The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Pathways to Extinction:

Shirana Shahbazi and Igael Shemtov

Photo by Shirana Shahbazi . Source: onstellarrays.com
Shirana Shahbazi, "Dino" 2014

For Shirana Shahbazi and Igael Shemtov, a simple voyage home cannot escape a past on its way to extinction. And no wonder, for they both must make their way through the Middle East.

Iran and Israel, it turns out, have something in common after all — being on the way to somewhere else. Shahbazi and Shemtov each present family portraits of their native countries, each building displacement into their working methods. Shahbazi, born in Tehran, documents a return home from Zurich, where she lives and works. Shemtov imposes the clumsiness of amateur photography on others, strangers really, in Israel.

Shabazi enlarges her photos and converts them to two-color lithographs, with unearthly flesh tones and frighteningly pink or orange skies. She nurtures the grain and isolation of subjects held at a distance by circumstances and compositions that they cannot control. And then gives pride of place to a creature that nature should have laid to rest long ago.

She opens with Dino, a pale green tyrannosaurus the size of a mountain range and in profile against one—cut off from the viewer by two long roads, a seemingly abandoned park, a tree up against its long neck, and the sheer unlikelihood of finding it there. Is it a double exposure or the record of an amusement park?

Photo by Igael Shemtov . Source: andreameislin.com
Igael Shemtov 1979

Shemtov closes in on an actual playground in the form of a beached whale. Playground equipment keeps its eyes wide and its jaws agape, but it looks less threatening than in its death throes. It might have coughed up Jonah in some mythic past when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. Children appear to have given it a wide berth.

Photo by Shirana Shahbazi . Source: onstellarrays.com
Shirana Shahbazi, "Diner" 2014

The photographers share other subjects as well. She (Shahbazi) has a tent by the shore, he two empty lounge chairs by the Dead Sea. She has the interior of a diner that may or may not still be able to serve guests, he a sink with no one to do the dishes, a chef too sullen or tired to appreciate his own display of food, and a table with a napkin holder but no place settings. She has hikers on their way to a broad cluster of cheap housing, set into a mountain pass like an apparition. He has children walking the beach toward apartment towers that nearly block the sky. She has an easy chair hardly providing rest, he a blanket covering only an ass.

Photo by Igael Shemtov . Source: andreameislin.com
Igael Shemtov, "The Photo Album, Volume II, #59" 1979

Both capture people struggling to keep up appearances. Shahbazi photographs a woman from behind, tossing a beautiful head of hair. Shemtov has an overweight couple smiling for the camera, as if to make up for its distance. For him especially, the effort may go for little. An infant in its mother's arms looks like a corpse, much as in Renaissance paintings in which the very birth of Jesus foretells his death. Parked cars look abandoned, while others look shrouded by the tarps that protect them from the weather.

Shahbazi is more open to beauty, reveling in the strangeness of her color shifts and the deep shadows of untitled film stills. A pool glimmers beneath the outlines of something unseen, and a blue curtain approaches abstraction, as moving in its response to gravity as a dying saint's robe by Francisco de Zurbarán. He is more open to anxiety. Both, though, are open to comedy and to artifice. In each case, too, the story belongs ambiguously to their subjects and to them. She has a road sign marking the distance to her destination, and it is far, far away.

Photo by Shirana Shahbazi . Source: onstellarrays.com
Shirana Shahbazi, "Qazvin/ Tehran" 2014

Other photographers, such as Barry Frydlender and Stephen Shore, make lives in the region inseparable from its politics. Shahbazi and Shemtov avoid politics assiduously, but somehow it keeps creeping back. They are, after all, making family albums, but in fractured territory. That territory, too, is in a state of uncertainty. Shemtov's photos date from 1979 and 1980, when negotiations with Palestinians seemed remote but before the political supremacy of extremists on both sides, and Shahbazi, no doubt, has returned to Zurich. One can look for hope in what they share, including an eye, but also despair. Unsettled means ripe for change, but fear has a way of keeping people apart and on the path to extinction.

Photo by Shirana Shahbazi . Source: andreameislin.com
Shirana Shahbazi, "The Photo Album, Volume II, #38" 1979

Shirana Shahbazi ran at On Stellar Rays through June 14, 2015, Igael Shemtov at Meislin through June 27.

Pathways to Extinction:

Shirana Shahbazi and Igael Shemtov
by John Haber

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