Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Conversation with Michal Chelbin

On the occasion of the opening of her latest solo show in New York at Andrea Meislin Gallery, we are delighted to present a conversation with the visionary Michal Chelbin.
If you are not familiar with Michal Chelbin yet, you nonetheless might have seen her compelling images in the pages of The New Yorker, PDN or other publications. Aperture recently published her first monograph titled "Strangely Familiar: Acrobats, Athletes and Other Traveling Troupes" this April.
In this interview Michal speaks about her process of creation, her somewhat unusual path to fine art photography and her love for painting and light.

From Strangely Familiar © Michal Chelbin

NP: Tell us a little about yourself.

MC: I was born in the city of Haifa, Israel. I started my interest in photography at the age of 15, when I joined the photography department in a high school for the arts. No one from my family --not my sisters/parents/grandparents-- had any skills or ambitions in the fine art, but I was immediately drawn to it, especially to photography. After high school, like everyone in Israel, I did my military service.

From Strangely Familiar
© Michal Chelbin

NP: How did you discover Photography?

MC: I served as a photographer in the Spokesman unit for 2 years, gaining experience in field photography. I remember already then I wanted to direct my subjects and I didn't settle for just shooting it documentary style or watching from the side. I wanted to create my own image. After the army I worked briefly as a news photographer in Israel, and hated every minute of it. I couldn't photograph people in their grief, crying in hospitals or in court rooms. Besides, I was always late and eventually got fired…. I enrolled in the Photo dept of the Wizo academy of design in Haifa, where I studied for four years. It gave me the frame work to start working on my own personal projects which I continue to do so until today.

From Strangely Familiar © Michal Chelbin

NP: Where do you find inspiration?

MC: When I work on a photograph, either I have an image in my head which I go and create or it is an idea that I get from a subject, a location or just on set. It is all staged and what I do is to combine elements that interest me (nothing, by the way, is digitally manipulated- I shoot negs and print from the negative).
Because I shoot portraits I can say that people are my first inspiration. They are intriguing, mysterious and unsolved and therefore casting is very important to me. Sometimes, the "star" of my photographs would be the brother or the mother or neighbor or the grandfather of the person I originally came for. I search for people who have a legendary quality about them- a mix between odd and ordinary.
I spend a lot of time with the people I photograph and I usually photograph each person more than once and sometimes I return to them after months or years.

From Strangely Familiar & The Chapel © Michal Chelbin

NP: How do your projects come about?

I usually start a project with a group of people who have some narrative in common. For example, in “Strangely Familiar” I can say that most of the people that appear in these images are not from the “mainstream” and they are mainly local or small town performers, like acrobats, ballroom dancers and contortionists (although in some cases you can tell what their talent are, I think in most cases it hard to say what their professions are).
I usually contact the group in advance and we set up a time for me to come. But (and this is important), any group I cast is just a starting point for me to wonder/explore from --and I usually do veer from the initial starting point because I am looking to capture an idea, and to incorporate all the elements that interests me. To fulfill my vision I have to work within the moment.
As I mentioned it is all staged, so besides the casting for me it is also about location or space and light. These three elements are what I work with.
Although my work is staged and therefore controlled, I can say that I am a great believer in intuition, in “happy accidents” on the set -- and in just going and taking photographs of something that interests you, without thinking about it too much.

Other influences are the history of painting and the history of photography. I am fascinated by the great masters such as Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Vermeer and Velasquez. I consider them to be among the first photographers, because of their use of light and space, and also for casting “ordinary” people as models. It is something that is always in my mind when I shoot. The same goes for the history of photography; I can name Diane Arbus, Mary Allen Mark, August Sander and Julia Margaret Cameroon as influences.

From Strangely Familiar © Michal Chelbin

NP: What’s next?

MC: In terms of exhibitions I have two solo shows opening in September –one opens on September 4 at Andrea Meislin Gallery in New York and the other opens on September 12 at Tel Aviv Museum in Israel. Both will include photographs from “Strangely Familiar: Acrobats, Athletes and Other Traveling Troupes”, my first monograph which was recently published by Aperture.
I am also working on 3 different personal projects, all portraits.
Two are still in early stages. The third one is nearly done - It is portraits of athletes and wrestlers and it will be published as my second book in fall 2009 by Twin Palms publishers.

NP: Thank you so much! We will see you at your opening tonight!

Michal Chelbin @
Andrea Meislin Gallery
Presenting: Strangely Familiar
526 West 26th Street, Suite 214
New York, New York 10001
September 4 - October 18, 2008
Opening Reception & Book Signing: Tonight --September 4, 6-8pm

Michal's work will also be on view at the Tel Aiv Museum of Art starting September 12, 2008 and you can view her work online at:


Anonymous said...

Please post an audio interview with Michal Chelbin!! Thanks!!!

Anonymous said...

thank you so much for bringing this artist to my attention.