The union within the subject
The Middle East invokes and provokes the Western world. A latent and profound view from that region is brought closer to reveal what was once mysterious and that is now, simply reality. Drew Tal, grew up in that reality and now –still amazed by it– photographs it.
“In that region there are dozens of bandits (…) There are sorcerers, and when they want to plunder a region, they do it with diabolical art that clouds the air so much that no one is able to see, and on other occasions maintain this darkness for seven days,” is how Marco Polo described the lands of the Middle East centuries ago, a description based on his Christian view, fear, the devil and the perversion of an unknown region.
In the 21st century, what is exotic about this region still holds its appeal even to Drew Tal, who grew up in Israel, and who, through photography, reflects people from places that, for him –strangely– turn out exotic. Through images, he photographs and recreates realities that are only visible due to their play of light, their contrast and colors that capture the gaze at first glance. “This revelation opened my eyes to the exotic, and made me extremely curious about people and their customs, costumes and histories. That curiosity is still with me to this day and it is a strong motivator for my photography and it reflects itself in my art.”
Drew considers the human being as the main subject in his work. Each one of them has faces, gazes or bodies. Along with this, the exotic is his pleasure. “The linking subject matter for this collection [Facing East] is the ethnic face, particularly the ethnic eyes, which has been the main source of inspiration for my photography and art,” states the artist.
But, what can be considered ethnic or exotic? For someone who grew up in an Israeli cosmopolitan society in the ‘60s, world culture becomes a visual provocation of a tempting exquisiteness. For Drew, living in a country full of different races and people was the source from where he drew the desire to take pictures and show the world the realities that he observed here, as a child, when he was “surrounded with such a colorful collage of ethnicities, languages, nationalities and religions made me realize from an early age that the world beyond me was a rich and complex place. This revelation opened my eyes to the exotic, and made me extremely curious about people and their customs, costumes and histories,” he says while reminiscing about the things that bring him to do his work in general: “I am inspired by people from far-away lands and in my art I prefer to photograph ‘exotic’ or ‘ethnic-looking’ people such as Indian, Pakistani, Arab, Chinese, among other places,” explains the artist.
However, in turn, the centerpiece lies in the image, in the beauty that the faces depicts through the eyes and in the gazes that intensely provoke the viewer and lead them to see that there is something beyond the simple gaze. That is how memories come to the surface –not only through his childhood– and the memories of fashion photography which he did over the years, seem to resurface in each shot. “Photographing fashion was exciting, glamorous and very lucrative but not as satisfying artistically. However, having access to all the modeling agencies, I could easily select models and find subjects for my real passion: my art,” he explains.
The delay in the search
Through this, and through the selection of people with ethnic faces, plus the techniques that digital software provide him, Drew realized that his photographic style could change and shift to a new level, thus creating a medium that lies between photography and painting. Digitally altered photography that looks like it’s out of a studio or, better yet said, from a good realist oil painting on canvas. “A simple face portrait infused with layers of texture, depth and light gave it a new life, a new meaning and the results gave me much gratification. The process of digitally editing photographs is a long and laborious process, it may take me between three to nine months of work to be fully content with a single image but that long process gives me the most artistic satisfaction,” says Drew. Through this, the time that passes from the shots to the finished work becomes a slow journey.
This Israeli photographer is able to unite his time with his passion, his life with his art, and his profession and his hobby, all through pure work that entices us to question the reality of the Middle East and our vision regarding it. And for this, not only does it take time in the digital stage of his work, but also in the choice of actors and people. “I am extremely selective about my subjects and oftentimes it has taken me many months to find the ideal model who can provide the artistic expression I am seeking. My eyes are constantly open in search of subjects for my art, on the streets of New York, on the subway, in crowded restaurants and through amateur models’ websites,” says Drew Tal.
But, what does he look for? Why does it take him so long to find someone? It’s just an ethnic look, an ethnic face. “Living in the melting-pot that is New York is a blessing for me since ethnic groups such as Arab, Pakistani, Indian, Persian and Chinese are all here, and in abundance. With each exotic face in front of my lens, a new art image emerges in my mind,” he explains.
What is curious, apart from his history that defines him in the selection of people and times to create, could turn out to be the composition of each photograph, scene and, above all, people where the exotic is also found in their gender. Many of the faces or bodies that appear in his work seem to be androgynous beings like those Plato described in The Banquet as: “Beings that belonged to this latter class [androgynous] are rounded, with four arms, four legs, two faces on their head and, of course two sexual organs,” two organs that made them man and woman at the same time, and that they shared with the others two existing genders: man-man and woman-woman.
That is how history would seem to be karmic with Drew Tal. In the ‘90s, when he became a fashion photographer, several magazines were focused on androgynous models and according to what he says: “the subject intrigued me and it was truly challenging to try to blur, or enhance, the line between male and female. It is still a part of the “exotic” concept.” That ancient Greek history is given new meaning in art, photography and in the use it has given fashion for more than 30 years.
A piece with women dressed in white stands out. One woman’s gaze is fixed on the viewer, and in her hands, she holds book reading “I am” as if to enlarge it. The message is clear, it is a call. And Drew Tal: “Is a reaction to the place and conditions of Muslim women in both Islamic and Western societies around the world. In many of these societies women’s voices are silenced or not heard and their basic rights are taken from them. By saying ‘I AM’, the woman in my image is imploring the viewer to notice her. The viewer is then free to complete the rest of the sentence as they desire.”