We were a bit apprehensive when we decided to feature the work of Alexander Mendelevich, not because his images put us off or they were not sound technically. We loved the conceptualization of certain ideas and the whole melodrama portrayed through his staged photography. The peril with this type of work lies in being misunderstood and the intention of the artist can easily be questioned in an inappropriate manner. It is the bold attempt of the visual artist, i.e. the photographer to look for emotions and feelings of all kinds that are frozen in a frame. There’s trauma, unhappiness, ennui, tenderness, superficiality, and burden of being, to name a few. Alexander has been shooting this way for quite some time and a slow but steady evolution can be seen in his work, however, a bit of deviation would benefit it. Some of the photos of this post are very fresh and have not been published elsewhere. In this very detailed interview below, Alexander tells us a lot about his creative impulses and offers an insight into his work:
Originally, I’m from a small town in the North Caucasus of Russia. A tourists-town known for its mineral water and huge street markets. A city that had terrorist attacks, but where nature is very beautiful and the sites are fascinating.
At the age of twenty I decided to move to Israel. Obviously, the camera came with me. But the type of photos I’d shoot back then were very different from today. I took many nice photos whose only essence was formative aesthetics, and maybe a little surreal. Another pretty picture and the next ones… I had a feeling that I was going over the same mistake and every time. I felt that I was missing some important element.
The change of view on photography came during my studies in the Academy of Art and Design, Bezalel in Jerusalem. I was in the photography department, the place where I spent four unforgettable years. In my opinion, the important thing you learn in academia is the awareness of what you’re doing. It’s also an attempt to understand the essence of photography, because you get intensely exposed to different disciplines. For example, one of the exercises we did was on “bad photography”, where you had to explain what could be a bad photo, and then shoot it.
One of the interesting things I learned in the academy is the understanding that, with time, photography evolves, or more precisely the view towards photography as a media changes, as well as its value. And this is a lot to think about.
How did you get interested in photography and how often do you shoot?
I started photographing at about the age of fourteen. I just loved the camera that I saw at shop window and asked for it as a gift. From then onwards, my romance with photography was pretty classical. The magic of black-and-white photos, the dark room, the smell– it was all fascinating.
But the deeper understanding of the power and magic of photography only came later. You could say that for first ten years I’d been shooting with a camera, and for last ten years I’ve been shooting with my mind. I think that every time I take a photo, I treat it seriously. And every so often I re-evaluate things I took and then something seems childish to me, something’s not complete or was only the beginning of an idea that got realized later on. It’s like climbing up the stairs. Every step is a chapter in life and in the creation of art. You go up a step with experience, and go into the depth of things in the step of creation.
I still can’t give photography all of my time. I shoot when I have time off of work, the frequency changes. I can shoot a whole series of fifteen pictures in two days, given there are only one or two models to work with, or do it over the span of a few months if every photo is with a different person and I have to go to different places and set time with each of them separately. I dream of days when I can do photography every day, with my own studio, when I will have the time and means to fulfill everything I have in my head.
Maybe it’s kind of a way to cope with the world. An attempt to create a dialogue with it, to organize and explain the world, because everything feels unsteady, transient, chaotic and many times it’s unbecoming, like a big storm. So it’s a possibility to create a world according to my feelings. And what do we have? Just a rectangle in which we keep re-assembling the world. It’s a fantastic tool, because we assume it’s a tool for documenting the world, to fix the reality, that’s in front of the camera. And the paradox is that what’s being documented is what’s behind the camera. Photography has a stunning feature to combine documentary and trickery.
Generally, every person documents their own galaxy, because we choose what will go into the frame and how, and this frame actually represents the world with some dose of information that the photographer is responsible for. Photography has the power not just to create a figure of reality, but to reproduce and recreate it. I noticed I have a tendency to take moments I’ve seen to different directions, fill them with my imagination with content and different developments, and replay the situation over and over again.
A quick look into your projects suggest that you are a very thoughtful and introspective individual. Do you get in fun mode while shooting or stay serious and focused? Do you intend to offend or disturb viewers of your images with deep psychological effects your photography casts?
