A car is parked in an empty street, right in front of the camera; a woman sits in the car in front of the camera; a man and a woman stand beside the car in front of the camera; a family, and a car, in a parking lot, in a group photo – all in front of the camera. This unique collection of photographs, gathered from the albums of various families, depicts a small ceremony: here is something worth pausing for.
Documenting the family car appears to have been a common practice among immigrants who left the former Soviet Union in the 1990s and started a new life in Israel. Immigrants are seen leaning against their first car bought in Israel – for many, their first private vehicle ever. They rest their hand on the car’s roof, celebrating their ownership.
These are not gestures such as kissing the ground of the Holy Land right off the airplane, or waving the flag, or receiving flowers from a waiting family member. Rather, these are ordinary, everyday ceremonies – a documentation of the moments after.
Anna Yam’s earlier exhibitions featured photos – both original and borrowed – of various times and countries: portraits, landscapes, interiors, family photos, and photos of random passersby. In light of those, the current collection seems more like the product of a social research study: the photos all feature a recurring theme (a private car); all portray people with a common story (immigrants from the former Soviet Union); names and addresses are diligently collected; questions are asked, details noted; information is thoroughly sought after, and scrutinized. Albums are pulled off shelves, reviewed and scanned. Yam’s sensitive eye and acting hand – creating connections between strangers, as if constructing a coherent sentence from a random collection of words – are here to distinguish and unravel.
Yet this collection of photos cannot be reduced to a mere sociological document. The mark of the medium of photography is omnipresent: a rogue sunspot; a flash of light that penetrates the lens and overexposes the jeans worn by the owner of a white Nissan Sunny; a green shirt worn by the driver of a Mitsubishi Lancer, reflected in the windshield and hood; the rear-view mirror of a red car peeks out of a warped frame in a photo whose main subject is another car – a beige Ford Cortina – its owner sticking his head out of the driver’s window. The same car appears in a second photo, framed at its sides by two green bushes. Children are seated in front, smiling. The owner, wearing a beige shirt to match his car and leaning against the roof, stands beside it with a serious expression. He barely fits in the busy frame. Three family members, all wearing colorful coats, lean against a red Daewoo Racer, whose strong color disrupts the visual balance, tinting the passengers’ faces a sandy yellow, in sharp contrast to the white new condominiums at the background.
These all work to undermine the comparing eye, whose scientific gaze seeks to reduce variables, calculate averages, and draw conclusions. Each photo is unique, every case is specific. Defying one’s intuitive impulse to form and tell a coherent story, the photographs exhibited here are not merely a collection of data that constitutes a sociological document.
The story of immigration should be one of movement and transformation – of a there to here. The car – ostensibly the very emblem of movement – fails in its attempt to be the definitive metaphor for the journey, for immigration, for movement in general.
Instead of portraying movement, the photos depict an uneasy standstill. Each photo is frozen twice: once due to the camera’s operation, and again in its honor. The first freeze is a commemoration on film (and then in an album) of a moment in the past. This is true in every aspect – the car models, the clothes, the hairdos. The second freeze is the posing of the subjects for the camera’s sake: the cars are immobile or parked, their doors open. Their owners are not driving, but sitting inside them, standing beside them, or leaning against them. The poses are all assumed for the benefit of the camera’s eye.
Although movement is absent, the photos are full of a different kind of energy – an energy that Yam recognized and which prompted her to extract them from dusty old albums, and present them to us for careful contemplation. In a wonderful shot of a young, curly-headed woman in a gray sedan, one can plainly see how energy in the form of light and heat replaces the absent kinetic energy. The woman blinks to protect her eyes from the sunlight penetrating through the open window. A sharp, distinct shade crosses her right eye. The sunlight overexposes her face, blending it with the light-pink color of her blouse. And behold – the woman, blinded by the fierce sun of her new country, becomes an illuminated spot in the photo, which in turn blinds us as it bounces off the gray car that occupies most of the frame. The roof offers another bright reflection – of one of the buildings nearby. One can easily sense the heat beating down on one’s face and heating up the tin roof.
These transitions of light and heat – from the sun to the car’s metal, from the metal to the body, from the body to the camera, and from the camera to us – are instantly recognizable in every photo in the collection. Each photo is an arrangement of textures, temperature, and light levels. It is apparent that Yam is only adding a single link to an existing chain of energy transitions. Like the man who looks directly at the camera and places his hand on the roof of his first car, she pauses the continual leafing through the photo album, and deliberately places her hand on a photo. From the photo’s artificial stillness, the viewer experiences the bittersweet fact that time is in constant flux.