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 Grail. This literal, one-for-one interpretation strategy succeeds to a limited extent with some works (look at the biographical sleuthing of Dali’s Hallucinogenic Toreador), 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 disori- entation.” 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 view- er 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 photo- graphic discoveries are visualizations of his preconceived peopling of places, with him- self 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, (Paris 2009) 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
Who is he?
Someone who believes that a photograph is “a story of universal meaning, written with light.”
Let loose and immerse your inner eye into his photographic realm. Once you do, you will never be able to escape it completely, nor will you wish to. Unknown, this “someone” has been faithfully holding your soul's hand, witnessing, capturing and listening to every tiny pulsation of your being, photograph after photograph, for years and beyond. All this time, he has followed Rumi’s precept, “I do not exist, my place is placeless, a trace of the trace- less,” remaining nameless to the art world, whilst steadfastly, quietly and passionately per- forming his trills and thrills of visual silence, within his own state of art. Listen to them...
Only by plunging into the depths of his photographs will you find yourself strolling by his side, following him on his constant quest for the self of mankind, making it your very own. You shall be infused with the inquietude and haunting light, sight and insight of what you see, and you will begin to truly know his oeuvre.
The Story Teller “journeying humanity’s Milky Way”
Something happens during and long after we walk through his photographs. Through the emotional and pensive traverse, we, viewers of all kinds and ages, find our own individuality subsumed into the past, present and future experience of different people and places. You and I, he and she, all together, we are seized, emphatically projected into a universal human reservoir, then released into a higher inner realm and compelled to contemplate our own life journey, either in anticipation or in remembrance.
We find ourselves musing, recalling the traces of innumerable life trials (Anguish Etched, Imprinted Furrow, Ashgray Spirit, Greybeard). We close our eyes in a blissful recollection of splashing through life’s unknowns and troubles (Rapture, Bubble Game). We are born as old souls in a hopeless world (Manchild Pathos, Dews of Sorrow, Sobbing Spirit). We are elevated into an intimate communion with our own prayers or shadows (Ghosts of Sorbonne). We answer the call to be philosophers within ourselves (Visitors). We leaf through our mindless or soulful love album (Love’s Neophytes or Young Lovers, Intimate Space, Forever Dalliance or Tides of Time). We are about to surrender to the lost ones (Renouncing Reason, Tepid Ride, Reflection in Gray). We work (Proletariat, Faithful Plower, Bookie) and pray (Temple Mount, Illumination at St Paul’s) in contrasts (Lie in Wait, Procession at Moulin). We cycle through Dante's circles of Hell (Quizzical Grin, Frenzied Guise, Fortune Hunters). We aimlessly or articulately protest (In a Manner of Articulation, Courtyard Rhetoric, Mute Behest). We gaze and feel, and gaze and wonder, and travel all the way into the abyss of our souls, then up to the sky of our conscience and back again, not finding the same road again (Poignantly Aware, Intellect-Indigent). Where are we going (Towards Eden’s Meadows, Beatitude)? In the end we shall chant (Memento Mori). And we shall be nowhere and everywhere (Elysian Night). Ah, we, and our (Sobbing Spirit)...
Guided by these subtle visual whispers of the Story Teller, we have turned into ageless and place-less travelers through humanity, feeling–somewhere between time and space–the same part of the universal being. “Every photograph is a story of universal meanings, written with light,” he says. “It is not a reproduction but rather a creative process of a visual narrative where the image is the center of everything and every small detail, highlight and shadow is part of the story. I have been given the formidable privilege of creating new expressions that illuminate the colors of mankind; bringing a meaning to each image and every experience through extreme intimacy, perpetual attentiveness and deep love for the community of man.”
Mastering the visual logos of denuding the viewed ones of their individual pantheism, while poignantly revealing the charge of their universal human pathos, he aims to depict the quintessential traveling of the human soul, thus accessing the same spiritual dimension within the viewer. Therefore, he does not offer us personal stories, but states of mind, feelings, reactions, thoughts, manifestations of man and his soul in different moments of his life walk. He remarks, “Leonardo da Vinci said: ‘The eye is the window of the soul.’ Remembering the erudite observation, I journeyed humanity’s Milky Way. From my perspective the character, the person, is but a single event in the continuum of what a ‘being’ is. When investigating existence from this perspective, the meaning of using the camera as the window of the soul takes on a distinctly more profound meaning!”
