How to Dance the Waltz

Michal Chelbin’s new book documents the uniforms and societal expectations of teenagers across Eastern Europe

In one image, a trio of girls are sporting what appears to be a sailor’s uniform – with thin, angular sunglasses, shiny belts, glossy heels and anchor-embellished hats to boot. Another, suited boys stand stall in their shiny, pastel-tinted outfits, while a further picture depicts the scene of an elegant ball. What you’re observing is the new body of work from Michal Chelbin, an Israeli photographer known for her inimitable portraiture of teenagers across Eastern Europe.

Michal’s interest in the medium of photography initially sparked at the ripe age of 15, when she herself was a youth. At the time, she’d joined the photography department in school, before realising how she no longer wanted to soley observe life’s goings on in typical documentary fashion – chronicling events or historical markers with the honest lens of a camera. Rather, she wanted to stage and create her own pictures. Upon realising this, she began a brief role as a news photographer in Israel, “and hated every minute of it,” she says. “I couldn’t photograph people in their grief, crying in hospitals or in court rooms. Besides, I was always late and eventually got fired.”

With sheer intrepidity, this roused the decision to enrol in the photography course at Wizo Academy of Education and Design in Haifa, where she studied for four years and thus commenced work on a medley of personal projects. It was during the year of 2008 when she launched her debut monograph, the acclaimed Strangely Familiar: Acrobats, Athletes and other Traveling Troupes, published by Aperture. After which she published three more books – including the next monograph named The Black Eye and has exhibited works in countless solo and group shows at Andrea Meislin Gallery in New York, Photographic Resource Center at Boston University, M+B Gallery in LA and Witzenhausen Gallery in Amsterdam to name a few. 

A constant thread running throughout is the seamless documentation of adolescence; a subject matter that has appeared widely in her portfolio and now, most poignantly, amongst her new title How to Dance the Waltz – a photo book published by Damiani and featuring an introduction written by Joseph Akel. “Many of my subjects are adolescents, boys and girls in different ages between innocence and experience, between purity and awareness,” she says. “I think this age and their stories represent with most clarity the theme that interests me the most, which is the twilight zone between reality and fantasy.”

This theme becomes forthwith in How to Dance the Waltz, a project that’s been several years in the making. Having travelled from Ukraine to Spain, Michal sought to capture the profound connection between adolescence and uniforms in these lands. For starters, a uniform is, by definition, the clothing worn by members of an organisation or activity. So to look at this from a youth-centric mindset, this more than raises a few questions for Michal. “The outfits or uniforms they wear are connected to an element which interests me, and is the component of ‘performance’,” she adds. “Especially youth in uniform, who are expected to perform a certain role society has created – usually a role that is designed for a more mature age.”

“That was the case when I shot in military boarding schools for teenagers, in circuses or in schools for matadors,” she continues. “These young boys and girls are trained to perform a role, a role of preserving an old conservative practice; and they do so with rituals and costumes. This tension between traditional and modern interested me too.”

While compiling the imagery, Michal had visited numerous schools and boarding schools – some with over 500 children in attendance. She’d cast her subjects by looking “between odd and ordinary”, and thus noticing the disparate and highly comparable attire found amongst the pupils. For example, in one of the military boarding schools, the girls were dressed in “beautiful dresses” while the boys were in uniforms, “like warriors”. It’s hard to deny the stereotypes here, and the ideals put forth on how each gender should perform on either end of the binary. What’s also interesting, is that they all had to take part in ball room dancing lessons, which was the key inspiration behind the book’s title, aptly named How to Dance the Waltz.

Michal’s latest body of work provokes many questions around the topic of childhood, and more specifically gender. If you think back to the 19th century, a child was expected to work and education was far from a necessity. Not only this, but boys were expected to be boys, and girls to be girls – there were strict gender roles to fulfil. Within How to Dance the Waltz, this notion has in some ways been resurrected, whereby kids are dressed in various iterations of uniforms, theatrically adhering to their assigned gender and societal expectations. Often, they’re responding with blank expressions, direct gazes and sturdy postures. Is this what adulthood really looks like? 

“I think kids grow really fast these days,” Michal concludes. “Childhood ends sooner than before. Having to wear uniforms and play traditional and mature roles only helps this.”

Michal Chelbin’s How to Dance the Waltz is published by Damiani at £50.
All images courtesy of the artist.

Falling into the Day: Christopher Nunn

Photographer Christopher Nunn speaks to Port about ‘Falling into the Day’, a photographic series examining the effects of Alzheimer’s on his friend David

A photograph of David with his mother sits beside his bed, 2009. © Christopher Nunn

Photographer Christopher Nunn was nominated for the Prix Pictet in 2015, an award which employs photography to draw global attention towards issues of sustainability, and a year later was chosen as one of PDN’s 30 New and Emerging Photographers. He has most recently won a grant from the Bob & Diane Fund for his work on Alzheimer’s. Here Nunn speaks about Falling into the Day, a series documenting his friend David’s battle with the condition.

