Meaningful Exposure: Photographer Yola Monakhov

by Jeffrey Turner

Widely-acclaimed New York City-based photographer Yola Monakhov was a guest at the Old Dominion University 34th Annual Literary Festival in October 2011, where her show Lebende Bilde was exhibited at the Baron and Ellin Gorden Galleries in Norfolk. Her photographs an instant hit with everyone who attended, Monakhov then gave a craft talk for the festival crowds, where she displayed a genuine good humor that went hand in hand with her honest modesty. When I contacted her a week later about an interview and mentioned that people were still talking about her fantastic presentation she dismissed the positive feedback as “heresay.”

Monakhov received her MFA from Columbia in 2007, and her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Newsweek, El Mundo, Die Weltwoche, and Columbia. As a photojournalist she has travelled the world. She now teaches at Smith College and Columbia.

JT: I apologize for this pun, but: what was your first exposure to photography?

YM: When did I first encounter photography in my life or when did I first start doing photography? Or, I think, another kind of interesting thing is when one first remembers a picture they saw? I’ll answer the question in a more straightforward way, which is: I took photography as, maybe, a junior in high school, and loved it right away.

JT: That was your first meaningful exposure?

YM: No, no. My first meaningful exposure came twenty years later. That was the first time I started doing it and started seeing with a camera. I don’t think I understood it technically very well, as well as I should have. But I liked it as an excuse to go out into and be in the world and have a kind of engagement with the world. And I also really liked being in the dark room. I remember finding solace there when it was the lunch hour in the high school and I could go and be in my own peaceful space in the dark room.

JT: Do you still take photos in a traditional format? Are you using film?

YM: I do a variety of things. For my projects I mostly, or maybe, I exclusively work with film. I tend to use medium- or large-format cameras. So I use roll film or sheet film. And depending on the project it can be color or black and white. And then depending on color or black and white, the way I’ve worked so far, if it is black and white then I work in the dark room with gelatin over prints completely traditionally. And of course scanning plays a role because you use it as part of the editing process. With color I traditionally have also worked in an analog fashion, using a color enlarger and a color dark room. And these color prints, which are called heat prints or chromogenic prints. Recently with this Lebende Bilder project I shot film in the same fashion, but then I made high resolution scans of film and made prints called digital heat prints or digital chromogenic prints, which means that it is printed on chemically treated, light sensitive paper. But instead of it – the paper – being exposed all at once by an enlarger in a traditional fashion it is going through a machine and the light rays going across it imprint the information on the paper from a digital file.

JT: So it’s almost like a projection?

YM: Yeah, exactly. One thing that happens making your own traditional heat prints is that you are doing everything. And with this process you work with the lab. You send the file to the lab. And this machine, the chromera, projects the image onto the paper and then the paper goes through the chemical process.

JT: Is that process different for different photographers?

YM: There are, right now, really quite a few options. I would say that maybe the most common thing that photographers do, working in color these days, whether they are working in film or digitally, they tend to make what are called in, common parlance, inkjet prints. So what most people do is rather than use light sensitive paper that you can’t open in white light, they are using inkjet paper and imprinting them to make these prints. But there are many different options. Or even a gelatin silver print, which is the most traditional dark room print, even for that there are digital silver prints and services that will make a gelatin silver print from a scan. Hybridity is the name of the game in terms of any kind of highly analogical process becoming digital and vice versa.

JT: It is fascinating that there is the movement towards hybridity to enable movement back and forth.

YM: Yeah and maybe, if you take a wider view of it there is also this interest in alternative processes, and other kinds of handmade things. A lot of people working with alternative processes, which are really 19th century, have a digital component to the process in terms of how the negative is printed. But some people will do the process with a digital component and some will do it in a truly analog fashion and of course in an extra digital space it is very easy to try to make something look like it was produced in the 19th century. So there is all this back and forth conversation and interplay.

JT: So there is this updating and retro-ing everything?

YM: Yeah, yes.

JT: So you mentioned Lebende Bilder. I was curious. When I was looking at all the photos in the Baron and Ellin Gordon Galleries, I couldn’t help it, some of them, really, made me laugh.

YM: Which ones made you laugh?

JT: There was one in particular. You had staged the white canvas or background and it looked like the apple tree was reaching into the photo. It looked like a candid shot with friends and the apple tree was sort of reaching into the spotlight. Is my humor way off?

YM: Was that the one with the blue back ground? With red apples or green apples?

JT: They looked like red McIntoshes.