For this reason, not even his creative captures of apparently empty places–streets, plazas, architectural sites–are inanimate, nor do they give birth to the aesthetic lust. They also fol- low the essence of rendering a subtle meaning, by being instilled with a powerful presence of the spiritus loci, surprised while having an ethereal rendezvous with its fellow human counterpart (Elysian Night, Winter Road, Rue Auber, Rue Charlemagne, Place Vendome, Ilumination at St. Paul's, Vue du Pantheon, Rue De L’Universite). For the same reason, his creative or surrealist visual plays are philosophical essays about human life (Extensions, Visage, Alegory II, Trilogy, Shades of Life). There is a special section of his work where the artist applies this overall principal to give visual life to a particular soul: the photographs depicting Israel’s pillars, be they remarkable diplomats or significant religious and historical places and symbols (Sons of Abraham, Alchemy of Faith, Elijah Grove).
As a rule, the artist conveys his vision in a complex and versatile manner, as a vast range of themes gravitate around this philosophical thread. He has left out almost no aspect of human life. “A volume of work with a range of expressions that carry the same message, or a volume of work with identical messages carried through a wide range of themes - which method should I choose? Which method would be more successful in delivering the message I am trying to convey? This has been a brainteaser of mine since the very beginning. I could not decide. I chose both!” He renders all his pieces in the most appropriate and suggestive photographic style, be it documentary, candid, creative, or surrealist.
Setting his mental camera to a deeper understanding of what photography is–writing with light–he creates visual narratives that are powerful, universal triggers that reflect human life and the soul, insight and self-introspection. This is the ubiquitous axis mundi that traverses his entire oeuvre, endowing it with a highly symbolical artistic value. It is because of this potential epiphany of inner truth that his photographs are timeless, naturally spreading their photons and universal meanings in a quantum physics manner. “For it is not to originality that photographs owe their excellence,” he asserts, “but to their high degree of universality in what they delineate. Are these images mere images of the past? Or are they not also traversed into now, still conversing through their universal language?”
The Refined Art of Photography. . . Ars Continuum
The artist combines documentary, straight, street, photojournalism, landscape and portrait photography to organically reveal human diversity through trustworthy documents that faithfully represent the reality of an event or a subject. But this is only a base for his visual foundation, as his art consists in capturing images that are able to transmit deep universal human meanings. Individuals are not staged, and their honesty is preserved, but they also become empathic embodiment of our own life, visually expressing the universal human message, and thus lending themselves to reflection.
Due to this masterly savoir-faire, viewers are pierced and haunted by extremely keen eyes, subtly guided by highlighted details, and often gently pushed to a powerful, almost physiological, awareness by an abrasive, grained, and thus poignant overall texture. This effect is superb and enlivening, imbuing the photographs with profundity and the constant feeling of je ne sais quoi, urging the viewer to perpetual gazing, awe and reflection.
But his oeuvre shows more than simple mastery of photography. It is evident that the artist has an in-depth knowledge and perception of the other arts as well, as his photo- graphic technique incorporates principles of space from architecture, visual and light com- position from painting, symbolism and metaphor from literature, rhythm and tonality from music, and verbal dexterity from poetry. The artist confesses that in his youth: “I explored many ways of artistic expression-poetry, painting, drawing, writing-all of which were emotion-releasing relief valves. Photography, however, was an almost instant fit and offered a better alternative to connect, explore and help convey emotions through visual narratives.”
What he fails to recognize though, due to his extreme selflessness and his Penelopean devotion to his chosen art, is the fact that he has masterfully created a new space of photographic art, one where all the other arts are each given a subtle, yet powerful solo. The symphonic message conveyed through this photographic synergy becomes so powerful that it transcends the limits of its original bi-dimensional status. In this higher type of a photographic ensemble, all the other art forms are interwoven in fluid ways, coming in, fading out, and being inherent to the image itself. It is due to the maestro's artistic completeness that the viewer can actually hear the music, recite the verse, read the metaphor, detect the whispered thought, be touched by the paintbrush, perceive the spatiality and feel the materiality of the objects carved into the image. The viewer does all this unconsciously, by melting them into a continuum of performance and recomposing the visual symphonic insight.This is what the artist calls his “personal palette of light,” a cross-disciplinary, synergistic photographic style through which he touches the horizons of the refined art of photography.
Because they deeply and masterfully depict universal, timeless and enlightening human traces, the artist's photographs contain the double entendre of the carbon value. In light of their refined artistic qualities, they could shine in exquisite art galleries. In the insight of their humanity-kindling force, they could be the powerful 1001-words-worth visual pen and voices for a myriad of socio-cultural manifestations. “Like the pen, the camera is as good as the man who uses it. It can be the extension of mind and heart...” (John Steinbeck). The photographs taken with this camera qualify as an academic study of philosophy, sociology, and the visual arts; an elegant companion to musical scores, concerts and artistic events; and a powerful spokesman on behalf of humanitarian and social causes for various institutions. Once displayed on the walls, they break other walls, the inner ones, those of the mind and soul... and because of this, these works of art are priceless.