There are no rules here, but usually, in the beginning of a photoshoot, we’re all giggling, because the whole situation seems unusual. Besides, the people I have in my photos don’t come from the field of modeling or acting. So laughing a little helps them to relax and go into the required mood. Down the road, the discomfort with the camera changes to fatigue, because they remain in uncomfortable poses that require physical efforts. I have no intention to humiliate anyone, but to offer an experience of unique emotion, to touch some kind of truth through regular, everyday things, and in order to get to this emotion in photography you have to break convention and distort the picture.
The main area I work in is people’s portraits, through them I connect different aspects and give interpretation to the environment. I think that most people who start photographing record their environment in happy and festive moments, and maybe shoot a little of nature, and then proceed to document close friends and relatives, posing them for the camera and click. Then comes the romance of pictures from magazines and posters, or at least that’s how it went for me.
At some point I succeeded to look at it from the side, to distinguish the effects on how I take pictures. It’s a great stage, when you understand you can shoot the same things, but differently, without trying to copy someone, and still use the knowledge and photo resources the world had, and then just shoot how you feel. Today, in the Internet era, we get exposed to a lot of visual information and the whole process of the development of the photographer is cut short.
In my photography, I try to find a new representation of the portrait, which will be more accurate and fitting for the time because photography keeps changing. What used to turn people on and be a subject of debate yesterday no longer speaks to people today because they get habituated and photography constantly crosses a new pain threshold, because the world changed.
I try to do everything that needs to be done during a photoshoot. I don’t mind manipulations. And photography is a type of manipulation from the very beginning. A black and white picture of a colorful world. We move things around, choose what will get into the frame etc. Today photography also has another layer of manipulation – politics and economics. So photography is always manipulation. I usually do some color-repairs and clean up a bit, and I have a few photos which I got into more than color tinting.
All of my equipment fits into two bags, one for tripods and the second one with a Canon 5D Mark II camera, two Canon 580 EX flashes and a ST-E2 Transmitter for wireless flash control.
All your photos are visual narratives pointing towards our dysfunctional state, ennui, disconnect, and loss of emotions. A bit of distortion of characters on your images fill the viewer with unease. How do come up with an idea and how do you get the best from your subjects?
Every photo is a type of communication with the world, in which viewers create dialogue and meaning. This parallel-photo-reality has rules of its own, after all – with the narrow tools of the frame, which has to include the whole experience of a full life, the only document that can enclose the realistic feeling of this reality is emotion, a pain that comes to being through conflict. So to get an equal level of sensational experience as we get through all of our senses in reality, I use physical distortion to create absurd situations, a radicalization of small and ordinary things, and make strange combinations of objects. And then something interesting happens, with all the strangeness of the picture, it feels familiar and real, more natural and alive. And the absurd of the photo creates a dialog with the absurdity of the world. It’s like understanding what’s beautiful only after viewing what’s ugly.
I ask my models to go into a mental state, to try and feel certain emotions, to imagine a situation. To find the right proportions, I ask them to exaggerate their facial expressions and not to worry about looking ridiculous. Think of a state where all that matters is what you’re feeling and let go of the thought whether it looks good or not, to forget about photogeneity and to connect to what’s interesting and exciting. So I’m looking for the right balance until I feel it fits the image I have in my mind.
It can be called as satire if it means some sensual aspect, but my work isn’t intended to be judgemental, it’s not looking to be right or wrong. Although it’s stages, I see it as a documentation of the universal whole-humane emotion. Everything that’s around, in the background, the objects and any piece of data about time or place – they’re just there and they can have some kind of meaning or symbolize something, but to me they’re nothing more than historical, social or cultural data, it’s all temporal. I use it because it’s part of life, it surrounds us, we’re in touch with it whether we want it or not. But this isn’t what my work is about. I try to show something that unites all of us as humans, something that remains through time. So I allow myself to play with objects and symbols or neutralize or cancel them, or make strange combinations. Anything to get to the universal truth, the pain that’s shared by everyone, the humane.