YM: Yeah, I know which one you are talking about. That is a kind of a funny reading. A lot of the birds I see in a comical fashion. When I was in graduate school I curated an exhibition called The Dead Serious. The theme was humor in art. So, it is a subject I am interested in. But I also think I have gone back and forth with humor, because I have made a lot of somber work with a lot of gravitas. And then I’ve made a lot of humorous work. And with this project there is definitely a humorous dimension. I guess with the birds it is easier for me to see.

What you are describing is an anthropomorphic reading of this apple tree. And it makes sense to me because the theme of the background is conventional portraiture staging. What portraiture presupposes is a complicity with the subject of the self representation. And I am working with a subject that can’t actually have complicity on the level of plants or more extremely in the case of birds that actively do not wish to be there. I think that mildly cruel but humane treatment the birds receive visually, which honors their presence, but simultaneously forces them into a situation evokes a particular humorous discomfort in the viewer.

And then there are these anthropomorphic things in which you sometimes notice certain kinds of relationships or way animals appear that you can ascribe certain characteristics in terms of their demeanor. And sometimes those characteristics are humorous.

JT: As a viewer it felt that the tension of knowing the tree was not doing that, but the framing, the composition, made it appear that way. The humor came from the knowing the truth and the lie simultaneously. I was curious about your movement between somber serious subject and playfulness. You were in Afghanistan not too long ago, correct?

YM: The last time was in 2003. So it’s getting on there.

JT: Do you find that there is this intentional search for psychological relief from serious to playful or does it happen naturally, this back and forth?

YM: Just because Afghanistan is a place at war doesn’t mean there isn’t humor there or in my pictures. The thing that impressed me most, just on a personal level, about working in Afghanistan was the sense of humor of the people and certain kinds of ironic examples of post-modernity in this kind of global context I encountered. I think I have a picture of all the guards on my website with their weapons, eating lunch on the floor with an elaborate display and posters of global capitals pasted all around the room in a garish green color. Even working in that kind of context I found humor to be abundant.

JT: And maybe out of necessity for a greater need for humor? In the tension of the way things are and the way we wish things to be is similar to the way you constructed the apple tree photo and the way a war challenges us?

YM: And maybe you can psychologize the culture and say maybe there is a need for it at that level, and at the level of the viewer and an understanding of all the different layers of baggage one brings to the situation and what one reads the situation to be. Though eventually seeing that, one understands the people and the place as having a wider context for interpreting what is going on.

JT: Is that something you actively try to capture? Is that something you discover at home when you are looking through your photos? How do you think that process works?

YM: Well, the photojournalism era is a funny thing for me. I do feel like it has been quite awhile and I think I have changed quite a lot. I think it is a little tricky for me to reflect on what kind of person I was then, but I think I studied literature as an undergraduate and a graduate student right out of college. And I was always interested in textuality and intertextuality and the complexity of documents and experience. I think that was something I brought to it.

On the other hand, in Afghanistan, working within the conventions of photojournalism, I was supposed to be more pathetic, as in “evoking pathos,” in less comic tones. Looking back I’m not sure where I was in regard to that. I certainly remember, and it might not be polite to say, but in the hotel where I was staying with other members of the western press there was a lot of humor in coming to terms with the culture. I remember a male colleague of mine walking around in a mini burqa – he made it somehow – showing off his skin. We all got a kick out of the mini burqa and the absurdity of hiding a woman. And how painful it was to think about what the burqa was. And maybe, what you said, about relief.

And also understanding you are there as a spectator. And in a way there is an implication of subject and object of inquiry in the Lebende Bilder project. Of having these specimens in front of the lens for examination and understanding these are the objects of inquiry and we are the inquirers. At the same time you realize it is you who is the absurd specimen of inquiry as much as the thing you are there to record.

JT: You mentioned early your interest in textuality and intertextuality. In your statement on the website you mention your interest in photography and poetry. What is the relationship of poetry and photography to you?

YM: In some ways I see this as a common place. In graduate school, studying with Thomas Roma, there was this philosophy of photography as [being] like poetry, and cinema like fiction or longer narrative form. And a lot of it had to do with the question: What can photographs tell you about the world? What is their function? My students just took a midterm about Alexander Gardner, a civil war photographer, assistant to the famous photographer/agent Mathew Brady. Gardner broke out and made his own images. One of the photographs was of a Rebel soldier lying with his weapon next to a big rock.