Beyond the Decisive Moment . . . Perpetual Momentum
The artist follows Cartier-Bresson’s photographic credo: to become pure spirit and cap- ture the essence and inner look with the intuition of the decisive moment. Yet, for the photographs to tell stories of universal meanings, more is needed. He therefore goes further and deeper, scrutinizing the horizons, and finding his way through them.
Immortalizing mixtures of animate and inanimate forms that have powerful abilities of suggestion, he hints at the outline of a spiritual message, while retaining the missing particle within the image. His photographs provoke a reflective mood in the viewer, yet they obstinately refuse to say the ultimate word. Fond of the Socratic method, the artist sets up a perennial artistic agora between the viewer and the viewed, giving birth to the essential imagery that “stands at the junction of a light which comes from the object and another which comes from the gaze” (Plato).
“From the beginning,” the artist says, “in a continuous effort directed at seeing the unseen in our swirling mass of absent and present objects and subjects, I identified a space some- where between displayed images and the state of mind of the viewer to be a treasured source of inspiration...Within this space, the image becomes a doorway through which the viewer enters and forms a visual understanding with the photographer. It is the beginning of a complex relationship, an eternal ménage à trois between the photographer, the subject and the viewer incognito. The anatomy of this relationship is the single most important acceptance factor, that which determines the fate of a photographer’s art.”
The eloquence of subtly implying a universal meaning, enhanced by the intrinsic ineffability of leaving space for interpretations and rediscoveries, gives his photographs the power of “inscribing a spiritual place” for which Matisse was craving. And he enters “this space of intimate complicity, not to master it, but to play along with it and to demonstrate that nothing has been decided yet -rendre évidente l’idée que les jeux ne sont pas faits [Jean Baudrillard].”
Therefore, for the artist, the destination of the decisive moment is merely the inception of the true journey. Capturing that kind of decisive moment, the one of a profound and meaningful indecisiveness, is the very apex and depth of the photographic feeling. Endowing the photograph with perpetual momentum, that of insight, he creates a dynamic and recurrent visualizing effect–the perfectly imperfect visual. “I have viewed my work hundreds of times,” he says. “Yet at every new glimpse like a curious child I discover a new wonder that places me at the beginning of my journey–as if encountering the original event for the first time. When I view a print alongside my mental image of its origin, the print reveals multiple layers of interest and new experiences beyond the ephemeral capture at its genesis. The charming appeal of this magical process, être en répétition, this dynamic life- enriching cycle of experience is the hidden force behind my passion for photography.”
Who is he?
The one who photographs with light, sight and insight . . . Avi Roth, the Soulgrapher.
Those who have seen his photographs have everlastingly gotten the precious gift of them all: a deep inner sense of enrichment and reflection. Watching them, we are channeled to the human soul reservoir and compelled to “take the backward step that turns your light inward to illuminate the Self” (Dogen Zenji).
Therefore, it is not he who is emerging as an artist. It is we, the privileged ones, who are to merge into the heights of his artistic intellect.
Mihaela Enea, PhD, University Lecturer, and Scholar of Art Phenomena
The Continuous Present
“You travel and see what the camera saw. The wonder of human mind, heart, wit and instinct, is here,” wrote the poet Carl Sandburg in 1955, describing his journey through the Museum of Modern Art’s The Family of Man, an ambitious photography exhibition that sought to present the human condition in its gaping entirety. Yet today, in an era in which the truth of the photograph has been destabilized again and again, Sandburg’s words seem overly romantic, maybe even guileless. Who’s to say the human mind and heart are coherent entities at all, let alone things a camera can capture? But the poet’s next sentence resonates differently: “You might catch yourself saying, ‘I’m not a stranger here.’”1 The desire for connection has always been a driving force behind photography–ever since Daguerre made his first still life, an obvious homage to the history of painting from which he was departing–and it’s hard to imagine this changing. The images that make us feel as though we belong wholly to the moment are the ones that emblazon themselves on our cultural memory.
Whenever change is imminent, a sense of belonging becomes all the more sought after. Visual culture tends to make a collective dash toward the “timeless,” because to be timeless is to be persistently relevant, to connect to people’s experience of life at any moment. Unfortunately, this often means that image makers mimic their predecessors, as if the only way to feel the warmth of human connection is to become immersed in a specific history. Recently, documentarian Catherine Opie’s depictions of Barack Obama’s inauguration recalled the pragmatism of 1970s landscape photographers like Robert Adams, and photojournalist Anthony Suau’s images of economic struggle recalled the hard-edged sentimentality of Dorthea Lange and Walker Evans. But timelessness doesn’t have to be about establishing a lineage.
