There are overlaps inherent in what artists Irina Rozovsky and Rose Marie Cromwell are after in their work. Their recent projects, One to Nothing and Everything Arrives, hinge on specific, yet abstracted places. Irina’s work was hatched in Israel and Cromwell’s work has accumulated over repeated returns to Cuba — two territories that are widely photographed, each with unarguably complicated pasts and presents, each place begging the question: what else can be said here?

The following conversation is broken into two parts: a series of questions for Rozovsky from Cromwell, followed by a series of questions for Cromwell from Rozovsky.

Lay Flat would like to thank both artists for taking the time for this conversation.

© Irina Rozovsky


Rose Marie Cromwell: In your beautiful book One to Nothing (Kehrer Verlag, 2011), it seems to me that you are working in a documentary tradition by photographing in a specific geographic location. At the same time, I believe you are subverting this tradition by not identifying the location explicitly. What purpose does this approach serve, and how did you anticipate it would impact the work?

Irina Rozovsky: Garry Winogrand said something like, “If I know what a picture will look like before I take it, what’s the point of taking it?” I knew what he meant when I came to Israel — we’ve seen the media imagery of this place, the photo essays and news reports that try to identify the culprit and illustrate a one-sided storyline. But upon arriving, I realized that the story that appears linear from a safe distance is more complex than we can fathom. We think we “know” a place before we even arrive, but this kind of removed knowledge is simplified and uninvolved.

In regards to documentary, there are no obvious facts in this work. I am aiming to convey a sense of this place as it struck me — the aged, eruptive, powerful land, the clumsy layering of history, the occasional absurdity of human efforts, and the heartfulness behind it all. It is important that it is Israel, but somehow secondary, as the elements I stumbled on are not particular to this country or this geography, rather they are quite universal. It’s equally as much about the futile gestures of people in a riddled landscape that unveils a deeper conflict, one that’s not limited to geography, but that’s more a metaphysical conflict, a mythic struggle.

© Irina Rozovsky

RMC: Your image of the man with the jar of screws is an example of how you have managed to position yourself in an intimate way in a “foreign” place. We all have a similar jar and can relate to the act of looking for the right screw. Your intimate position is demonstrated by the fact you could relate to this subtle gesture. Was the act of photographing instrumental in creating an intimate experience as a short-term visitor?

IR: Absolutely. I was really seeing the place through the camera, especially on my first visit — it was an intuitive response to being there, a way to try to understand and get oriented. I learn more from what I see and hear than from what I read, so this was a way for me to feel out the place. And while I hadn’t come to make a project, I felt that making photographs was the only way for me to be there, as my doorway in. That doesn’t happen very often when I’m home, where pictures are afterthoughts, or pauses from life. The photos in Israel felt like explosions. During my first trip, I was traveling with other people and we were never in one place, so I followed just a few steps behind, running with the camera in front of me. Wherever we were felt like it warranted an image. There is a chaotic sense to these pictures, as I’m trying to keep up. When I returned a second time, I came specifically to photograph. I traveled alone, and with a more concrete vision. This time I got a deeper sense — a slower, older, almost metaphysical relation to the place.

© Irina Rozovsky

RMC: Some images function more as loose metaphors, while some seem less subtle, and I interpret you to be mining the natural, social landscape for found performances that allude to allegories and historical myths. Were you alluding to larger myths when you made these photographs and if so what were they, from where did you draw them, and why are they important to include?

IR: I’m drawn to looking at what’s new and fresh, yet reminiscent of something old, learned, forgotten. I like the idea of banal daily moments inadvertently taking on the forms and shapes of an ancestral code. Seeing this way helps me believe in a continuity between the past and the present. But my understanding of history is very blurred and imprecise, so the visions I harken to are not tied to one particular root, they are associating rather loosely, which hopefully allows the photographs to be open and more like allegories rather than illustrations. In Israel, it was natural to think about the Bible, Genesis, iconic Christian representations, creation, life rising up out of the ground, erupting. I was thinking about antiquity in general, warriors on the face of Grecian urns, archeology, cave drawings. I am happy when people perceive mythical allusions here because this way it seems possible to transcend the current moment and make an image that has a greater time line.

© Irina Rozovsky

RMC: I believe that the important thematic structure in One to Nothing, modernity and antiquity, day and night, is in a large part created by your careful and decisive editing. The relationships between the images become just as important as the images themselves. What guided you through the process of editing such a large body of work?