John Charkovsky, in the accompanying essay, talks about the fact that the photograph can give you a kind of feeling about the place, and present you with this stark image of death and at the same time doesn’t tell you anything about the war or why we are here fighting this war. Yet it gives you so much other information you have a hard time knowing what the photograph is trying to say about these factual matters, particularly with the blue and gray uniforms in black and white photographs. They all look the same. But the photograph still creates a particular type of expression, a relationship to memory, a particular type of gesture, a sense of presence, some kind of parcel of time or distension of time, and a particular kind of unique experience. And it is that quality you might describe as a lyric quality. As a photojournalist I used to think that photographs were truly narrative and [now] I stopped thinking that. I’m interested in this other way that photographs function. And that is a kind of beginning point for me in the thought process.

I worked on a project, with which I am not done or fully satisfied, of Dante’s Divine Comedy titled Photographs After Dante. I mentioned I studied literature and specifically Italian Literature before I decided to go off and become a photojournalist. I was interested in Dante and the idea of a master text and in all the complexity of the poem, in the story of an imaginary world, and the story of the afterlife as the story of this life and the role of vision in the poem. Especially, I was interested in this sort of realistic experience of the natural environment, the political world, human relationships and the acute detail of the descriptions amidst the eschatological narrative. I wanted to keep that idea of the relationship of poetry and photography. I wanted to point the camera at things in the world, in Italy, that may have some relationship to the text of the Divine Comedy, as the Divine Comedy is Italy’s master text. I did have an exhibition of it, but I meant it as a book project. I intended to come back, to explore that relationship as there is a lot of room for abstraction and thinking about how the text functions.

JT: The way you approach your project with a sort of idea in mind – are you using that as a means to give your project scope or for direction?

YM: I think it is a convention in photographic art making that is not employed by everyone, but is quite commonly employed to work in projects. There are people who work or think in shows that pull together many, many different things. There is also this notion of seriality and there will be more and more and more and they are all going to be like this. To be honest I am not fully comfortable with this notion of the project because I haven’t completely understood it, but I am using it as a way to proceed. I am always conscious of the question of what is the space between the project. What is my relationship to the materials? What is my relationship to seeing? Maybe these projects are just islands in a bigger archipelago. If I can use that metaphor. But they do provide these kinds of categories in which I can place my effort, so I tend to concentrate on one thing at a time. But I always have other things going. I understand that certain types of efforts go in this jar but if it doesn’t fit in that jar it, maybe, goes in the other jar. If it doesn’t fit any existing jar maybe I need to start a new jar.

JT: So you use it as a way of critiquing yourself and managing your time?

YM: There is also this thing about time and materiality and maybe narrative, whether it is actually narrative as a noun, which may not be narrative as an adjective. But to say that you are creating something that has multiple forms means you are thinking about building relationships and accruing and the old thing, the original thing, may fall away.

I always ask myself the question at the end of a particular project: Do you need all twenty photographs or all one-hundred? Maybe you only needed one. It’s strange how photography works, because editing is such a big part of it. We set the standards for our own editing. I know that most of these photographs I may not use but I feel the compulsion to use twenty of them even if I don’t need all twenty to say what I want to say.

I think, practically speaking, when you work on a show or a book, there is this other question of the roll of books and their relationship to photography, which is hugely important. If you think of a show or a book, you do need some kind of multiplicity, which is greater than the sum of its parts in terms of articulating what you want to say or allowing certain kinds of unexpected things to occur.

JT: Do you find there is that struggle between the spontaneous and the planned?

YM: In terms of one’s vision?

JT: Or achieving your vision. I was curious about the way you managed the editing versus the inspiration that comes from the subject as you work with it more.

YM: I think there is room for all these things. I think in the act of making the photograph there is something that is unaccountable. So it can never be a perfect expression of what you had imagined. And that doesn’t exist. If it did exist you would heed it, because there is some element of surprise like the translation process.

The translation process brings you back to the original. You do this clunky thing that is the translation which, when you’re lucky, takes you to this ineffable thing, which is the photograph. In that sense of discovering it as though it had already been there. I think there is always, definitely room for that. Regardless of how one works that is what the thrill of photography is always about. Of course there is always somber decision making and strategizing and careful editing and careful work in the dark room and negotiating with subjects and all that kind of other stuff.

JT: Those are so many of the same terms we use in poetry. We talk about surprise and the ineffable.

YM: No surprise for the writer no surprise for the reader.

JT: Exactly! And you implied the perfect photograph may not be perfect.

