Before the moment
Photographer Chen Carmi’s personal portraits of dogs and humans at 1078
“Dogs serve as a key motif in my work. … When I look at a stray dog (strong muscles, limp flesh, crude fur, running through a side dirt path), I wonder: Where does it go in such haste? What causes him to suddenly gallop, suddenly stop? I recognize a total loneliness in it, almost a biblical decree.” These are the almost-poetic words of 34-year-old Israeli-born photographer Chen Carmi from her website (www.chencarmi.com).
Until recently, Carmi considered herself to be a social photographer whose pictures are in effect a still-life documentary of various urban surroundings around the world (including such far-flung places as Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia). The CSU, Long Beach MFA student’s first solo exhibition of photographs, on display through Jan. 27 at 1078 Gallery, is more intimate, however—focused on people and dogs. The show is titled, fittingly, The Portraits of.
“It’s important to say that, even though most of my work would be considered to be documentary, this specific show is focused on portraits,” Carmi offered recently. “Portraits of my family, my family’s dogs, friends and a pack of stray dogs that I shot lately.”
Carmi said that when she first started working on her current show, she had “a somewhat different idea of what I wanted to do, and I gave a lot of thought about the idea of the portrait, and so I [originally] planned to present a greater variety of portraits of animals and humans.” But “things happened,” as she put it somewhat mysteriously. “It was my third year far from my family [in Israel], my beloved dog died, and I met someone I liked. Suddenly, my show narrowed down.” To mostly dogs.
When asked what emotion or thought most drives her in the selection of her subject matter, Carmi said that it is the sense of aloofness: “It’s in the eyes of my subjects, the empty streets and my steady walk. I hardly stop. I take photos very quickly. I always keep walking.” She said that the aloofness she is drawn to “has a lot to do with the ‘mute communication’ that interests me,” which she also describes as “the disability to speak.
“But it is not about a language,” she went on. “Yes, it’s easier to get there when you are a foreigner, especially when you don’t speak the native language, but the essence of mute communication and the conflict between eagerness and doubtfulness are everywhere.” Dogs, as it turns out, are even better subjects in the realm of mute communication than people could ever be.
Are dogs self-conscious when being photographed? “I cannot know for sure, of course,” Carmi answered, “but I do believe it’s not very different from humans. It’s funny when it is revealed in the acting of the manipulative domestic dog, and it’s heartbreaking when it’s the fear of a small dog in a crowded train station.”
As for the often unplanned, uncalculated appearance of her photos, Carmi brings up the term “the decisive moment,” a key term in photography. “It refers to a certain moment that the photographer chooses to capture,” the exact moment when all of the elements in the photographer’s field of vision come together to create a desired picture. “I don’t like these moments,” said Carmi. “I think it’s boring, and not important as much as the moments that led to it.
“Think about photos of animals in a magazine such as National Geographic,” she said. “Sure, they are all very thrilling, but are they really different from one another? Are the roaring lion or the woman in the market any more than icons? And what about the photographer? Can you sense anything personal about him? … The National Geographic is just an example, but you can find the desire for this empty perfection—which to me looks almost like a fetish—in many forms of art.”