Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Lili Almog's Perfect Intimacy

For two years, Lili Almog photographer Carmelite nuns living in Israel, Palestine and in Port Tobacco, Maryland. In Perfect Intimacy, through a mix of portraiture and still life, we are allowed a look into a secluded world. We become privy to the lives of the nuns as they go about their daily chores and service of their “love affair” with God.

Although they look like they stepped from central casting for a film of ruler wielding nuns frustrated with youthful impertinence, these aren’t the types. Almog created an accomplished set of formal portraits of several nuns photographed individually against the same wall. In these, we are given a sense of an individual focused on their personal quests. For the rest of the work, Almog serves up well made but obligatory versions of them at prayer and several still lives that are straight from the playbook of any competent documentarian.

Even though we may think we may have already seen images akin to these, what is shown here does contain a strong power of seduction. Seduction is everywhere from the clothing and characters to the quality of light and color palette. Almog's skill and her subjects draw your attention.

The habits (clothing) of the nuns becomes our focal point. The way that cloth falls and folds under its own weight is described in almost fetishistic fashion throughout the book. Grace is felt in these photos partly due to the descriptions of such fabrics.

The natural light is beautiful in these photos. So beautiful that one might be reminded of the light Vermeer was able to describe so deftly.

We also may be seduced in a way that directly correlates to our present age. This is an insular world. A world free from the clutter of ever-present consumerism. Lives are boiled down to the basics and are pleasantly manageable. Our responsibilities have been simplified. Looking at the rooms in which they live, the description of the spaces provide the same gratification one might get from looking at an Ikea catalog or a Container Store flyer. Order reigns.

But with all of this seduction going on, there are occasional instances when the photographs fail at a fundamental level. After enjoying the natural light in one picture, we turn the page to find Almog has lit the next scene with a flash. Albeit this only happens 8 or 9 times in the book and I can imagine out of necessity, her technique is bad and comes across as a flat, vulgar wash. It achieves a consciousness in the viewer that photography is taking place and removes us from the photograph no matter how enticing it may try to be. Another descriptive problem is that her vantage point often exaggerates the distorting qualities of the lens she chose to use. The resulting distortion of walls and furniture is achieves the same effect of distraction.

These criticisms may seem and probably are subjective but for me, they are the failure of the main responsibility a photographer has, which is to tame all of the elements into a complete and irreducible form.

My last piece of criticism is that, although I like this book, what I am not sure of is how much it enlightens us to what life in a monastery is like apart from our preconceived notions. We have here a nice set of pictures but in the end it is more like a confirmation of our mental images rather than a revelation to them.

The book is well designed and printed and was published by Powerhouse Books in 2005. Mark Gisbourne contributes a well written essay that is equally informative of the Carmelite sect and of Lili Almog’s work on this project.

Book Available Here