YM: The perfect or complete articulation of one’s intentionality tends to not be exciting because one’s intentionality or intention is limited. If you fully control the thing you are making there isn’t a chance for the language to speak through you. Maybe, at the end of the day what you rigorously envisioned is not the most attractive thing, but the thing that in your rigorous process comes to occupy the space that you envisioned, [and] is not exactly the same thing you envisioned. It is a wonderful thing. It may have something to do with the love of functions, and the trope of narcissism: Why we don’t want to fall in love with ourselves, and why we search for that other thing. Photography has a relationship to that encounter with whatever us unknown.

JT: When you are standing behind the camera is there a sense of communication with your subject? Do you feel like you are listening to it? Or is there a dialogue taking place?

YM: Yeah, of course you are constructed, somehow, by it. As much as you construct it and are responsive to it, there is also the way in which the subject constructs itself. The camera is there and what are you, the photographer, doing at the end of the day? You aren’t even making a drawing or writing something down or finding the words in this repertoire or quiver of words. In photography the thing is rendering itself somehow. Why have you chosen to allow this thing to render itself? And what does that action mean? It has this relationship to selection and the readymade. Why has this readymade thing in the world allowed me and my photographic apparatus to stand before it? It is that very complex relationship to the material of which you and your actions are part of the material.

JT: Would you describe photography as a found art? If you are taking a photograph of a building you can’t say the building found you, but when it is found it seems as though it has found you. Perhaps the distinction between who is doing the finding is a mute point?

YM: Yes, yes sure there is that sense. And then always the fact that it is not really a photograph of a building but two dimensional space that you are filling with shapes that may indicate a building or whatever else goes along with that to various degrees.

I do think it is a found art by definition. It is, among other things, some kind of index to things that are in the world. Many artists play with that notion of index-cality and the relationship to the world. It has been very popular in recent years to undermine that relationship and to make a work that is fully invented and has nothing to do with the thing in the world. That is something I am very interested in.

In Lebende Bilder I create the conditions for these things to be seen in a particular way, of course, I am taking these conditions from a historic set of conditions, which are, say, the language of the still-life 19th century print.

Part of it being a found art is in the pedigree. In addition there is the framing and the selection is the meaningful gesture is the big thing in contemporary art. And the notion of what it means to find becomes complicated, which gets into the space of intervention, which is something I am doing in Lebende Bilder. I am making these tableaus. The name of my project is a German term and in French it is Tableau Vivante, which is a kind of a historical phenomenon in photography and theater. These tableaus don’t exist until I make them, but at the same time all the materials exist prior.

Also, I have this interest in these things in a bigger way than I possibly can access; the ineffable, the thing in nature, the relationship we can’t have or see of the space and then we get some kind of a glimmer of that space.

JT: So in Lebende Bilder you envision preparing a space and creating a space to provide the opportunity for these new occurrences to take place?

YM: Yes, I think that is well put.

JT: In another photo in the Lebende Bilder collection, with several birds towards the bottom, the white background encompassed the frame of the photo and a bird is flying across the upper section of the photo. To me it was a fascinating play on technique where the bokeh, typically a blurring of the background is, in your photo instead, a blurring of the fore grounded object or bird. It really attracted my eye. Would you talk about that technically?

YM: Technically it is incredibly challenging. My depth of field can be millimeters deep. When I have a bird in focus a small piece of it is in focus and you move a centimeter down and it is no longer in focus because I’m focused so close. How do you focus on things in motion? Can you predict the space that they will travel through? I was interested in the space created above the birds on a perch and who might travel through that space and the moment of travel. If I had had complete control I would have made it in focus, but I couldn’t because it was flying through a different plane.

JT: There would be that sense of surprise you were talking about.

YM: Yes, exactly.

JT: You mentioned this idea of mildly cruel but humane treatment of the birds. Could you talk about the idea of the hole in the background?

YM: My husband came up with that idea. He said to me, “You would have nothing if it weren’t for me.” I was working on, and I haven’t given up hope yet, making a trigger mechanism. I think I first envisioned it like a drawing project. You’ll have a sheet of paper and then this is where the bird will be represented and the bird will be in flight. And it would all work out in the way that it would be drawn. Somehow it works like language, and the way language and drawing have in common, that you can put something in a place, wherever you want it to be.