There could be no better moment for Avi Roth, who has been steadily building a body of work since the 1960s, to make his long overdue debut. Part documentarian, part flâneur, Roth forces the aesthetic of timelessness open, embracing it so literally that time starts to elide and familiarity becomes more instinctual than historical. His work, coolly discerning and yet perpetually tender, exists outside the constraints of chronology and rejects nostalgia.
Born in Transylvania, Roth emigrated to Israel in 1960. His earliest images from the sixties document exactly what his more recent images do: specific, unencumbered moments. In a Matter of Articulation (London, 1972), photographed at Speaker’s Corner, Hyde Park, an elderly woman wholly, perhaps even blissfully, engages the sermonizing long-haired orator at the center of a group of youth. The scene’s rebel energy runs high, but the image is about a moment of connection between unlikely characters that appear neither eccentric nor extreme. It feels as if the always pleasantly humane Robert Doisneau had taken on the unwieldy, idiosyncratic subjects of Diane Arbus. The Doisneau-Arbus juxtaposition is useful for understanding Roth’s work. He came of age in a period when the psychedelic, beatnik sensibility and its concomitant dissidence was penetrating the culture of art-making. This sensibility lent itself to a fetishization of eccentricity, as recently evidenced by Leon Levinstein, a photographer included in The Family of Man, but who was relatively unknown until a series of posthumous exhibitions. As Ken Johnson points out in his review of Levinstein’s 2010 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Levinstein demonstrated a paradox “shared by legions of greater and lesser street photographers”: he shot “[n]ot the types of people or situations that you barely notice because they are so ordinary, but people who seem strange, marginal or ridiculous.”2 That the strange would stand out to a photographer on the prowl for authenticity is to be expected, especially if he equates the real with the raw and assumes it has something stark and immediate to tell us about ourselves.
Roth, however, is a street poet of a different kind. He knows that poignancy more often comes from the hard work of waiting and revising than from accidental encounters. He also managed to slide through the fetish effect of the Beat Generation unscathed, and loses himself so completely in the otherness of his subjects that their strangeness, if it exists–and who doesn’t become a little strange when in front of a camera? – is beside the point.
Lie of Wait (London, 1992) depicts a breed of strangeness. The affected seriousness of the businessman balances the quirks of the transient, and, together, they become a picture of normalcy. Nearly two decades earlier, at a Renaissance fair in Los Angeles, Roth made another image that undercuts eccentricity. Shakespearean Amulets (Los Angeles, 1975) features two outlandishly dressed men, one of them cradling a gaggle of courtly puppets. Motionless, they seem to be caught in an unsuspecting lull. Roth connects so sincerely with his subjects that he overrides the theatricality of their circumstances. The imperturbable, almost sinister mood of these men becomes not something to gape at, but some- thing to recognize and enter.
While certainly an observer and wanderer of the most poetic sort, Roth is not quite the kind of flâneur, or “voyeuristic stroller,” that Susan Sontag described in On Photography. She spoke of “an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno’”3; but there’s a restless self-righteousness intrinsic in this definition that Roth’s work negates. When making Repartee (Paris, 2009), Roth waited for hours outside a dress shop window in the early morning. He was certainly armed, but what he was stalking was a quiet convergence, not an accidental rift in the “urban inferno.” When a man finally walked into the frame and Roth clicked, the result was a simple, unpretentious meeting that pitted the blur of lived experience against a sleek commercial display. It was also unrepeatable. That exact moment will never occur again, and it took patience and dexterity to capture. Roth’s poetics of timelessness rely on such unrelenting effort. Existing in the moment is a daunting task. As Quentin Crisp, a satirist of the sincerest sort, eloquently put it, not much effort is needed to exist in “the continuous present,” but “enormous concentration is needed to abandon everything else.”4
A particular image of Roth’s “abandons everything else” remarkably well. Forever Dalliance (London, 1972) shows an elderly man and woman at the Portobello Road Café. She sits; he stands, bent forward, looking into her eyes, his elegantly pointed finger hitting the table in a signal of emphasis. The image sums up a relationship in a single, immediate gesture, but the two bodies it depicts are so lived-in that it also richly evidences the depth and span of time. Timelessness, then, becomes the collapsing of past and future into the present.
Decades later, at another Paris café, Roth photographed a second aging couple. An unexpected familiarity pervades Tides of Time (Paris, 2009). The man and woman, though emblems of the “tides” of their drawn-out past, seem totally uninterested in their history or future. Roth, too, displays extreme comfort in the craft of this image, and the composition is balanced and full. The reflections in the café windows give the only needed evidence of the surrounding world.
