Interview by Jon Feinstein

Published on 02/01/ 2018

Untitled. (from One to Nothing), Israel, 2010 © Irina Rozovsky
Kremlin in Traffic (from This Russia) © Irina Rozovsky

Jon Feinstein: Your projects often start with a place that has a distinct implication or history – sometimes, political, often war-tinged – but you approach them with an open-ended lens. Russia, Israel, Prospect Park, later Cuba and former Yugoslavia.

Irina Rozovsky: I think it’s possible to make photographs almost anywhere; every place has something about it that shimmers when the light is right or seems dull and mute in a striking way. I initially related to photography as an everything, everywhere, and always kind of practice and my “early” work was placeless and rejected specificity.

But when I returned to Russia after exactly twenty years of absence, I was hit like an anvil on the head by a massively simple revelation: a photograph is always born somewhere, in a location, in an environment, and will inevitably eschew the essence of that geography and the photographer’s connection to it.

Young Lovers III (from This Russia) © Irina Rozovsky
Untitled. (from One to Nothing), Israel, 2010 © Irina Rozovsky

Feinstein: How do their political histories play into your work and approach?

Rozovsky: What became very interesting to me was an extended look, drilling into the singular spirit of a location. I never intended to set out in search of the war-torn or political. But due to the settings of my inner lens, and maybe the circumstances of my past, I have felt particularly alive in places where despite the cruelty of war, institutional oppression, and threatened social and religious freedoms, the flame of humanity refuses to be stamped out.

As we see now in the US, people under pressure have a clearer sense of who they are and what they stand for, and I’m interested in detecting that in the fabric of the day-to-day. So I would say that it’s a vitality despite all odds that ignited me photographically in these places. That, and an uncanny sense of familiarity and connection—I show up as an outsider but soon, in a strange, chameleon kind of way start to feel that I belong, and have belonged for generations.

Feinstein: What differences did you notice in how you approached Russia vs Israel vs Cuba vs Prospect Park vs Former Yugoslavia?
Untitled, (from Island in my Mind), Cuba, 2014 © Irina Rozovsky
Untitled. (from One to Nothing), Israel, 2010 © Irina Rozovsky

Rozovsky: The practical approach is always the same and looks like a hummingbird dance where I’m hovering around what’s interesting in a skittish, excited, zigzagging way. I usually want to move, in a rental car, a bus, a train going from town to town, hopping out often, some initial locations on my radar that I never get to but stumble on something better in the process.

I often start in the city and work my way to the countryside or towards a body of water, then back to the city again. But it all takes shape in real time and the route, drawn out on a map afterward, would be like irrational cat scratches.

In Russia I was wading through a private daydream, grasping for recognition, trying to connect what I remembered with the physicality of things before me. I found that memory works in inexplicable ways, in another sense we know little about. In Israel, time and memory took on an infinitely more complex dimension, my family’s modern story just a tiny strand in the colossal Gordian knot of the wandering Jew.

I have been accused of not taking a stronger position with my Israeli photographs, or picking a side, but my claim is that the work is inescapably political. The cover image is a symbol of the nature of conflict and a choice to remain neutral in choosing a side is indeed the position. Through these two projects, I located my approach towards place – involved but withdrawn, a hermit-like journalist (by the way did you know a Hermit is a type of hummingbird?), weaving a tapestry from personal and universal threads.

Ballet (from This Russia) © Irina Rozovsky

Untitled (from In Plain Air), Prospect Park,

Brooklyn 2011-2016 © Irina Rozovsky

Feinstein: In each series, you were approaching broad territories. How did you make sense of this?

Rozovsky: My first few projects were like tsunamis. I felt I had to cast a wide net, grab everything all at once at a frenzied speed. In Plain Air, the Prospect Park project, even though it covers a tiny geographic space in comparison to Israel and Cuba, is slow, ongoing, tracing the seasons, the transformations in the landscape—a cultivating process. And my pictures in Mountain Black Heart are a combination—I am working quickly but want to continue returning to dig deeper.

I am covering a large, complex region that isn’t really on the photographic map. We’ve all seen Russia, Israel, and Cuba, in the movies, on the news, in coffee table books. But there is no photographic cliché to push against in the former Yugoslavia. This has allowed me to be more unhinged and less realistic in the image making, more free form.

I think each project rubs off on and prepares me for the next. It’s a germinating process where an accidental photograph made in one place is a dormant seed that blossoms somewhere later on. But in the process of shooting, the body of work is only a vague notion somewhere in the very back of my mind and I’m mostly dealing with the photo in front of me.

Feinstein: What’s your relationship with the people in your photographs?

Rovovsky: Most of the people in my pictures are strangers—instant and fleeting encounters, the photo made more or less on the spot—there is often an energetic connection or a mutual curiosity that translates photographically, and while we might keep in touch, we probably we never see each other again. Sometimes a friend or relative I am with makes his/her way into the photo.

And something that’s happening more recently is the famous “appointment”—I see someone interesting, botch the photo in the moment (partly because I’m probably pushing a stroller), and arrange to get together and make a photograph later. This is scary because removed from the original context and the excitement of that first encounter, the situation feels deadened, the person seems foreign, and I’m usually at a loss but try to plow through. In the end, I’d like for all these “relationships” to come across with the same level of intimacy and anonymity.

