Anna Yam: Photography’s "Law of the House”

Roni Cohen-Binyamini

To Hebrew Version

 

Anna Yam’s first trip back “there” was between the first and second year of her studies at the Midrasha School of Art at Beit Berl College. Only then did she feel that she was sufficiently “here” to revisit Russia – and particularly Yekaterinburg, the city where she was born and raised. The rediscovery of that place, the reconnection with its landscapes and with family members who had remained there, and the abruptly truncated memories, shook her like “phantom pains” of an amputated limb that continues to exist in another realm. It is there that Yam’s elusive, enigmatic yet highly distinctive language of photography was first formulated. This photographic journey, her first, was a formative one, expressing an essential approach to her artistic practice: photography done on impulse, for a fixed and intense period of time, detached from the flow of day-to-day life, yet anchored in another timeline; one that is forged from a conscious, contemplative position of maintaining distance, yet remaining wholly and continually devoted to a parallel biographical sphere – be it real or abstract.

Yam’s photography is seemingly simple. She usually uses a 35-mm analog camera, of the sort associated with amateur, home-based photography. Her photography is done on a human scale (a far cry from the monumental, meticulously printed formats that typify contemporary photography), yet is seemingly impenetrable, almost hermetic and distant. It is a photography that emerges within a narrow, private and distinctive wavelength – between the painstaking, severe, strictly planned and timed, and the unexpected, uncontrolled, fumbled, humorous or plain botched. A photography that lies in the intermediate zones between, on the one hand, the identified, familiar, intimate, and personal, and, on the other, the foreign, alienated, rootless, and occasionally bizarre. Yam’s artistic practice has yet another essential element: analog photography imposes a certain delay and distance from the photographic moment, and a process of sorting, categorization, and selection. Yam accentuates this feature even further, by spotting, sorting, organizing, and extracting a mere handful from the hundreds of images taken, only after returning from her photographic journeys. She searches for the precise, successful “wavelength” that manages to capture, for an instant, the elusive, fleeting, and intangible. In this respect, her photography is largely “anti-iconic,” in that it does not provide instant images that are easily fixed in one’s consciousness, but subtly subverts the image’s outline, the clearly-defined and unequivocal. It is a photography that captures, through the medium itself, the fluid elusiveness of place, memory, belonging, and identity.

Yam has been systematically searching for this particular wavelength since the start of her career as a photographer, in family albums as well. Ever since her childhood, she has been captivated by family albums that her grandmother, an amateur photographer, photographed and printed, and her grandfather edited and designed. As a child, she says, she would constantly pore over these albums, memorizing every picture and sequence of pages. During her photography studies, Yam expanded her interest in the family photographic mode and began collecting photographs from the albums of her own family and of others, and even used them in various studies-related assignments. Through the same method of sorting and selecting that she uses when choosing from her own photographs, Yam hunts down and extracts from family albums the images that are in tune with her inner wavelength. She searches for “those she might have taken herself” – or alternatively, those that correspond to her own photographic language.

In her exhibitions, Yam regularly brings together images that she has gathered from family albums – which she scans, retouches, and prints – and in her hands, they become part of her own body of work. However, unlike artists or photographers whose artistic and conceptual focus is on the process of appropriation and use of readymade images, Yam does not draw a hierarchical distinction between the images she has appropriated and those which she herself has photographed; they all are part of the same process that imbues her work, to the point where it is impossible to distinguish between them. In her current exhibition at the Ashdod Art Museum, she brings her practice of collecting, appropriating, and unique application of photographs from family albums to new heights.