I find it difficult to single out a single photo. Largely, everything I show passes a filter, and for every day of photoshoot I prepare, write down a sketch, and then there is a two-hour process of photoshoot, during which the photo is slowly getting constructed. But there is one photo which was exceptional, during the shoot – the girl in the photo fainted, and I barely caught her while she fell, to lay her down on the floor. We took a break and went on later, when she felt better.
Contemporary photography is so diverse, it is difficult to treat it as a single unit. There are photographers who have technical excellence that I admire, and there are those who have brilliant concepts, some may have beautiful lights or colors, or an interesting social element, or they research phenomena, or have lots of humor. What’s more rare, and which I appreciate, is that photographers who succeed in putting all of these elements into a single piece with the right proportion. It’s true that photography is becoming more available to the masses and there are technological tools to create skilful work, but those are still technical tools for writing data, because the tools always follow the mind of the photographer.
My photography, as absurd as it may seem, is based on everyday work we do as human beings. I tend to intensify the moments we don’t give much attention to, responses and behaviors that characterize us as people. I can take a scene of brushing teeth and make it into a drama, or compress into a scene of dishwashing other layers that will tell an emotion-packed story. For me, every photo is another documentation of our world, another detail in the mosaic of the human comedy and drama. With every photo I’m re-amazed about the world – the fact we exist as humans, that we have nature, that we move our lips and words come out, that we wear cloths and diverse, we see dreams, love someone, cry, that there are so many old and new objects which you can touch and smell, that there are conflicts and love and moods. And many other things which can be used as topics for photos.
I participated in Japan Media Arts Festival, where I got the Excellence Prize. I went to the prize and diplomas ceremony as well. I presented by Stella art foundation gallery as part of the festival for young art in Moscow. It was interesting to take part in the Festival of staged photography and be presented there by Aktives Museum Spiegelgasse fur Deutsch-Judische Geschichte in Wiesbaden.
I also received a few scholarships and awards, including the Scholarship by The America-Israel Cultural Foundation, and the Prize of Lorin and Mitchell Presser for excellence in photography. My photos were also published a number of times in Burn Magazine, curated by Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey, where I was the finalist of Emerging Photographer Fund.
My plan in the realm of creation is to keep on shooting, to fulfil all the projects and series I keep sketching. I would love to be presented by a gallery. It will be great if I succeed to subsist and invest more time and budget into making art.
My basic motive is that I just can’t not-do this, it’s an internal requirement, if I don’t shoot for a while I start thinking on how to do it and write it in my sketch book. My inspiration sources are varied and diverse, they’re everywhere. Every movement around me can become an idea. For example, I see someone drink coffee and his cup is almost empty, dirty from leftover coffee, so in my photo, to intensify that feeling, I’ll put three cups and start filling up the story – I will imagine this man had a night without sleep and he’s going to have a busy day. Then I’ll add a crumpled up newspaper or maybe that he doesn’t have anywhere to do, so I can add a torn shoe. In photography, anything can be a clue to the past, to the future, to what’s happening right now and why. This is why I do staged photography, so I can be precise on the individual level and construct a photographic document. What also broadens your vision, puts you into different moods and lets you experience these emotions, shares whole worlds with you – it’s literature, music and cinema. I noticed that, with time, anything can have drama and human amazement.
First of all, what I always tell myself is be honest with yourself. You should be the first to critique your photos. What’s important here is to try to understand what is it that you’re trying to show and what’s your photo is about, and give some kind of title to the photo, or photo series, and then it will be clear what goes into the frame, which items you will need and in what atmosphere. I feel that photography has long been more than just to catch the moment, and requires intensive intervention from the photographer. For example, my photos don’t try to capture a moment but to construct the moment based on emotions, experiences and my view. I want to believe that the art of photography and what stimulates the photographer is not the pragmatic reasoning and not the pursuit for industrial making of clichés, but the reconstruction of meaning, to get to the depth of the humane.