Untitled, (from Mountain Black Heart), former Yugoslavia, 2015-2016 © Irina Rozovsky
Untitled, (from Mountain Black Heart), former Yugoslavia, 2015-2016 © Irina Rozovsky

Feinstein: You were born in Russia, lived and worked in Boston and NYC, and recently moved to Georgia. Do you see parallels between your own migratory life and the work you make?

Rozovsky: Yes, I do. More than the life that followed, it’s immigration that certainly gave me the eyes through which I see. I came to the US when I was seven and soon felt desperate to brush the Coming to America story under the carpet and camouflage into the New England suburb, yearning to be like any regular American kid. The more banal and average, the better.

But with age, I became fascinated by my parents’ retelling of their youth in Moscow and the time capsule effect—as if that city, that place still held their experiences. And yet, sadly, far removed in space and time from both their current lives here and the Moscow of today, the memories float rootless.

I wondered about the immigrant’s illusory vision of the past, the reshaping or loss of culture, the painful desire to adapt to a new country, and the gnawing feeling of displacement. And while there is so much joy and luck in ending up in America (perhaps a former, kinder America), there is also loss and longing for what you’ve left behind.

Feinstein: In which series do you feel it plays out the most?

Rozovsky: I think all my work deals with these questions in some way but the Prospect Park project was a direct chance to think about and express a lot of this. And definitely to celebrate it in a quiet way. Circling around that multicultural oasis, the many backgrounds coexisting in a kind of paradise, the ideals and visions of democracy and equality are real and palpable.

And as I write this now and listen to the news about immigration and our own president’s waywardness in reversing the migration flow, the idea of the American melting pot no longer feels like a cliché but a threatened treasure.

Untitled (from In Plain Air), Prospect Park,

Brooklyn 2011-2016 © Irina Rozovsky

Image from Rozovsky’s ongoing collaboration with Mark Steinmetz via A New Nothing

Feinstein: Who are some of the largest influences on your work. What’s driving you?

Rozovsky: The organic swiftness of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s images is what helped me fall in love with photography. But it has always been books and stories that brought me out of my world into a bigger one and in turn influenced my work—Chekov, Nabokov, Cortazar, Salinger, Bashevis Singer.

Lately, my world has become insular and my mind’s distracted. But when something gets through it hits hard and luckily I live with my favorite photographer, so I can always feast my eyes. Recently, however, paintings have touched me deepest, amongst them, Richard Gerstl, James Ensor, Egon Schiele’s The Family, and flooring me completely was Raphael’s Madonna and Child that I saw at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.

Feinstein: Over the past couple years you’ve collaborated on visual conversations with other photographers. Initially with Mark Steinmetz on Ben Alper and Nathaniel Ward’s project A New Nothing, and more recently with Manjari Sharma for last year’s Talking Pictures exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Have these colaborative processes influenced how think about image-making?

Rozovsky: For me, photography is an act of flying solo. Once in a while, there is sudden, mutual understanding with a subject, and making a portrait feels like a collaboration in that we’re both doing our roles to create the image together. The two photo conversations I’ve been lucky to engage in felt like poker games or ping pong marathons where two lonely aviators echo back and forth across the divide. It also felt like a form of letter writing.

Both conversations have broadened my take on photography, giving me an outlet for and a chance to consider seriously images made with the iPhone loosened me up regarding the typical photography project and showed me the continued value of improvisation and play.

With Manjari, the fact that we were pregnant and due to deliver our babies nearly at the same time gave us a powerful thematic shell that unified our distinct voices. And the fact that the exchange had a beginning and end date gave it a destination. That was a very different way for me to work and a huge thrill. With Mark, the conversation is very ongoing, fluid, and connected by intuitive threads. Both projects have shown me how life and art become one or at least blur the lines.

Images from Rozovsky’s collaboration with Manjari Sharma’s collaboration for The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Talking Pictures” exhibition
Images from Rozovsky’s collaboration with Manjari Sharma’s collaboration for The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Talking Pictures” exhibition

Feinstein: Congrats on your recent child! Has parenthood influenced your the way you think about the world photographically?

Rozovsky: Thank you! Yes, it absolutely turned it upside down and inside out. I am writing this right now with one constant eye on our 10-month daughter who plays by my side and with a single smile makes me forget myself and everything about the world outside.

Feinstein: Your editor and assistant!

Rozovsky: Having a child is an indescribable and astounding change and there is no way to prepare for it or be in control. At the moment, my practice is in shambles, but it’s a good challenge and I’m finding ways to continue photographing, in short spurts on my own or together with Amelia, the stroller as a tripod.

What’s most shattering is how caring for and loving madly this helpless human stirs up a storm of emotions that redefine how you relate to the world and other people. It puts things in their place, helps you tap into the mysterious cycle of life and death and the reason behind most things, while other things stop making sense entirely, like the passage of time, cruelty, violence. These life forces and animal instincts are something I’d like to put in photographs.

Feinstein: From time to time, I’ll ask photographers I interview to give me a haiku (or two) describing their practice. If you’re up for it, care to tackle this one?

Rozovsky: Light glows on your cheek, Winks knowingly towards the lens, Then kills me softly.

The image of a Lifetime unfolds before me But I’m out of film

Untitled, (from Mountain Black Heart), former Yugoslavia, 2015-2016 © Irina Rozovsky