Anna Yam was born Anna Victorovna Yamshikova in Yekaterinburg (then Sverdlovsk), the “capital” of the Ural Mountains, in 1980 – into the final and faltering decade of the Soviet Union. In January 1992, at the age of twelve, she immigrated with her family to Israel as part of the large wave of immigration from the former USSR. At first, the family lived with relatives in Haifa, and then in the nearby town of Yokneam Illit. About a year after their arrival in Israel, her parents shortened the family name to Yam. From then on, her life story followed a fairly conventional Israeli trajectory: WIZO High School in Haifa; conscripted military service; B.A. studies at the Midrasha School of Art; graduate studies at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem. Today she is a prominent and highly-regarded photographer in the local art field, and lives in Tel Aviv with her family.

Yam’s most recent photographic journey was of a different kind – a direct and ongoing voyage of biographical, cultural and artistic maturing into the very heart of her biographical watershed – into the chasm of the migratory years of that large and pivotal wave of immigration. This journey of personal and collective identity has resulted in a broad and fascinating body of work that forms the basis of her exhibition at the Ashdod Art Museum and its accompanying book. In research-like fashion, Yam has methodically constructed a kind of “archive” – a wide-ranging “bank of images” drawn entirely from the albums of families from the former Soviet Union who immigrated to Israel in the 1990s. In this process – which lasted three years and involved a complex operation of searching and collecting – she contacted immigrant families, met with them (usually at their homes), and asked to look at their family albums that had been compiled in Israel in the first years after their arrival. Using her usual process of inspection, sorting, and selecting, she spotted pictures within them that were in keeping with her inner wavelength. This collection, which initially was supposed to serve only as raw material, now comprises over a thousand images, of which approximately sixty images were carefully selected for the exhibition, and about two hundred for the accompanying book.

 

 

Family photography has been the most popular and prevalent form of photography in the Western world since the nineteenth century – and even more so since the invention and distribution of the simple and cheap pocket cameras in the 1960s. This phenomenon, known as the “Kodak culture,” generated over a billion private photographs worldwide every year, and its direct descendant today is the wide-scale dissemination of private photographs throughout the web. As photography and visual culture researcher Mette Sandbye has pointed out, interest in this photographic genre has grown in recent years (especially within analog snapshots), but, she argues, research of this category is still lacking. This interest is evident in the proliferation of exhibitions and books on the subject, in the extensive collections of analog/amateur photography among collectors and contemporary museums, in the development of academic research on the genre, and in the increasing use of this field by contemporary artists as a kind of “contemporary archeology.” This is also the case of Anna Yam who, with this project, largely marks the death throes of the analog family album. As Sandbye explains, this is due to the rapid development of digital technology and online culture, the consequent transformation of this type of photography in recent years, and the resulting widespread dissemination of amateur photography, as well as the forced parting from the old analog world.

According to Sandbye, family album photographs are very diverse and distinctive: they are personal, individual and particular, yet also adhere to certain rituals and conventions of representation. For this reason, they may be seen as “performative objects” that convey personal, social, as well as cultural communication. As such, they have certain emotional, psychological, sociological, ceremonial, and ideological qualities – and these, in turn, coupled with its widespread presence, make family photography a dynamic entity that embodies certain sociological and cultural aspects of daily life that are often absent from other historical sources, nor indeed necessarily correspond to familiar historical narratives. 

In the Israeli context, it is important to note the photographic approach formulated by Igael Shemtov, and in particular his groundbreaking body of works The Photo Album, produced from 1979 to 1980, which was greatly inspired by the aesthetics of family photography. At the time, he was working at Kodak’s central photography lab in Israel, researching the nature of this photographic form and turning it into a genre with a clear methodology and distinctive aesthetic. He created a language of photography that is seemingly amateur and casual, with a simple composition and focus on an isolated object, devoid of technical refinement and featuring prominent use of flash or blurring, with all the subjects – figures, still life, home, urban landscape etc. – receiving the same treatment. In contrast to the uniformity of monumental and heroic Israeli imagery that had hitherto prevailed in local photography, Shemtov used this photographic approach to present the margins of Israeli life, in all its hues and identities, and its mundane, minor, personal and intimate moments.

