A young woman named Moria looks up at the sun while sitting on a thin wire cable. She finds her balance by keeping one leg straight, the other bent at almost a right angle. Her shadow is right beneath her. Naomi Leshem’s photograph was taken in Yakum Park in Israel as part of a series called “Centered,” now on view at the Andrea Meislin Gallery in Chelsea.
The title of the exhibit gives a clue about the five large photographs of young women, each balancing on the wire in a different setting in the nature reserve, and five photographs of young men, each sitting alone in the shade of acacia trees in the Negev desert. While the young women find a physical core to maintain a difficult balance, the young men have had to reach some inner center, to wait, with no cell phones, books or music. Raz leans against a tree whose strong trunk slants leftward; Eyal sits under a young tree in a grove planted in rows. Several nearby trees look like the “Y” in his name.
The young women are poised and look serene, yet the viewer recognizes that in the next moment, or the moment after that, they’ll feel a shift in balance and will either slip off the cable or jump down. The guys look at peace, as though they could remain in their solitude for hours.
The photos are richly colored and detailed, as Leshem captures shadow, wild greenery, stripes of desert grasses, ripples in a nearby stream, a tattoo on a girl’s right ankle and the steady gaze of her subjects as they face challenging situations. She began with the young women, shooting each at high noon on a different day. For the young men, she’d drive with them into the desert, until they found an appealing tree.
If one thinks of prayer as the poet Edward Hirsh describes it, as “passionate attention,” Leshem’s photos are prayerful, deeply observed and full of reverence.
She focuses on moments of transition, between tension and contemplation, precariousness and calm, anticipation and acknowledgment, heaven and earth.
“Photography freezes one second,” she says in an interview. “In this one second I deal with a process that is continuous.”
In an essay, “Locating the Center,” in the exhibition catalog, Kobi Ben-Meir of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem writes that Leshem is “intensively preoccupied” with time.
As she was finishing the photographs and considering the work as a series, Leshem sensed that what was missing was a connection with the viewer. So she began a new phase of the project: for the first time, she traveled around the world, carrying a portfolio of the 10 images and eliciting responses from strangers. Her first stop was Singapore, chosen because of its distance, diversity and spoken English. She knew no one. Traveling alone, she met people and then met others though them. These were not people involved in the art world, just random people with whom she set up two-hour conversations about the work, usually in their homes. After Singapore, she held additional conversations in Switzerland, Germany and Israel. Leshem is a gentle, dignified, engaging person, and it’s easy to see how she might orchestrate meaningful encounters.
She took down their English words in the first hour, and then asked them to write something in their own languages, by hand. Those notes hang in the gallery as manuscripts — in Korean, Hindu, Chinese, Amharic, Hebrew, Yiddish and German — untranslated, and adding to the show’s mystique.
Martin from Germany writes two pages in a flowing script that looks like he’s of a generation that studied penmanship. Divya writes both her name and Mumbai in English, and then the rest in an Indian language, with three paragraphs of beautiful letters on very straight lines. Loretta of Singapore is brief — five lines of neat Chinese characters, with an insert above one line. The Arabic piece by Raafat is arranged in a symmetrical design, its letters centered, as if it were poetry.
In Yiddish, Peretz shares advice, “Think good and it will be good. Thought creates reality … at the root, one must be optimistic and not only in trying times but always, from morning services to reciting Shema in bed at night.”
In her catalogue essay, Leshem describes some of the individual reactions, which had much to do with cultural influences. For Divya the photos of the girls evoked, “the Indian girls’ pursuit of balance between their family life, work, the home and happiness.” And for Roxhers, an Albanian, the trees and earth reminded him of his homeland. Atresaw of Ethiopia spoke of a sense of freedom in the photos, noting that “women are rootless in midair, while the men are grounded.”
Leshem’s work in “Centered” connects to her earlier series and her interest in the in-between moments of life. In “Runways,” she photographed young women about to begin their army service — they are seen barefoot, at different Israeli air force bases. Her “Sleepers” series featured young men and women asleep, in that stage between life and death, youth and adulthood.
In “Centered,” she again photographs many of the same young people, now in their early 20s, whom she has gotten to know well. I don’t look at them as models,” she says. “They are personalities, individuals.” Of the boys who sat in the desert for hours, she comments, “I know that they are strong, not only by how they look but how they are inside.”
In an earlier series, “Way to Beyond,” she photographed places of disappearance and farewell: a boat anchored where the unseen wreckage of an airplane lies; a desert crater marking where a pilot crashed another airplane. Her work is rooted in part in personal loss. Leshem’s husband, an Israeli air force pilot, was killed in a training accident over the Sea of Galilee in 1991. The photos of the sea are taken there. “Death is final,” she says, “but the places with water and air are still there — the life there continues, in a beautiful way.”
“I’m not a religious person,” she says, “but I have a lot of faith in faith.”
“I’m sure that my being Jewish influences my way of seeing. I’m Jewish. I’m Israeli. I’m second generation, a woman, a mother, what I’ve been though in life. Judaism is a big part of it. I’m not talking about Jewish themes, but universal themes.”
Leshem, the mother of two daughters — the younger is now serving in the IDF — lives and works in Kiryat Ono, near Tel Aviv. She teaches photography both there and at the Israel Museum. Leshem has exhibited her works throughout Europe, Israel and the United States, and her photographs are in the collections of the Israel Museum, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Norton Museum of Art in Florida.
At the Andrea Meislin gallery, she also exhibits two photographs taken in the Negev from another series called “Forty”; they were shot near the Ramon crater. In these, the blue sky is astonishingly radiant. Drawn to the desert, she captures the grandeur of the landscape in moments, like a fleeting form in the sand or patch of color. In the Bible and also in the texts of other religions, the number 40, she explains, is an abstract number for huge amounts.
“The desert is a place where I can hear the silence,” she says.”It’s so huge and it’s also so concentrated — not just that it’s beautiful, but it makes me feel a part of the universe. A very small but still significant part.”
Naomi Leshem’s photographs, “Centered,” are on view at the Andrea Meislin Gallery, 534 W. 24th St., Manhattan, through Saturday, Feb. 22. Signed copies of the accompanying catalogue are available.