Care home #3 reading room, 2013. © Christopher Nunn

David and I met around 2004, when I was working in a supermarket. He was a regular customer and we used to chat sometimes when he came in to do his shopping. One day he showed me one of his books, and sometime after that I visited him at home and we drank tea and looked at some of his artwork. He was pretty eccentric. Over the years we kept in touch. At the time I didn’t know any other artists, so it was always very interesting to see his process and the way he worked.

Like most of my work it was completely organic, and at the start I had no idea that he would develop Alzheimer’s. I made quite a few pictures of David early on, and over the following years when I was just starting to take photos. I would test out different cameras on him and try different approaches, and he always enjoyed this interaction because he liked to be photographed. He was a terrible poser though, and it took a long time for him to relax and trust what I was doing.

1980 Diary, 2010.© Christopher Nunn

I started to photograph David in a serious way in 2009. Around this time his behaviour and his demeanour began to change and I suspected he had some sort of memory problems. He used to call me and we would have a conversation, and then five minutes later he would call again saying the same things. It was confirmed to me shortly after by one of his friends that he did in fact have Alzheimer’s.

David became more difficult to photograph as it became harder to communicate with him, and he was more difficult to direct. I was shooting in a very slow way on a big film camera with natural light, which required us both to be still. My main concern was that I wasn’t putting him under any stress. Even as his condition deteriorated he was happy to be photographed and still enjoyed the process, but over time he slowly faded away, and became more distant and increasingly difficult to interact with.

Most of the time I would visit him to see if he was alright and just to spend time with him. There were so many times when I tried to photograph him and it didn’t work – it wouldn’t be the right time and felt forced . This is why I ended the project shortly after David moved into care. I did manage to make a few photos in the care homes which worked, but when it began to stop feeling like a collaboration I decided to stop. I still visited him for a few years after that, until his death in 2016.

Spring, 2013. © Christopher Nunn

I was interested in how someone lives alone with Alzheimer’s and the fact that this illness is basically invisible. In fact, David never spoke to me about his Alzheimer’s. We never had that conversation. It was the elephant in the room, so to speak. The challenge was telling this story when there is actually nothing much to see at all.

 The work focussed on him within his own space and his own possessions, which were a part of his life. All this slowly became alien to him. The photographs were made during his last years of independence before he was finally moved into care.
 
I was also very interested in the idea that he was a well regarded artist, and that is what defined him and how he defined himself. My pictures were made during a time when this stopped making any sense. It was about his character slowly dying. 
 
Soap, 2010. © Christopher Nunn
 
Falling into the Day was completed over nearly a decade. Allowing such a long period of time gives you the luxury of being able to really get a feel for a place or subject matter and find those the nuances. However, that is not always possible, and I absolutely don’t think that a good or important series has to come from years of blood, sweat and tears. I have worked on, and plan to work on more shorter projects. 
 
I see a lot of projects where people make work about their own families, and this is one of my favourite genres of photography. It is certainly not an easy thing to do and has its own set of difficulties, but the access, the control, the intimacy are obviously much easier to achieve than working out in the world. You are trusted, and it’s easier for people to understand the process. You have a genuine connection which is something you can’t force or fake.
 
Winter, 2010. © Christopher Nunn
 
Photography Christopher Nunn 

An Hour with Jean-Michel

Photographer Richard Corman reflects on his brief acquaintance with Jean-Michel Basquiat, culminating in a set of unpublished photographs shot in a New York studio during the summer of 1984

Although still somewhat of a cult figure at that time, I was definitely aware of the unique canvas of Jean-Michel Basquiat, as his poetry, painting and culturally poignant vision moved so many of us at the time. When I stepped into his studio on 57 Great Jones St., the room was a swirl of people, creative energy and smoke, and Basquiat was submerged and almost invisible in a corner, taking it all in.

I think by nature, Basquiat was extremely vulnerable, and he wore that sensibility on his sleeve. Yet I remember feeling his curiosity, his intensity, his anger and his honesty in his eyes as his body language shifted from frame to frame. I placed him in front of grey paper in order to remove him from the surrounding confusion and to create a simple setting where I would hopefully see a piece of his humanity. I think I was more of a voyeur on that day than a director – I did not want to interrupt the process.

As with most photography, and mine in particular, I leave it up to those viewers who look into the eyes of these portraits to determine their own truth about the man, the artist, the genius. I have tried to create a portfolio that was indicative of that moment in time with an individual who, in many ways, is more relevant today than ever. With the world in such confusion, we need the honest voice of a dreamer like Basquiat.

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