The subject of Tides of Time, like much of Roth’s work, is the continuous present. The image comfortably and wholly belongs to the moment to the exclusion of all else. Larger questions pertaining to human nature, love and even morality are unimportant, though they are implicitly addressed: yes, we have a nature; yes, we love; and our moral responsibility is to continue to live right now, in this particular instant. Roth’s job, which he does with agility, is to show that a single instant, no matter where it occurs or whom it includes, can be intricate, rich, tender, familiar and redolent. And, in looking at his work, you will undoubtedly catch yourself saying, “I am not a stranger here.”
Catherine Wagley, art writer and critic
1 Carl Sandburg, “Prologue,” The Family of Man, created by Edward Steichen for The Museum of Modern Art (New York: Maco Magazine Corporation, 1955), 2.
2 Ken Johnson, “Streetwise New Yorkers Caught in Their Unguarded Moments,” The New York Times, 24 June 2010.
3 Susan Sontag, On Photography, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), 55.
4 Quentin Crisp., The Naked Civil Servant. (New York: Penguin Classics, 1977), p. 48.
The world is my idea, but only for a moment...
For over fifty years, Avi Roth has been making images through his photo- graphic art that say just this, but with perhaps an added, final question mark that challenges the medium of photography itself. For to speak of an art that forever fixes light on an unflinching celluloid canvas, we are inevitably forced to ask: is this captured world only real “for a moment?” Our answer comes from the power of Roth's work itself: this “moment,” in effect, contains the whole of our experience; in this fraction of a second, where the eyes of camera, photographer and viewer all blink in unison, lies the riddle of human existence.
Beginning from his first images, those that recall a photojournalistic idiom reminiscent of Cartier-Bresson’s early work in Spain, Roth has spent a lifetime searching for the horizon where the personal and the collective merge. Again and again, like a page from as in Balzac’s Comédie Humaine, we see characters step out onto the stage of life and proclaim their validity despite their ephemeral fragility. In the hauntingly beautiful images Celestial Stare (1981) and Footwear Merchant (1963), and in the defiant impenetrability of Arcadian Matriarch (1962) and Marble Face (1973), we see Roth’s lens focused, not on what his subjects present to the camera, but on what they themselves see in some inner, more private realm that is usually inaccessible to the observer.
Created with but the simple lines of a life-worn face, Graybeard (1969) represents is a crowning work of the 1960’s, summarizing everything that Roth has thus far learned in his exploration of the human soul. The images of Werner Bischof, where human form imitates the chiseled sculpture of Chartres, seem to have merged with Avedon’s famous portrait of Ezra Pound, creating the archetype of the prophet-cum-demigod. The grayish whites of the head cloth, beard and eyes all imbue this piece with a sublime surface glow that seems to resonate with the prophet’s inner vision. What confronts us here is a picture of profound belief in that which we cannot know - the untouchable.
Growing from his search for form in everyday life, Roth follows then a new quest, through composition and spatial definition, for a more concise visual vocabulary. Rapture (1964) and Incognitus (1965) signal the start of a new technique employing a combination of Rembrandtesque chiaroscuro and an almost minimalist approach to subject matter, reducing forms to a few converging planes of contrast. Some years later, with the the Escher-like Sons of Abraham (1968), Roth’s mastery of skill at manipulating space with infusions of light points to the masterpieces of the 1980’s such as Bubble Girl (1983) and the hommage to Man Ray and the surrealists, Translucent Lust (1982).
With his work of in the 1970’s, Roth continues the journey into he realm he opened one decade earlier, probing the limits of what is expressible through a non-verbal medium. In works like Love’s Neophytes (1973), with its quasi-voyeuristic mood where the viewer feels as if they secretly glimpsing into a forbidden pleasure, the photographer is experimenting with a new narrative form, telling but one of many possible stories with his subtle use of overexposure and perspective. We see this technique used again in Beatitude (1972), which is a particularly deceptive piece in its presentation of an enigma to the eye. At first glance, one we sees only the romantic, poetic, even sentimental ambiance of the gentle forest, but then gradually, as one we attempts to understand what this woman is waiting for, the uncanny, unsettling tone of the scene slowly emerges and we perceive, basked in the silvery glow of an otherworldly light, a figure that contemplates, on the brink of two worlds, its own longing. Benches immersed in landscape have often been featured throughout the history of photography, but none, with the possible exception of Coburn’s post-apocalyptic Saltram’s Seat (ca. 1906), have have ever been so haunting.
