by Irith Gubi

© Yuli Gorodinsky from the series 'Relics'

You were born in St Petersburg, at what age did you immigrate to Israel? Can you share with us some childhood memories from Russia and how did the shift affect you?

YULI GORODINSKY (YG): I read somewhere that a child’s mind is defined by traumas that happen in his life until the age of 11. That was the age I immigrated to Israel, following my parents’ divorce. The change was very extreme, but I can’t recall my reaction. Actually, I don’t think that I really had much of a reaction at the time. I guess I kind of blocked it out, not really understanding what happened. I didn’t really think about all this until I was about 18, when my obsession with memory and time started to form.

In retrospect, that transition intensified feelings of not belonging that I had previously experienced, as well as my timid character, and distorted my perception of reality, leaving me in a constant state of confusion and hesitation as to what my next step should be. I think that it was Susan Sontag who wrote that all photographers are people who were robbed of their childhood. I always related to that sentence.

The best memories that I have from my childhood are of me wandering the streets by myself or with my two best friends. I have really fond memories of those urban explorations. I think then I was just wandering, but now I’m actually looking for something. Also, growing up in the USSR, I spent many of my summers on the shores of the Caspian Sea, in my mother’s hometown or in the forests of western Ukraine, near the village where my father was born. Those are lovely memories of rural simple life that seem to me now like a taken for granted heaven.

Tell us about your approach to photography. How it all started? What are your memories of your first shots?

YG: I never had a camera when I was a kid and was never really interested in art. Actually, the only time art was mentioned at home, it was mentioned as something that has no place in our lives. Apparently my mother used to draw very well, but when she realized that she had no hopes of going to art school and instead she has to find work, she abandoned it all together.  I think I decided to buy my first camera at around the age of 24. It was a difficult time for me after an end of a serious relationship and product of this frozen state I was stuck in at that time. So you can say that my initial approach to photography was as a tool to make memories and to reconnect with the world. I think for three years or so I took mostly bad unmemorable photographs. 

© Yuli Gorodinsky from the series 'Relics'

Tell us about your educational path. What are your best memories of your studies? What was your relationship with photography at that time?

YG: In retrospect, I made some really bad decisions regarding my studies. But I guess all that led me where I am, so it’s fine. Initially I went to film school to become a script writer but eventually took up editing and cinematography assignments. I quit my studies in the middle of the fourth semester and decided to spend all I had on a camera and a trip to India. I thought that I was going to be a lazy tourist. Resting and thinking about the meaning of life. But I ended up photographing obsessively everything and everyone. I guess India is where my love for photography really started.

After I came back from India, I started teaching myself about photography and art. Hours in front of the computer, studying the history photography and different practices, or going to galleries and museums and diving deeper into this world. This helped me deepen, my practice, intertwining it with specific interests and genres. Discovering the new photographers was a big thing for me. Henry Wessel, Lee Friedlander, Robert Adams, Eggleston –were all great teachers for me.  What became a big change for my practice as a photographer was the move to shooting exclusively with film. This changed the whole process and the way I approach it, forcing me to focus on my photographic gaze and developing my ability to respond to the environment surrounding me, rather than thinking about the outcome.

Any professor or teacher that has allowed you to better understand your work?

YG: At some point I did feel I needed a guide, someone to show me things I couldn’t reach or understand myself. Yair Barak was this kind of mentor for me. His photography is very different from mine in its approach, it’s much more related to the history of photography and art, and to history in general. In a way, his work was the exact opposite – much more theoretic and cerebral, much more held back and restrained– and that was the reason I approached him, to balance me out, to move beyond my initial aesthetic instincts.

It’s always interesting to see someone responding to your work and finding in it meanings and connections you have not realized for yourself. On a personal level it is like psychoanalysis that reveals the deep obsessions and traumas that control you without you realizing. In a way, he made me understand more about myself, the way I was using photography and the way it can be used, and realize I was participating in a broader conversation. I think it was the first time that someone actually saw me as an artist and it was the first time that I started to see in what I was doing a form of art. It was really a liberating experience.

© Yuli Gorodinsky from the series 'Relics'

What do you think about photography in the era of digital and social networking?

YG: I have a lot of thoughts on the subject and sometimes it troubles me a lot. I have a lot of problems with the pace of the modern world. That immediate availability and the uncontrollable visual chatter that dominates the social networks, which became the main medium through information is consumed. I am strongly opposed to this form of communication, and can even feel the negative affect it has on me, because it’s very hard to live in the world and not be exposed to that.

