectionist. When I am making a print on the mulberry paper in the darkroom there are always mistakes, things I cannot control. That’s less possible with digital processes so I still want to combine hand-made, chemical processes with digital in the future. I try to make a perfect print, but that is a contradictory and impossible aspiration. There is no ‘perfect’, there is only what I think is perfect at that moment. Sometimes I make a mistake, by chance, and what comes of that is very unique and thus perfect.
This place Catalog, 2014