Throughout the body of Roth’s work, one we finds abundant references to past artistic movements, as well as, through the faces of children, visions of a yet unborn future. However, there are definite moments in his oeuvre where an image speaks directly from the bosom of its time, capturing the zeitgeist and yet transcending mere journalism to make a powerful artistic statement. With Mute Behest (1979), one is we are tempted to recall the Por una navaja (for carrying a knife) from Goya’s series Los desastres de la guerra, one an of several etchings in the series where a priest is tied at the throat to a stake, a small pocket knife hanging from his neck explaining his sin to onlookers whom in vain try to make sense of their own cruelty. Yet in Roth’s arresting image, the fear and anguish of the Spanish master have been transformed into a strong, silent resignation; victory - chains no longer need to be broken to be overcome. We are witness to a momentous event, noble and yet terrifying, where those children, that who throughout Roth’s work represent such hope, are confronted at last with the inescapable suffering that mankind humanity inflicts upon itself. Etching with merciless precision the martyr’s triumph, our photographer, like the painter 180 years before him, refuses to turn a blind eye.
An artist often begins a new direction by surveying the past. Despite being indebted to Stieglitz, Steichen and the other Camera Work photographers active at the turn of the century, Gemma (1991) is an exquisite balance of composition and motion that presents, like the bold gesture of its subject, a new solution to the contrary needs of academic technique and creative liberty. One We senses throughout Roth’s work of the late 1980’s and 1990’s this oncoming need for change, this desire for a new language, and here he achieves this it with severe economy, like a Quattrocento fresco painter adopting the diagonal thrust of a Bernini sculpture. The excessive grain of the photograph gives the austerely modeled cloth a rough, more tactile element, akin to painterly impasto, yet never interferes with the pose’s grace and monumentality.
Just as photography freed itself from the bonds of painting a century earlier, ushering in a new and exciting age, so in the past fifteen years, the advent of digital photography has created an adventurous and divergent esthetic. Not surprisingly, Roth has embraced this new medium with a vigor equal to his belief in the power of photography as a universal language. In images such as Winter Road (2003) and Ghosts of Sorbonne (2009), we see that, through the wisdom of five decades, Roth has moved his focus from the individual’s place in humanity’s puzzle to a larger, more cosmic perspective, where cities and landscapes now reflect what eyes and mouths once did. This more objective, universal stance, often encountered in the ripe, mature works of an artist, is poignantly felt in pieces like Intimate Space (2001), where the simple, beautiful forms recall the art of classical Greece. Here we are tempted to interpret the reference to the Demeter and Persephone statue group from the Parthenon Frieze as entirely unconscious; after half a century of artistic creation, the creator has become so at ease with what his camera can achieve, that he no longer needs to be conscious of what it evokes-his technique has become invisible. This is the definition of mastery, bestowed only unto those who have survived the muses’ whip.
Today, as always, the work of Avi Roth is hammering form into the void, clenching that ubiquitous moment, so that now his subjects seem to breathe only by virtue of their captor. Was this a memory; is this our future? We, the viewer, may answer-but only the artist may ask.
Nicolas Kaviani, composer and visual artist
Portrait of the Artist as a Mature Man
Photographer Avi Roth Is Ready To Bare His Soul
by Alan Ruskin
After many years as a commercial photographer with inclusion in such prominent publications as Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, and Architectural Digest, as well as a stint as a master jewelry photographer utilizing the latest digital technology, Avi Roth, in the sixth decade of a well-traveled life, has decided to make his statement as an artist. Regarding this 50-year retrospective of his work marking his latter-day “emergence,” he says, “So why surface now, you may ask?” He explains that in traipsing along the roads of both commercial photography with its 'businessman-ritual of earning a living,” and his parallel world of photographic art, he felt torn between conflicting impulses. “I pursued a path of compromise,” and candidly confesses, “Mea culpa.”
“I have newly reflected on my journey and determined to settle the issue.” And then his grand declaration, “For I do not want to walk into the sunset without having been able to reconcile, without serving myself or humanity, without living in full harmony with myself by immersing in the creative life.” To us, the viewers, goes the benefit, as we get to enjoy a life's work of considerable diversity, subtlety, depth, and perhaps most importantly, beauty. As varied in subject and style as his photos may be – and he is not easily classifiable – from lush seascapes to powerful portraits to ethereal metaphysical visions, it is universality, that which binds the stuff of life and casts its appeal to each and all, that Roth seeks to convey. “For it is not to originality that photographs owe their excellence, “ he says, “but to their high degree of universality.”
An artist who thinks of himself as a universalist must be able to do one thing very well – find common ground.
