Catch and Release

The Photographic Lens of Avi Roth

A white doe on the green grass appeared to me, with two golden horns, between two
rivers, in the shade of a laurel, when the sun was rising in the unripe season.

Her look was so sweet and proud that to follow her I left every task, like the miser who
as he seeks treasure sweetens his trouble with delight.

“Let no one touch me,” she bore written with diamonds and
topazes around her lovely neck. “It has pleased my Caesar to make me free.”

And the sun had already turned at midday; my eyes were tired by looking but not sated,
when I fell into the water, and she disappeared.

– Petrarch, Rime 190

Often, scholars interpret artworks like Dan Brown detectives, questing for narrow truths as if they were Holy Grails. This literal, one-for-one interpretation strategy succeeds to a limited extent with some works (look at the biographical sleuthing of Dali’s hallucinogenic Talledor), but with most pieces, we are left with fields of mystery, where words, meaning, and biography swirl around an inchoate center that is, at its core, a purely visual poem. We only hope and believe that this center is a universal language that transcends cultural differences.

How, then, do we peel back the casing of an artwork to reach its live wires? We must use the clues that the artist chooses to reveal to us, rather than try to guess his hand. For example, I was drawn to Avi Roth’s Poppied Edenland, (Los Angeles 2004). I could have googled the sources and found the architecture of the bridge and the time period of the windows, the dresses, the umbrellas, and the accessories. I could have believed that they would have given me more understanding. But I let them go, ephemeral ghosts that they are, knowing that if Roth wanted me to make such a literal translation, he would have given me those answers.

What is it about the work that is important, then? I concentrated, instead, on the details that Roth had given me–the tickets that allowed me to be a tourist inside his head. I could not avoid connecting Poppied Edenland’s vision of paradise with the imagery of death from “Flanders Field,” and with the myths of California. It also contains references to the Wizard of Oz–where, we are reminded again and again, “There is no place like home.” I felt permitted to make connections to these allusions, as this specific image of paradise is set in my hometown of Los Angeles.

Avi Roth has traveled the world after having left Transylvania in 1960 with his family and currently is living in LA. From his black-and-white photojournalistic forays into England and Israel, to his digitally enhanced colors of Paris, Roth insists upon the location in which he photographs. Sociologist Avtar Brah argues that in victims of any diaspora a ‘homing desire’ may be identified, but that this homing desire is entirely different from a desire for a homeland. This view might be limiting, but I feel it is apt. As the imagery in Poppied Edenland flickers through my mental rolodex, tempting interpretation, I wonder, though, how effective it is to continue to use references outside of my cultural center. Roth has photographed in Jerusalem and Los Angeles, London and Paris, Vienna and New York, Bangkok and Tokyo. Is that why, as an international citizen (and constant tourist), he insists upon specific locations? Susan Sontag is quick to note that “the very activity of taking pictures is soothing and assuages general feelings of disorientation.” And Lucy Lippard goes even further, saying that photography is a way for “non-belongers to belong, momentarily.” Roth explains how photography creates “my spatial extension into the global community. [It is] a magical feeling of curiosity and desire to belong and have ownership of something significant… It is my space building activity, filling empty, latent spaces with stories about people. This is my instinctive need to personalize the places I visit … my place identity.”

By settling the ghosts of his subconscious on the sites he visits–extending and superimposing realities on existing locales–Roth builds his own identity based upon a specific place. As a photographer, he curates and captures images that mirror his mental definitions of certain locations. I find his excitement to be much like that of the European cartographer Henry Morton Stanely, who, in his letters (1890), gushed of a map that “never has the white paper possessed such a charm as this form has, and I have already mentally peopled it, filled it with the most wonderful pictures of towns, villages, rivers, countries and tribes–all in the imagination–and I am burning to see if I am correct or not.” The map, like the canvas, the photographic film or the print, is never blank; it always holds the projection of our own prejudices.

When looking at Roth’s works and their titles, I am surprised how often I am correct in locating their settings. Roth is able to accurately find and photograph the totemic images that define a place; he unwinds the current mythologies, narrative arcs, and ingrained structures of our prejudices. Peter Osborne aptly noted that “tourist photography is more of a process of confirmation than of discovery.” For example, Roth’s two works, Bookie, (Los Angeles 1989), and Faithful Plower, (Tel Aviv 1966), sport similar subject matter. Both show aged men, but the titles and poses suggest narratives that are cinematic and ripe with symbolism, ever-dependent upon our notions of the cities’ extensive visual history and the way it has been documented.

