Naomi Leshem is a Swiss-Israeli fine art photographer whose current series, Centered, just finished showing at the Andrea Meislin gallery in New York City. Her newest series is called Forty, which references both religion and the desert, and will be shown at The Jerusalem Artists’ House. I recently spoke to Naomi about both these collections as well her craft and life in general.
How did you enjoy growing up in Israel and Switzerland, and how does that affect your art?
I grew up in Israel, but was influenced by the Swiss culture, which is one side of my family. These two cultures are different, and even opposite sometimes, so I am sure the contrast enriched my world in different ways.
When did you think about becoming an artist and a photographer?
Art and art history are subjects I grew up with, and photography has always attracted me, so it was a natural path. After I finished my photography studies, I worked as an architecture photographer for a few years, patiently polishing my technical skills, and then I took the leap into fine art.
How did the idea for your series Centered come about?
As with all my ideas, I find them in my head, maybe from a dream or something I saw or heard which goes to my subconscious or unconscious. Then I started to think about the meanings and how I could visualize it. Most of my series are about an “in between” situation. This time I visualized it through images that deal with the interplay between the physical and the mental.
After having completed all ten images of the series, I took small prints of them and traveled around the world—Singapore, Europe and elsewhere—meeting random people and having conversations with them in order to hear and learn how my art is seen through the eyes of other people, and not just from the art world. I really wanted to know how their culture, religion, gender, education, and profession influence how they understand and feel about it.
Then I asked them to write in their own language a short text about what they saw. These manuscripts are a part of the Centered exhibition and are also in a book alongside the images and texts. There are manuscripts in Hindi, Chinese, Albanian, German, Hebrew, Arabic, Amharic, Russian, and Korean.
For the series Sleepers, how many subjects did you photograph, and how did you find them?
I photographed 32 teenagers from different countries, including Israel, Switzerland, Germany, France and the U.S. First I approached people from my surroundings, and then found subjects through other people. I looked for young people between the age of sixteen and twenty. That was the only guideline.
The lighting for Sleepers is not dark or moody, but rather very high key and bright. How did you decide to use this lighting aesthetic?
I didn’t want to describe the action or the environment of the sleep, but more to capture the portraiture of a sleeper. This is the most pure portrait as the subject is not fully aware. I wanted to get a clear visual of the person, and the physical state of the sleep.
George Carlin the comedian once said that if aliens came to earth, they would be astounded that creatures called humans go into this unusual trance like coma each day for eight hours. Is this along the lines of what interested you to explore with Sleepers? What were you trying to discover with this series?
This eight-hour coma is a fascinating thing. As I mentioned before, my works deal with “in between” situations. This time is the “in between” zone that exists in sleep — between life and death and between conscious and unconscious. The teenagers are in a phase between being children and adults, between being a child and a man or a woman.
How deep a sleep were your subjects in and how did you coordinate the shoots? Did you stay with them for hours?
An expert in sleep analyzed the photographs and said the subjects are between phase one and two of sleep — just after falling asleep and before going into REM, the deep sleep phase. One of the signs of this phase is the red lips most of the sleepers in my images have.
I prepared the equipment in their bedrooms before they went to sleep — a Hasselblad camera and lighting equipment. Then I got the framing and composition ready and let them fall asleep while I was outside the room. Then, after 15-30 minutes, I would go into the room, and if they were sleeping, I started to photograph.
In this phase of sleep they turned around once in a while, so I would go in and out of the room a few times over a period of several hours. Most did not wake up from the flashes, and if they did, then only for the first few shots.
In Runways, your series statement refers to “Runways for young women who will soon have to start their obligatory military service. They have an uncertain time ahead, as uncertain as each takeoff of the thundering military jets.” What does this mean?
I photographed young woman and girls before the age of eighteen, when they have to join the army for at least two years. I photographed them in this “in between” time zone, still being free and before joining the Israeli army.
They are still young and careless before having to be a part of something. It’s an uncertain time, not knowing what lies ahead. They are like the jets taking off from the military air force runways, going to unknown missions.
With some of your other series such as Lizette, Phantom, and Runways, it seems you like to revisit the same scene at different times and moments. What is the fascination with returning again?
Because I work in series, (Runways, Sleepers, The Way to Beyond, etc.) the concepts and the resulting images share the same idea and aesthetic. A series is a research project. In the Lizette series, returning to the same place every month at the same time of day and shooting the exact same frame — this was the concept itself.
How did you find the galleries you are with?
One was through an introduction, and the other knew my work for a while and decided the time was right to start working together.
What are your goals for the future?
To continue having passion, excitement, and ideas, and realizing these ideas through this wonderful medium of photography. And also to continue experiencing the influence that art has on me, and, hopefully, the influence my art may have on viewers, whoever and wherever they are.
What is the name of the new series? Which gallery is showing it, and what are you trying to say with it?
The name of the new series is Forty, which refers to the importance of this number in various religions which are connected to the desert. The exhibition will be presented at the Artists’ House in Jerusalem. Forty was photographed in the desert, in midday during mid summer when the light is bright and contrasty, yet shadowless.
The frames are built around scenes composed by nature itself. The framing gives these scenes another meaning that might have remained unseen and unnoticed, if they had not been photographed.