In similar fashion, Sandbye likens family photography to a social device that offers a broad and unusual cultural viewpoint – a means of expression charged with a dual meaning, that constantly swings between ideology and emotion, the general and the particular, the global and the local. Accordingly, she suggests, the family album might be thought of as a local “archive” situated between global forms.

Anna Yam’s work – which comprises research, meetings with immigrants, and gathering and selecting photographs – appears to create an archive of the sort that Sandbye refers to: the ultimate family album of the great wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union, and the localism that it portrays (once the necessary conditions emerge to enable a retrospective view of it as part of the Israeli identity). At first blush, this may be interpreted as an ethnographic attempt to fashion an “identity card” out of the first moments of immigration to Israel – a kind of “collective autobiography” that places Yam’s personal journey within the odyssey of an entire generation. However, closer inspection of her project reveals, once again, a twofold intention: while the method behind the archive is an intrinsic and essential part of her work, by appropriating images Yam repeatedly undercuts the possibility of creating such an archive, and even parodies it. Unlike other photographers, who use appropriation to subvert the clear and self-evident syntax of the photographic image or its validity as a testament or evidence, or to expose the power play and ethical issues underlying the photographic medium, Yam’s act of appropriation reflects a different mechanism: she detaches the images from their original context, places them in a new context, and treats them as if they were her own photographs, while seeking to highlight the emotional and artistic inspiration of her photographic endeavor. Through the dual sensibility and performative nature of the family photograph, Yam seeks to distill the intangible intermediate zone where the fluid elusiveness of her photography is formulated.

Yam makes profound and ingenious use of the archival practice. In this project, she reveals the archival aspect of the internal mechanism of her work, and brings it to the fore. She uses it, responds to it, opposes it, and repeatedly picks it apart. Archives, says Yael Katz Ben Shalom, are the "product of an obsessive activity reflective of growing devotion, as well as a form of powerful resistance." In her view, it is a frenetic search motivated, as Jacques Derrida puts it, by “a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement.” The archive has the force of a law – what Derrida calls the “law of the house” (oikos), which derives its power from acts of consignation to a place and signification, and affects the user both as one acting and as one acted upon. In Derrida’s terms, Yam’s search is therefore driven by the same desire to return to the Archimedean point where her identity was forged. Her archival “law of the house” is the inner wavelength that dictates its creation and serves as its home.

 

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The archival aspect – which, as previously noted, involves gathering and accumulation – in turn requires classification and cataloging into core subjects. This process allows Yam to subtly, gently, and carefully sketch out what she calls “identity theater.” In this captivating theater, the rituals, conventions, and representational modes of the immigrants in the family photographs that she has collected serve as a kind of “first-hand reporting” of the first years of immigration in Israel, while simultaneously embodying the myths, fantasies, hopes, and dreams that they encapsulate. For various reasons, most of the photographs offer utopian, optimistic, magical visions, with nary a whisper of the difficulties of assimilation, the day-to-day challenges, or failures. This is perhaps because the immigrants were unaccustomed to the ready availability of pocket cameras and color photography, and were keen to “celebrate the medium”; or perhaps because these photographs served as postcards or initial impressions, to seduce or reassure the relatives who had remained “over there”; or possibly because, by their very nature, family albums (which, superficially, serve as social documents), paper over traumas, difficulties, scandals, and complexities of relationships; or because these were the first years in Israel, prior to the subsequent stages of assimilation and disillusionment.

Many of the photographs Yam has collected are grouped into distinct categories or photographic series. In many of them, the proud subjects are depicted against the backdrop of Israeli surroundings, with an attitude ranging from an initial fascination with the many manifestations of Western lifestyle to marveling at the Levantine landscapes. Many reflect the joy of shopping, the cornucopia of consumer goods and supermarket stalls and shelves laden with fine merchandise, along with shopping carts or a car trunk filled with shopping. The snapshots of family members next to private cars or in them reveal the newcomers’ passion for progress, for Western-style status symbols, for the ability to accumulate property. Signs of modernity and progress are also included in the pictures of individuals in various urban settings (a bus stop, billboards, ATMs), or in examples of contemporary architecture, symbols of modern urbanism (such as the Haifa University tower, or the mirror-like cladding of the Shekem building in Haifa). In addition to this, there are the many displays of architectural renewal – or what Yam calls “real estate photographs”: high-rise housing projects, with or without family members, including a few pictures documenting neighborhoods and residential buildings under construction, in the wake of the government’s new Direct Absorption Policy.