Our brains are being rewired by this inundation of visual stimulation, which sacrifices coherent narrative or any other type of meaningful content for the sake of short term aesthetic gratification.  I have a problem with how photography functions in contemporary media, since the modes of communication are primarily photographic, I am afraid photography has become a numbing, stupefying tool, rather than something that enriches our world and makes it more profound. And of course this is something that affects me as a photographer, as someone who creates images. Often I have to remind myself why is it that I’m doing what I do.

I miss the simplicity of the analogue photography in the everyday use, when it was a tool to make memories, with all the imperfections and the nostalgia that came along with it. On the other hand, digitalization and the internet have opened immense opportunities for photographers. Individuals who wouldn’t have been able to work in this field can nowadays gain impressive knowledge and expertise.

What is required from us as consumers of media and art is not to give in to the endless flood of images and the dizzying speed in which ideas and images emerge and disappear. We should insist on concentrating and focusing our gaze, beyond the fraction of a second which is the shelf-life of today’s image, and demand from ourselves deeper attention to what is happening before our eyes. We need to understand when we are being manipulated, and when we actually encounter real content, with serious thought behind it.

© Yuli Gorodinsky from the series 'Relics'

About your work now, how would you describe your personal research in general? Please refer to your three body of work: 'Leningrad', 'Relics' and 'Outsider'.

YG: My work presents the gaze of an outsider, trying unsuccessfully to look at something of which he has no intimate knowledge. I have always been accompanied by feelings of aloofness and alienation, and I think these are apparent in my photographs. They present a world inhabited by lost characters, wandering in an ephemeral reality. I guess I can identify with this state of being.

I am primarily a documentary photographer, using the camera as a tool to observe and to reveal. For me, photography is a means to achieve intimacy with the subject of my gaze - a way to approach an unknown and strange landscape. It evolved to be a tool and a form of expression at the same time. Through it, I have been able to uncover a perspective that has always been within me. This is the perspective of an immigrant – an eternal outsider. As such, my work is site specific, trying to establish a dialogue with the local landscape.

Over the past three years I have been travelling through the landscapes of Israel, in attempt to familiarize myself with them and to better understand my connection to this land. This photographic research resulted in the relics project. At some point, I started to wonder what my ‘immigrant’s gaze’ would produce when brought back to the origins of my identity, to the places I grew up in. Landscapes that feel distant but at the same time authentic and familiar. I had the opportunity to visit St Petersburg last May for the first time since I left it. It was a surreal and confusing experience and my camera was the only anchor I had. I feel that my time there was too short and that it is only the starting point and first stage in this research. Sort of a first draft. I believe it will continue to evolve as time passes and I will have more opportunities to go there.

'Outsider' is a less of a project, than a collection of B-sides. These are moments when I let my self be enchanted by random beauty and the sudden riddles that the everyday life can surprise you with.

© Yuli Gorodinsky from the series 'Outsider'

Do you have any preferences in terms of camera and format?

YG: Most of my personal work I shoot on film. Film is a medium which creates a delay between the moment the picture is taken and its final materialization, a space in which the original vision still exists, unscathed by reality. That delay, I believe, helps me to focus on seeing instead of taking pictures. I feel that looking constantly at a digital screen takes away the intuitiveness of the process. Film slows things down and makes every frame an economical decision.  Until now I shot almost exclusively on 35mm film, because it was light and quick and cheaper, but lately I’m starting to feel its restrictions and I’m playing around with some medium format cameras. The results are truly amazing, especially with portraits. Of course it slows down the process even more and I feel that it’s the right thing for me right now.

Tell us about your latest project...

YG: My photographs are usually expressions of the subjects that occupy my mind at that time. I don’t tend to plan my next project and usually organize my projects in hindsight. There are subjects and themes that I am exploring and drawn to right now, but I don’t know where they would lead or how will they evolve. Of course, in my opinion the main themes – the main obsessions - are always there, watching over.
As I mentioned, usually the final frame is not my main goal, but rather the chance to deeply engage with things that are hard for me to understand, or with places I would have a hard time being in under normal circumstances.  Lately I have become more interested in the human encounter enabled by the presence of the camera, something I have always been uneasy with. It’s not a simple process, especially in Israel – the people here are more afraid, more hostile and suspicious. This country has hardened them.

Is there any contemporary artist or photographer, even if young and emerging, that influenced you in some way?