From the time when, at the age of 12 he peered through a classic Kodak Brownie cam- era, to this exhibit of his broad-ranging oeuvre, Avi Roth has striven to portray that which is palpable in all humanity, that which everyone can recognize inside their lives, striking a familiar chord that resonates with feeling. The photo-artist is not merely an observer, but the one responsible, “privileged,” as Roth puts it in his spiritually enriched style, for capturing the moment for all eternity with its host of possibilities. “My deep love for the community of man is discernible from the visual narratives I present, especially those that are evoked by moments of pure and heartfelt emotion when facing human anguish or solace.”
From his early years in his birthplace, Transylvania, to his young adulthood in Israel in the 1960s and studies at the Tel Aviv Polytechnic Institute, followed by the London Film School and graduation with honors in 1974, Roth has cultivated a global persona, shuttering his lenses throughout Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East, every photo- graph “a story without words written with my personal palette of light.” Lofted by passionately artistic and poetic emotions, “My inanimate soul mate and I walked boundlessly through these places without considering time or space, hunting like a puma for the soul of the city.”
Wherever he has gone he has celebrated ordinary everyday people as well as renowned public figures by telling their stories and making them appear to the world as not just a face, but a “metabolism,” as he calls it, “between mankind and my camera,” a living enti- ty, if you will, that elicits strong but also nuanced and subtle responses from the viewer that are as complex as life itself. This is certainly evident in his portraits such as “Quizzical Grin” (London, 1973), in which a wizened gargoyle of a gent, cherubic nonetheless, exudes good-natured warmth and bonhomie. Other works that exalt the prosaic are “Wharf Crew” (Aberdeen, Scotland, 1988), a fortuitous group portrait that is at once dynamic and restful, an elegantly composed homage to enduring men every- where that is characteristic of Roth's work with its understated but highly deliberate craftsmanship, and “Lost in Thought” (Tel Aviv, 1986), wherein Roth looks at the sadder side of life with simple yet compelling directness.
Another of these quietly affecting portraits is “Glazed with Gloom” (Jerusalem, 1977) – is this little girl Arab or Israeli? It matters not – the stained skirt, the skewered under- wear, the creased jaw – a distressed child is, indeed, universal. An early work and another cross-cultural classic is “Sunweary Tribesman” (Sinai Peninsula, 1969) – a nation in a face, weariness perhaps, dignity for certain. The artist's gift for subtle but telling understatement is particularly evident in portraits of the fabled figures of the land of his youth. In “Golda” (Jerusalem, 1970), the storied Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir is quintessentially captured by the handkerchief at her mouth. One can almost here her say, “What took you so long?” (which she famously said to Egypt's President Anwar Sadat when he at last bravely came to Israel seeking peace, and embraced Meir at the airport). And in “The Warrior” (Jerusalem, 1970), the great general, Moshe Dayan, never looked more stoic, quietly but implacably determined. In these two photos the heart and will of Israel are portrayed for all time. Perhaps it is “Tides of Time” (Paris, 2009), that best illustrates the artist's rarefied but unpretentious style. This older couple playing out their measured time can be seen any- where, and Roth knows this. The rich but muted colors, the drape of the man's coat, the bend of his wife's knees – nothing very complicated, just life itself.
Yet a merely fleeting glance at the works in the exhibit show that there is a lot more to this photographer, a very diverse and fluid style that can surprise and delight in many ways. Most of all there is the “inner eye,” that, like the protagonist in James Joyce's famous novel, “Ulysses,” can deeply ponder and appreciate the “ineluctable modality of the visible.” That well-known phrase from the book that cryptically refers to the the undeniable presence of reality, is mirrored by Roth when he says he doesn't have a comprehensive view of existence, but rather is contented, indeed delighted, to view reality as it is, as an “objective absolute,” and then to follow paths created by his subconscious – “I look, listen, use my camera to steal an instant, and make a humble contribution to the human community.” As the character Stephen Dedalus walks along the beach in “Ulysses,” musing about “thought through my eyes, signatures of all things I am here to read,” so do Roth, the humble ever-seeking photographer, and Joyce, the renowned author, share the open, contemplative, penetrating view of life. Roth asks and answers, “What does my work concern itself with? A whole lot of things, but its crux abides in the formidable privilege of creating new expressions that illuminate the colors of mankind.”
While “colors of mankind” implies the many aspects of being alive in this world, such colors are literally illuminated in Roth's landscapes. The painterly “Morning Fog in Blumau,” Austria, 2000, with its flawless composition, the perfectly centered steeple in a panoramic view of of a pastoral village, all nestled in a silky soft patina, make this a visual delight, a faux painting that would grace any wall. The photograph is also notable for its subdued, nearly monochromatic pallet of blues and blacks, punctuated by dabs of saffron and a dash of pink, with the snow and off-white sky framing the work beautifully.
