Published June 28, 2018
Words by Clea Christakos-Gee
Photos by Michal Chelbin, 2011 Flash Forward Winner
Born and currently working in Israel, photographer Michal Chelbin has a magical understanding of portraiture. Is it her signature ability to cast subjects with a misty chiaroscuro spotlight? Or is it her command of the gaze where she finds nuance between masks of confidence and vulnerability?
The visionary quality of her work is not easily pinpointed, but as Chelbin puts it, she seeks out a delicate balance of “odd and ordinary” in her subjects. In searching for these moments, the photographs reveal a world full of contradiction, vibrant characters and peculiar romance.
Her series Strangely Familiar strings many unique narratives from across Israel, Russia and the Ukraine into an escapist world of child performers, military trainees and unusual family portraits. Chelbin’s explicit staging, symmetrical frames and powerful direction of her subjects are just a few trademarks of her refined portraiture style. They are shown at once united — by identical uniforms or features, through physical embrace or composition — yet fiercely individual.
One can only imagine the stories and interactions behind each enigmatic photograph, especially given the time and care she affords those in front of her lens. “I usually spend time with my subjects, stay there for a few days and they get to know me and trust me. I don’t pull the camera immediately, only after we get to know each other a bit. I show them my work and they show me their skills, especially if they are performers. I also try to keep the set intimate: not many people around, available light and not professional lights and work quietly,” Chelbin explains.
The portraits mainly document children and adolescents, but she photographs older people with the same elegant touch. Young individuals appear mature beyond their years and empowered by the camera even as they negotiate the instability of adolescence. When asked whether gender performativity is an important or intentional theme in the portraits, she responds: “Yes, I believe it is. This performance can be towards other adolescents and also towards adults. The way we look at others and they look at us is a strong force in society. Are we dressed in a certain way because we are expected to perform in a certain way? Do we look with a certain gaze because we are expected too? Do we present our body because we are expected too? Is it an act of freedom or coercion?”
Since the production of Strangely Familiar, Chelbin has received continued recognition for her captivating portraits. She also released two more monographs, The Black Eye and Sailboats and Swans, both by Twin Palms publishers, together with solo and group shows worldwide.
What does it take for a photographer to pierce through the masks individuals wear in order to show their essence? Is it even possible?
Based in New York City, Israeli-born, Michal Chelbin has been shown in solo and group shows in the US and abroad in venues such as the Photographer’s Gallery in London, Hendrik Andersen Museum in Rome, the National Portrait Gallery in London, and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The collections of the Portland Museum of Art, Tel-Aviv Museum of Art, Palazzo Forti, and Sir Elton John include her work.