Candlelight Icons

By Yair Barak

 

Dafna Tal’s photographic series A Lasting Faith (2014-15) portrays figures and landscapes associated with the community and spaces of the Orthodox Church in the Holy Land, today’s Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The series is comprised of a tapestry of portraits of monks and nuns at prayer, photographs of services and rituals, interiors of churches and landscapes. The entire series was photographed at night by candlelight or by moonlight. 

 

The history of Christianity and religion as a whole is inextricably intertwined with the narrative of the history of art. Over time, the images that were used for educational or liturgical religious purposes have contributed to the canon of Western art.

 

Tal photographs her subjects using the approach employed by Christianity to portray itself between medieval times and the Renaissance. Her work draws on the artistic principles formulated by Christianity, so as to produce a type of aesthetics that is both very “religious” and very “art historical” – rooted in the history of Western culture as well as in pictorial principles. In that sense, many of Tal’s photographs are icons designed for the camera.

 

A fundamental debate within photography concerns its origin. In Peter Galassi’s essay, Before Photography, the photography curator and historian explores whether photography is “a bastard left on the doorstep of art, but a legitimate child of the Western pictorial tradition”. Tal’s works place photography deep within the latter: they abide by the rules of Baroque and Renaissance art (Tal produces with photography what in Da Vinci and Caravaggio’s paintings is known as “chiaroscuro”), are scrupulously composed, and approach spatial aspects in the tradition of classical paintings constructed from registers. In one wonderful moment in the series, an archbishop is seen illuminating a large-scale mural with a candle. This image quickly becomes a metaphor for the modern medium – which sheds its light on the old, traditional means of representation.

 

Tal's photography is meticulous. Sharp and precise as a well-honed knife, it is rich in detail and extraordinarily tactile. Imbued with these qualities the images are experienced as even stronger than reality. The phenomenon, known as Hyperrealism in the tradition of painting, assumes a different meaning when it comes to photographs. Photography, by its very nature replicates reality (regardless of how controversial this statement may be) and therefore, what is the meaning of a hyper-realistic photograph? In the case of Tal's work, it is her ability to evoke a mystical quality. Tal's photographs are comprised of sublime architectural, religious, and spiritual elements.

 

Her photographs are situated in an unusual niche of documentary photography. On the one hand, these are distinctly documentary photographs – the photographer does not intervene in the events and maintains distance from her subjects. On the other hand, their appearance suggests what we tend to view as belonging to studio photography. The theatrical lighting, the pictorial compositions and technical perfection elicit an immediate association with staged photographs. This is related to the artist’s choice to focus on “slow scenes,” or "continuous moments" where the subject is engaged in a repetitive act, which creates the impression of stillness.

 

This dual-association becomes one of the primary characteristics of the series and the source of its power.  It is the photography of the old and traditional created with the tools of the contemporary and the innovative. At times it is almost a struggle between the spiritual and the technological.

 

In the early 20th century, a singular and odd genre of theater emerged, in which actors staged a multi-participant scene against a backdrop, and then suddenly stood motionless, creating a frozen "picture". This genre is called “tableau vivant.” Tal's series is like a photographic version of these performances.

 

The work is most unusual in the context of Israeli photography. Local photography, whose identity as a distinct medium crystalized in the 1970s, is characterized by its understated, lean, critical, cynical, and to a large extent melancholy language. Israeli photography tends to make a clear distinction between artistic and documentary genres. Tal's photography is rich and spectacular, neither critical nor political in the accepted sense of the term. In fact, Tal's photography is fueled by wonder and awe and a constant desire for beauty. This photographic perception, which deeply conceives of a distinct aesthetic and is skillfully executed with astonishing results, is almost forbidden in Israeli art, and this is what grants it its prominence and distinction. 

 

Tal produces heterotopic spaces, in which even the concepts of time do not apply. The work, created in the complex 21st century, in areas of conflict and political intricacies, does not expose its position along the historical timeline. In fact, apart from the gap resulting from the digital technology, we might say that these photographs could have been taken in the mid-19th century. Furthermore, Tal’s landscapes form a dialogue with the painting style associated with late 18th century Romanticism, particularly Caspar David Friedrich’s exploration of the relationship between humans and nature. This perspective produces work of timeless and universal qualities that is also imbued with relevance and validity.

 

 

© 2019 by Dafna Tal. All Rights Reserved.