Another stunning landscape of a much different sort is “Playa Santa Teresa” (Costa Rica, 2008), demonstrating the photo-artist's versatility. A statuesque silhouetted surfer remi- niscent of a Mayan prince is canopied by a cascade of darkly matched gulls, with all the colors rich and lustrous as can be. Not one of Roth's more cerebral works, but a scene to feast upon with the senses, and perhaps to “wish you were there.” “Rue Auber,” (Paris, 2009), is one of several stunning architectural tableaux demonstrating the artist's talent for selecting and arranging the elements of a picture. Elegant in black-and-white, the tri-globe lamp is artfully framed by a cloud-like breach in the sky. Another artistically composed urban scene is “Rue de Panteheon”(Paris, 2009), the rich colors at and just below the dome calling to the greenery below – Roth is at the top of his painterly game here. And “Elysian Night” (Hungary, 2006), is, well, simply gorgeous, see for yourself. The vibrantly colored landscapes and tableaux are among Roth's most commercially appealing works, easy-to-like home decor.
On a different note in a different place, “Elijah's Grove” (Jerusalem, 1969), captures the mystical beauty of the Holy Land dear to Roth's soul. The fertile and the barren comfortably commingle, crowned by a worn but timeless structure, softly kissed by the moon. Roth has his surrealistic side as well, what he calls the “journey through the district of dreams and madness.” He counts Man Ray, Hans Bellmer, and others among his influences in this genre, and certainly the far-flung legacy of Salvador Dali is apparent is “Allegory IV” (Los Angeles, 1997). What is striking in this work are the penetrating green eyes in the otherwise all black-grey-white pallet, and the understated mask in the bottom right corner. As is often the case in his work, the viewer is free to speculate on the meaning, though what is suggested is the growth of the artistic spirit through time, from the wide-eyed innocence of youth, to the recondite mask of death.
In “Poppied Edenland” (Los Angeles, 2004), we have ethereal metaphysics and lovely aesthetic appeal combined. The other-worldly beauty of this montage, reminiscent of Rene Magritte, is irresistible, and who would not at least begin to ponder its meaning, attempt to decipher its symbolism? But whereas Magritte says of his own work, “What does it mean? It doesn't mean anything, because mystery is unknowable,” Roth's quest for universal constants suggests there is meaning here if we look deeply enough. Are the two figures mirror images, but with the androgynous head of the one emerging from beneath the parasol of the other? Through the diaphanous gown a bridge in the distance connects the shores of the covert and revealed, imagination granting access to the eternal. On a more mundane note, Roth calls this work “the favorite of my wife and daughter.” Another that could be classified in the surrealist genre is “Dreamlake” (London, 1972). One of his most sensory and poetic works, this photograph stimulates our senses in ways we don't need to understand. The imposing of the red Chinese script on the otherwise nearly colorless scene works very well, the inscrutable elements harmoniously balanced. The writing, Roth says, means “I am waiting for you.” As longingly romantic as that is, we don't need to know the meaning of the words to enjoy this picture.
“Toward Eden's Meadow” (Los Angeles, 1977), is the next-to-last photo in the collection, and with good reason. A young man sits in contemplation on a park bench, while an elderly woman in the background strides briskly away. Youth lingers, age exits, but unerringly, with certitude. Roth captures the profound meaning, juxtaposing the seden- tary youth with the peripatetic senior as she heads with dignity and a final burst of energy toward Eden's meadow, the end of her life's journey. The photo that follows completes the journey for us all. “Memento Mori” Tel Aviv, 1970), the fittingly final photo in the artist's book, is a somber yet beautiful calling-to-mind of our inevitable destiny. The shovels and spades embedded in the freshly dug earth, the draped and rose-bedecked casket, all in stark yet impressionistic black-and-white tinged with an aching softness. The little rows of headstones in the background leave no doubt, but for Roth the question compelled by this image is not “why must we die?” – but rather, “how shall we live?”
He says, “I have been born and am here for a purpose, to have you look at what I have done.” But certainly not merely to gratify his transient mortal self – rather to help you feel and exult in being alive, to celebrate the sacred complexity of life in all its joys and sadness, its eternity, its beauty. Roth counts among his influences eminent photographers such as Atget, Brandt, Cartier-Bresson, Karsh, and many others. Numerous painters include Rembrandt, El Greco, Rubens, Cezanne, and the aforementioned Magritte and Dali. Great poets, authors, and philosophers whom he feels support his life-affirming view are Neruda, Tolstoy, Blake, Rousseau, and Gibran.
The words of another of Roth's most admired writers aptly convey his ageless message:
“Youth is happy because it has the ability to see beauty.
Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.”
– Franz Kafka