I planned to photograph them when they were let go. I quickly discovered the very first time out, they go so fast, there is no way I can actually get them in the frame. I thought about the possibility of some sort of laser trigger in which they photograph themselves. I haven’t quite gotten one to work yet. In the meantime, while I’m working on the trigger mechanism, my husband came up with the idea of the hole.

I thought, okay screw it, I can’t photograph it flying but I can photograph it being held. Of course then you have this gorgeous miniature bird and the hands tend to be beefy and monstrous by comparison. In some cases I’ve allowed hands to be in the work, because I am interested in the relationship between the bird and the hand. A lot of the time though I didn’t want the hand to be there, but I also didn’t mind revealing the mechanism by which the work is made. And then my husband came up with this idea of the hole and the bird’s legs can be held and the bird can be above the background.

JT: The hand and the bird were representations of the intention and surprise we were talking about before.

YM: Oh, yes.

JT: What I found particularly interesting about the work was the idea of exposing the process of the photography. I couldn’t recall seeing previous examples of photography about exposing the process of photography. Are there other examples, historically, of photographers who did that? Who inspired your thinking about this?

YM: Let’s think back to the very beginning of photography and think about who is exposing their process in photography. There are certain examples of early daguerreotypes where they have other photographs in the photographs, and that happened very quickly in the development of photography. There are some of these late nineteenth century photographers – Henry Peach Robinson, whose name gets cited a lot, even though, you want to say he is a really bad artist, but who photographed everything separately and collaged things together into these hyper realist assemblages. People who work in Photoshop often refer to him.

Let me take a much more contemporary example. Lee Freidlander, did an entire self-portraiture project, in which he is photographing himself in the mirror. So he is a sort of street photographer roving around, traveling around the country staying in a motel. He photographed himself in a motel mirror with a light bulb obscuring part of his head. He’s photographing himself in the window of a train. That level of self-consciousness, of the process in photography and revealing the process is very present in him. And of course the early post-modern work like Cindy Sherman creating these highly staged tableaus involving herself and Richard Prince re-photographing photographs. Let me think back to the early twentieth century – Man Ray solarizing negatives and making these things that are highly artificial.

I think there are games that photographers like to play, like the photograph as a false mirror, playing with reflections, framing negativisms and games with time that so many people have enjoyed exploiting. And those who don’t do it as a major part of their work will do it to some degree. Lee Friedlander is often called a photographer’s photographer. People who play games with the medium are loved by other practitioners of the medium, sometimes.

:JT: Do you find that you are inspired by their work?

YM: Lee Friendlander shames everyone. I tell my students all the time not to get discouraged because everything they try, he has already done. Who inspires me? In the whole history of photography it is really hard to select particular things or people.

Jacques Henri Lartigue, the child genius photographer from the early twentieth century France, is very humorous and playful. Helen Levitt is a fantastic street photographer who unfortunately passed away two years ago. Of course the whole history of the medium is inspiring.

Even outside the medium. Are photographers not inspired by Roman frescoes, mosaics, stature and architecture? And as you think about all these kinds of things, the values of a civilization, ways of depicting the figure, quickly the field of photography becomes very big.

JT: You mentioned teaching and your students. How do you encourage your students?

YM: They do find gratification, and I help them find gratification, in the simple act of doing the thing they are doing. There is a way in art making that one can be with one’s process regardless of what it is and the solace of being with it and to be aware of it and honor it. I think it is a reward of playfulness and trying something. One must find their own path through the forest, knowing the path you took through last time and find the reward in that.

JT: You don’t worry about critical perspective then?

YM: Of course one needs to be aware of it, but in the space of the contemporary art world there are so many ways to proceed it is very hard to say what the dominant trend is. If one is mindful of the kinds of things that are out there and one is willing to ask the tough questions of oneself then one can proceed in the way one wants. The critical perspective is not the thing that one has to worry about, because there is also the question of learning everything and unlearning everything.

JT: Do you have any advice for beginning photographers or art students in general?

YM: To actually make something is an incredible risk to take. To put one’s self out in the world in that and to say that you will be one who makes something because you are someone who has something to say or something to articulate. I think, for students, to not be afraid to honor the value of that.

Click here to go to Yola Monakhov’s website.

Jeremy Hulatt received his B.A. from Old Dominion University with an emphasis in creative writing. His work has been published in The Virginian-Pilot and various literary magazines such as Blue Collar Review and here at Barely South Review. He currently holds a leadership position in the financial industry, and continues to hone the craft of poetry. He enjoys nature, playing guitar, practicing photography, woodwork, and spending time with family.