The posterized sepia of Ash Grey Spirit, (Tel-Aviv 1964), recalls an aged newspaper, inciting recognition based upon our mental art-history image-archives of the many now defunct articles we have read. Merely by titling a photograph Nuts and Bolts, Noir, (Paris 2009), Roth understands that the foundations of his sense of belonging are rooted not in the actual history of a place, but in the perpetuation of its endless visual interpretations, whether in newspapers, films, posters or art.

Thus, Roth photographs scenes that he recognizes, whereby photography becomes a spontaneous act that seemingly reveals hidden but immediately recognizable underpinnings. Procession at Moulin, (Paris 2009), captures the very moment when a priest in a Catholic procession is given a halo by the infamous sign of the Moulin Rouge; the viewer is immediately struck by the role of the photographer, who, as our guide, catches a coincidence or uncovers a grander plot that is perhaps more than meets the eye. Furthermore, the digital manipulation of the colors recalls other French religious works with such overarching structures; the sharpening of the contours and contrasts fits somehow with the imagery. Roth has made the scene more real and faithful than reality. He has colored it to reflect our own images of the collective unconscious. Roth’s photographic discoveries are visualizations of his preconceived peopling of places, with himself at the center. As mapmaker of these strange lands, he mediates, using Sontag’s words, the “essence” and the “inherent truth” of the cities he photographs. Perhaps, we are not only the perpetual tourists (travelers) of Roth’s mindscape; we are Don Quixotes, destined to endlessly travel like the mythical wandering Jew. We are all modern wanderers in a world that, as Jim Norwine describes it, is a “cacoplastic landscape of jarring and discordant structures [that] is a fitting backdrop to the postmodern individual, since he too has lost, or more likely, abandoned his sense of fitness, of being well and properly settled in a place.” Fitting, then, is Roth’s description of his photographic musings: “My animate soulmate and I walked boundlessly–without considering time or space, only the mania and the excitement of hunting like a puma for the soul of the city through the urban streets of Europe, Far East, Middle East and the US”–it is the only way that he can make sense of it all. His creation of coherent realities is similar to his new series, where he finds faces and places in the stains at the bottoms of coffee cups. His delight is derived not only from connecting the dots, but from communicating his constellations to the viewer.

But Roth is more than a tourist photographer; he photographs the very archetypes that inspire our tourist photography. He defines what Rob Shields terms “place-myths,” cognitively mapping social perceptions of cities without delving into stereotypical imagery. His Israel series is peopled with the Anguished Etched (Tel-Aviv1964), Celestial Stare, (Jerusalem 1981), and the Memento Mori (Tel-Aviv 1967); His Paris captures the Ghosts of Sorbonne, (Paris 2009), Young Lovers, (Paris 2009), and Shared Footpath, (Paris 2009). His photographs refuse to use the usual markers for a place, but are still undeniably from the city in which they were taken. We do not get a sense of universality; the narratives of the subjects are defined by their location.

Roth states that “like a set of three works of art that are connected, so are three cities in my world, the trilogy of my inspiration … Paris for Lust, Venice for Romance, and Jerusalem for Spirituality.” By defining each city with one word, he makes his photographs extrapolations of these definitions. Since the photographs are externalizations of his own visual landscapes, Roth is able to cultivate multiple personas. In the Paris series, Roth is undoubtedly a romantic, as epitomized by Naked Perspective, (Paris 1977),  and Translucent Lust, (Paris 1982), each work recalling Parisian film and photographs, swathed in strokes of light and black-and-white sfumato. The London images of unrest, poverty and rebellion allow Roth to be a social journalist. In a Matter of Articulation, (London 1972), he captures the moment when a well-to-do woman walks through a band of hippie haranguers. In this harsh black-and-white print, the disparity between the two camps is brought to a climax–a far cry from the sensual light of the Paris series.

Roth’s juggling of multiple personas mimics a post-modern citizen’s multi-centeredness–the insistence of place acknowledges the multi-faceted existence of a world traveler who has no single identity. The photographer’s “capturing” and defining of a scene might be stabilizing, but the understanding of that limitation makes the ground shake once more. By photographing multiple cities, Roth is able to become unhinged, to grasp the inner turmoil of his own psychological biography, which has no borders, no spatial or social distance. Following the crumbs of clues, we pursue Roth on a global, whirlwind tour, cinematic and technicolor. But as in his photograph Waveriders, where architectonic arches create a binocular-like structure through which to gaze upon cipher-esque Parisian women, the viewer is blindsided: the object of desire–the soul of the image–is ever hidden. Donned in red lipstick and sunglasses, these women are only explained by our own musings. We as tourists will never broach what is behind those closed doors. We will see only glimmers of it as we chase it, hunt it, try to capture it with words or a camera–because perhaps the only recognizable language is that of our own description.

Helen Braun, art writer and critic, Los Angeles