IR: It’s true, an image transforms when juxtaposed with another image — which is the fun and fury of sequencing a book. On their own, the photographs in One to Nothing are fragments that skirt around full-fledged narrative. It was my aim in editing the book to draw these fragments into a constellation. Certain images immediately gravitated towards each other, like the beginning and end of a sentence. I hope that certain pictures vibrate together and allow the viewer to transcend their initial associations. We are pretty lazy and rash when looking at pictures, maybe because there are so many or perhaps because the media feeds us easy imagery. You see a photo of a woman in a burka and you immediately commit to what the picture could be saying, depending on your political, cultural beliefs and experiences. I wanted to try to turn these associations upside down — to recognize them and to gently subvert them. On one page is a woman in a burka, in proximity to an image depicting a slit opening in a black cave, which gives me hope that it’s possible to shift perspective. Instead of looking at someone, you are for an instant looking through their eyes. It was also important to allow the photos to be flexible, many times linked through a visual, inexplicable feeling.

© Irina Rozovsky

© Irina Rozovsky


Irina Rozovsky: You have been returning to Cuba to make photographs for years and the work recently culminated as the project Everything Arrives in your MFA thesis exhibition at Syracuse University. What drew you to begin working in Cuba and what brings you back? Does your view and process change with each trip? And what is it like to take photographs there, but present them here — a place whose reality is quite different from where the images originate?

Rose Marie Cromwell: I have been visiting and photographing in Cuba for the past eight years. I kept going back to Cuba because I began to feel part of a close community there. Despite this feeling, I am ultimately always going to be an outsider, and someone who comes and goes. This push and pull of intimacy is something I attempt to convey through images in Everything Arrives.

Many people in the United States only experience Cuba through photographs. When we are bombarded with visual representations of a foreign place, we begin to create imagined geographies. I began an attempt to convey my own personal experience of place by photographing my everyday rituals and mundane still life compositions.

The work does not aim to illustrate Cuban culture, but some images cannot help but to contain it. While making images in Cuba and presenting them to my MFA colleagues at Syracuse University, I learned how objects or gestures can lose or gain meaning in powerful and surprising ways depending on the cultural context in which they are being read. The work is not made for a specific viewer in mind, and I have learned to embrace that the images will be interpreted differently depending on the audience.

Installation view, MFA Thesis Exhibition, Syracuse University, 2012
© Rose Marie Cromwell

IR: Although you have gone to Cuba on many occasions and your photographs span eight years, they all seem to occupy the visual space of one endless, hot afternoon. It’s often said that Cuba is a time warp, a passage to the past. What role does time and history (political, personal, big and small) play in your images?

RMC: My images do lack a sense of contiguous time, inspired by an early love for existential literature. In Kobo Abe’s novel, The Woman in the Dunes, an entomologist, against his will, is put in a sand dune. He only has a shovel and an unknown woman to keep him company. Time is absent and the reader only learns that he has been in the dunes for seven years at the end of the novel, after the protagonist decides he doesn’t want to leave anyhow. He has found an intimacy unlike any other he experienced outside the dune. The dune is a stage in which Abe alludes to larger questions of human predicament. My stage is a long, hot afternoon.

© Rose Marie Cromwell

© Rose Marie Cromwell

IR: Your images seem to intertwine choreography with chance. How are these photographs seen and made? Is the way in which you make the photographs, by any means, a reflection of how you consider the place itself?

RMC: I consider all of the images to be performances, including the images absent of human gesture. I am inspired by this quote from Collier Schorr: “Still lifes are simply endnotes, pointing towards something too theatrical to be directed with human flesh.”

The process within which the images are made, however, is quite varied. Some are reenactments of personal experiences or imagined scenarios and some are observed- compositions or gestures that I happened upon. How do you choreograph authenticity? How do you locate telling performance in the everyday? These are questions driving my current working process.

© Rose Marie Cromwell

© Rose Marie Cromwell

IR: You capture a number of human, physical gestures in a way that suggests to me the fine line between pain and pleasure, helping and harming. What are the people in your photographs running to or from, metaphorically speaking?

RMC: My images contain those moments of intimacy and expression when I attempt to escape political, cultural, and gendered constraints. Everything Arrives is a negotiation between the perpetuated myths and the moments when I am able create my own meaning free from conventional representations. The models in my images are representing a perhaps futile drive to exceed politics, to exceed gender, to exceed race — and to be the real owners of our actions and relationships.

© Rose Marie Cromwell

Irina Rozovsky has been published and exhibited in the US and abroad. Her monograph One to Nothing (Kehrer Verlag, 2011) was a ‘Selected Title’ of the German Photo Book Award and featured on photo-eye Magazine’s and Alec Soth’s “Top 20 Photo Books of 2011” lists. Rozovsky’s first solo museum exhibition, A Perpetual Hold, will be on display at the Southeast Museum of Photography, Daytona in February 2013. She lives in Brooklyn, NY and teaches at the International Center of Photography.

Rose Marie Cromwell is a photography based artist currently living and working between New York and Panama. Using photography she documents performances and still lifes that explore themes such as intimacy, communication, and alternative notions of family and home. She hold an MFA in Art Photography from Syracuse University and is a co-founder and co-director of Cambio Creativo, the alternative arts education initiative based in Panama.