Contrasting these are the images of the “enchanting Orient” in scenic photographs from various parts of the country – most prominently and typically those taken during outings: in the desert, in the mountains, in wadis and caves; against a backdrop of fields or at the roadside; at the beach or with the sea in the background; on the snowy Mount Hermon; or at picnics (possibly attesting to the new immigrants’ vacationing habits). In many of the snapshots the subjects set out to actually touch the scenery and become part of it: they are shown deep down a trail; behind rocks, in nooks and crannies; sprawled on the ground; immersed in lush greenery, in a field, touching the soil, the foliage, or the fruit with their hands – as though trying to grab hold of the landscape or take root in it. Of particular note among this group are pictures taken at “heritage sites,” next to statues or monuments (such as memorials for fallen soldiers), where the foreignness of those in the pictures is most apparent – as though they were trying to eliminate their distance from local history and fully belong to the ethos of the new culture. The group of pictures that Anna Yam fondly refers to as “the Floras” are also part of this group: women of various ages (and a few men), exuberant and usually smiling, smartly dressed and groomed, clinging to the colorful blossoms of the local flora, and even immersing themselves in them in a kind of elegant peacock display.

These landscape photographs are somewhat reminiscent of the depictions of the Orient that characterized pre-independence Israeli painting in the early twentieth century, or the encounter of the first Zionist immigrants with the country’s landscapes. In those artists’ attempt to forge a bond with the country, the landscape is portrayed romantically, enveloped in the charm of the Orientalist view of the East, often also emphasizing signs of urban modernity (especially in the early depictions of the new town of Tel Aviv). In Yam’s “archive,” the landscape photographs represent a similar “Return-to-the-Homeland” ethos that imbued the Zionist narrative about the immigration of Jews to Palestine as a return to the land of the Patriarchs. This ethos, according to Tamar Rapoport and Edna Lomsky-Feder, is the cultural raw material the immigrants used to construct their new home, establish their identity, and settle in Israeli society – as evident from Evgeny Eidenzon’s pathos-filled comments at the start of his letter to his family in this book (p. @@), “Hello from Israel! It’s already a week that I’m in our historic homeland.” The great wave of immigrants from the former Soviet Union to Israel in the 1990s is part of this movement of return, but unlike its predecessors, is marked by what Lomsky-Feder and Rapoport call a critical affiliation. While these new immigrants had a fervent desire to belong, in keeping with the preservation and repetition of the traditional ethos, this did not prevent them from developing, over time, manifestations of resistance, criticism, and a quest for unique ways of belonging.

Another set of landscape photographs reveals a forlorn, almost romantic gaze at the local landscape through the home window. These are some of the photos that feature no human being, and yet the window frame or the walls of the building – which sometimes appear carelessly at the edge of the photograph – suggest the presence of the photographer who wishes to capture the new place while remaining protected inside the home. The domestic warmth is very evident in the images of the home interiors, with their crowded and clearly foreign aesthetic: massive furniture in various hues of brown, vestiges of past splendor left behind; carpets on the floor and tapestries; heavy drapes; vases of flowers (often prominently depicted, sometimes on their own); and a pervasive presence of bookcases of all kinds. It is a warm, womb-like aesthetic that wraps one in a kind of display of cultural heritage – in marked contrast to the glaring Israeli light in the sun-bleached landscape outside, the unadorned, “humble” aesthetics of the Israeli environment (such as the terrazzo tiles and plastic shutters) that are glimpsed beyond the heavy furniture. Within this domestic warmth, couples, children, or all generations of the family often appear, crowded together and close-knit.