YG: I think my choices of photographers that influence me will be pretty obvious. Alec Soth is a big influence. His sleeping by the Mississippi project is truly inspiring – as a success story and as a photography book. I always imagine myself embarking on that kind of project – that sort of commitment and that kind of interactions with people. His works are sensitive and fragile, but perfectly concise. They are intimate and melancholy and they put you in some sort of trance that just gets to me.  

Alexander Gronsky is a great photographer, with that sort of exploration of the in between state of the modern Russian cities and his almost minimalistic aesthetics. Elena Cherneshova is an amazing photographer. Her project days of Night, Nights of Day just blew my mind.
Evgenia Arbugaeva is another Russian photographer that I adore. Nadav Kander of course, especially his 'Yangtze, The Long River' project.
I love Dave Jordano’s portraits of Detroit. Is Henry Wessel a current artist? Every time I look at his works and the way he captures light, I feel divine simplicity unfolding in front of me. He is still one of the masters in my eyes.

But the secret is not to be stuck on photography as the main influence. All arts can make you see differently what was always in front of you or make you want to search for bigger things that felt unreachable before. I find cinema a liberating and meaningful form of art, especially its ability to create magical realism. I think I can name-drop more film directors than photographers.

Three books of photography that you recommend?

YG: I’ll go with the classics. 'The Suffering of Light' by Alex Webb, 'The New Topographics' by Britt Salvesen and 'The Guide' by William Eggleston.

Is there any show you’ve seen recently that you find inspiring?

YG: Recently I’ve seen ARCHIVE by Arkadi Zaides and it really made me look differently at the way that body language can construct reality and vice versa. Arkadi is a choreograph, but in this show he uses his skills in a very surprising and illuminating way. The way he uses familiar symbols and signs and undresses them from their meanings to construct something new, to transform reality into art and to raise important questions about it and about the way that individuals affect collective reality is really eye opening. Although his performance reveals a local reality, Archive raises broader, more universal questions: breaking down and constructing body language and forming it into something new and transcendental.

Archive Festival d'Avignon, 2014 © Christophe Raynaud de Lage

Projects that you are working on now and plans for the future?

YG: I am searching for ways to visit Russia, Ukraine and the Caucasian regions and continue my research of those strange \ familiar places. My wish is to engage in a deeper exploration of my photographic gaze, to challenge my perspective and to understand the connection between my sense of identity and my artistic practice. Right now I’m trying to figure out the logistics of this kind of project. Maybe a residency program would fit well in that direction. I’m very interested in interacting and collaborating with other artists from different backgrounds and to be exposed to different points of view and engage in deep and meaningful discussions. That’s a huge incentive for me as lately I’ve been in need to engage in learning again.

What do you think about Israeli photography? Is it distinct from photography produced in other countries? In what ways?

YG: First of all, the light here is harsh and unforgiving. When I visited Europe I was really taken by the soft light there, I wish I could take it back with me. In a way this light – this angry sun that we have here – affects everything.  If trying to map the main motives that I can see in Israeli photography, those will be questions of identity, grief, belonging and guilt, sometimes all of them together.

Israeli photography deals a lot with the connection between personal and collective memory, and with the feeling of shared responsibility and a burdensome, looming fate.  It’s impossible to do photography here without being political. Photography in Israel tends to be melancholy, tainted with sadness. There is a sense of tragedy that surrounds it all, and ephemerality. Not only because of the charged political atmosphere and the strengthening of right-wing tendencies, but also because of the difficulty to survive here as an artist. Every work of art is eventually also a sort of eulogy, even if it is entirely escapist and focuses on the inner world of the artist.

© Yuli Gorodinsky from the series 'Leningrad'

Finally, do you make a living from photography?

YG: Yes, mainly from editorial work in the fields of portraiture and storytelling. It is very different in its approach from my personal work, but eventually it too can function as an exercise in confronting reality, especially when travelling to remote documentary assignments. Through portrait assignments I get a chance to meet people I otherwise wouldn’t, and surprisingly there is a lot you can learn from a person in one hour. This sort of work really keeps me engaged. Every week there is a challenge to overcome, an assignment to excel in. Not only did it turn out to be a good way to learn and refine my skills constantly, but with time, it also evolved to be a good way to practice humility, as this kind of photoshoots are not only about those skills, but more about your ability to interact with the subject in a meaningful way. That effort to create intimacy in a forced situation can be an intriguing experience.

Yuli Gorodinsky
urbanautica Israel