 

 

Anna Yam crafts all the above-mentioned categories with careful precision that occasionally veers perilously close into stereotypical minefields, while systematically taking care to undermine them, as well. Between these seemingly immutable categories, cracks continually appear – in the form of photographs that are poorly timed, indecipherable, unrelated or enigmatic, which Yam deliberately picks out and inserts within the categories: a snowy landscape, that doesn’t seem to be in Israel even though it is, in a defective snapshot; an anonymous hand holding out a thistle from behind a grilled opening; a young man standing in a hole dug in a shower room; a young man with a shirt-matching napkin on his face; a teenaged girl with a blurry portrait of someone appearing on her knee due to some photographic mishap; people dazzled by the blinding sunlight against the backdrop of a white wall that reveals the photographer’s shadow; and so forth. These cryptic images are often marred by major photographic defects, such as a glaring ray of light, blurriness or shakiness, overexposed margins, or a hand blocking the lens. 

Many of the photographs selected by Yam explicitly indicate or allude to the photographic action itself – e.g., by showing the camera, or the photographer in reflection or in silhouette; whole sets of photographs that are identical in every respect except for one person (who presumably swapped places with the photographer); or pictures prominently featuring mirrors and reflections. All these fly in the face of a clearly defined and distinct image, or defy the possibility of a clearly represented narrative. In this way, Yam casts into doubt our ability to formulate a retrospective view of this immigration, subverts the power of the archive, and highlights, once again, the sphere where her work takes place – where photography transpires and categories dissipate. While the book accompanying the exhibition underscores the archival and narrative aspect of Yam’s endeavor, the exhibition also incorporates her own works, and distills her unique photographic language.

The title of the exhibition – Olympus – echoes both the dual nature of Yam’s biographical and photographic enterprise, and an ambivalent perception of the Israeli environment and of the “immigration” ethos embodied in her work. Olympus – the tallest and most famous of Greek mountains, and the dwelling place of the gods in Greek mythology – bears certain mythical, utopian and metaphysical meanings. Analogous to the Israeli notion of place, Olympus is at once a real place and a symbolic entity, a metaphysical destination for both ascent and immigration (in Hebrew, aliyah means both), at times mysterious, inducing hope and a longing for self-fulfillment. As the author and literary critic Maya Kaganskaya puts it, “There are two countries in Israel: the actual one, which is an ordinary country, a society with the usual problems as well as its own extraordinary problems ... and there’s the metaphysical Israel, Israel as an idea ... a Jewish attempt to return to history ... Israel as a challenge, as a fantasy, as a dream.” 

The poet and anthropologist Zali Gurevitch, too, maintains that the experience of Israel – since the ancient mythical view of the biblical Holy Land to the present day – has always been an ambivalent, dialectical, and paradoxical one, oscillating between the poles of place and non-place; between a utopian aspiration, yearning, wistfulness, and veneration (the Promised Land), and reluctance and misgivings about actually settling there (which inevitably entails a certain disillusionment). These two forces create the constant tension within the idea of “place” that drives the discourse around Israeli identity.

Thus, Olympus (which is also the name of one of the largest manufacturer of family cameras and photography accessories) is an allusion to Yam’s dual move, linking it to the discourse surrounding Israeli identity and profoundly epitomizing the ambivalent viewpoint of an immigrant who is at once observer and observed, present and absent, capturing and failing to spot. It is a viewpoint that swings, in a measured dialectic, between a close and empathetic (sometimes fawning) viewpoint and an ironic, wry, occasionally humorous gaze – a gaze that is rooted in a conceptual preoccupation with questions of place, identity, and migration, and is also linked to fundamental questions about the unique role of the photographic medium. But beyond all this, with this project Anna Yam appears to lay bare her own inner workings and decode the genetic makeup of her work.