Beautifying Men's Blemishes

A New-York based Israeli artist reveals unsettling beauty using infrared photography.

Until March 8, visitors to the Daniel Cooney Fine Art gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood will find 13 black-and-white portraits of men. From afar, the men – all dancers from the prestigious Juilliard School – appear to be heavily covered with freckles and moles. The blotches sometimes obscure the face, neck and upper torso; other times they’re lightly speckling a shoulder or hiding behind an ear.

But a close-up look reveals that these aren’t spots on the skin. They’re blotches hiding beneath the skin’s outer layer – it’s like an alarming medical X-ray.

These deceptive works are part of Nir Arieli’s first solo show. The 27-year-old photographer, a native of Maccabim midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, moved to New York five years ago to study for a BA in photography at the School of Visual Arts. “I try to touch on complex ideas using simple techniques,” Ariel explains at the gallery, on the ninth floor of a building overlooking the Hudson River.

“In this project, ‘Inframen,’ I decided to use an infrared technique, which I find fascinating because it’s very sensitive to details. These are very high-resolution digital photographs,” he says.

“In the past, when people still worked with negatives, you could use a special negative that’s sensitive to infrared, or use a filter that you put over the camera to obtain similar results, but nowadays this can be done digitally. The works are in black and white, but the shades of color translate into a map of more- and less-prominent textures.”

The result is unsettling. Beautiful 19- and 20-year-old dancers with perfect features suddenly appear as hybrid creatures, a combination of man and ghost. The infrared photography reveals scars, hairs and blemishes invisible to the naked eye. The models’ perfection is exposed as an illusion; their eyes appear vacant and expressionless.

“I have a genuine interest in beauty; it’s something that comes out in all my work. But beauty alone isn’t interesting enough, it has to come with something else,” Arieli says.

In an earlier project called “Tension,” Arieli assembled pictures of dancers in various poses, one atop the other, to create the impression of movement. But it was a distorted rather than a natural type of movement.

“When I worked with the dancers I gave them instructions like ‘break your balls’ or ‘find your discomfort.’ I didn’t want it to be perfect or pretty. I was seeking the contrast between beauty and hard, difficult movement, so the viewer would have something to ponder,” Arieli says.

“Something always has to fight against beauty. In ‘Tension’ it’s the language of movement, and in ‘Inframen’ it’s the technique, which isn’t flattering. People don’t look good when they’re photographed in infrared.”

A map of pain and effort

Like other projects by Arieli, “Inframen” comprises portraits that challenge the standard definitions of femininity. They show young men lying on a bed in a seductive pose, shedding a tear or hugging their waists.

“Despite all the talk about homosexuality these days, we’re still living in a time when there’s a lot of oppression,” Arieli says. “I believe that men have a wide spectrum of emotions and fears that aren’t so different from the female spectrum, but a large part of this isn’t given expression.”

He says his work speaks in a visual language of externals, but he’s really much more interested in the internal.

“ I try to speak about gentleness of the soul, about the ability to be unapologetically vulnerable and to achieve intimacy with another person. The statements being made by this work are not solely aesthetic,” he says.

“Each of us is in a constant dialogue with ourselves. How much of myself do I reveal to my partner, to my family? To what extent do we surrender to social dictates? There are two levels to this. First, we have to ask ourselves what’s permitted and forbidden for us to feel. Then we have to try to figure out what’s okay for us – as men – to outwardly display and admit that we feel.”

Arieli’s interest in beautiful and somewhat androgynous young men recalls the works of other contemporary photographers who examine male physicality, like Ryan McGinley and Adi Nes.

Homoeroticism in the army magazine

Arieli’s passion for immortalizing beauty began in an unlikely place: army magazine Bamahane. During his service as a photographer, he boasted a series of photo spreads titled “Personal Talk” and honed his portrait-taking skills.

“I was given the second page of each issue, and it included a portrait I took of a soldier and a basic questionnaire filled out by the subject,” he says. “This job led me to discover all kinds of weird jobs in the IDF, like army magician.”

One highlight was when he decided to document the Israel Defense Forces’ trauma unit, and he found soldiers who were getting special training in makeup that resembled wounds and blood.

“Another photographer and I took two soldiers from the unit and we created an homage to Adi Nes’ famous shot of two soldiers on the battlefield, where one is treating his wounded comrade,” Arieli says. “Even though it was a blatantly homoerotic picture, it appeared on the cover of Bamahane.”

How did you manage to nab this creative assignment, one of the most coveted posts in the IDF?

“I always wanted to be an artist. As a teenager, I went through a number of failed experiments in trying to find the right medium. I painted on glass, I thought I was a graphic designer, I tried to edit video. I studied art and theater in high school, and I didn’t do very well in those either. Then I received my first digital camera and it opened up a whole new world. I fell in love with the medium – for one thing because it let you fix and improve things immediately.

“A week before my enlistment date, someone told me a good friend of hers was serving as a photographer for Bamahane. I didn’t think I had a chance, but I applied and an eight-month process ensued. After a lot of frustration and ups and downs, I finally got the job.”

During the Second Lebanon War, the magazine sent him to cover gunners in the north, the deserted city of Nahariya, and houses that were destroyed by rocket strikes.

“But I never photographed blood or bodies. My editors and I both knew that I’m not a war photographer,” he says. “I like to sit with my subject and think about how to design the backdrop and the frame, not to shoot pictures when rockets are falling all around me.”

Boys do cry

Ever since his army service, Arieli has only photographed men, the vast majority of them dancers. He has worked, for example, with the Juilliard School and the Batsheva Dance Company. He only photographs dancers whom he doesn’t know personally.

“I have a theory about dancers. For them, the process of photography is very similar to the catharsis they get from the audience when they’re on stage. They spend 150 hours working in the studio for that one hour on stage. The feedback from the audience is their main reward, it’s what fulfills them,” Arieli says.

“On the one hand, there’s something very intimate about the photography because it’s just me and them, but at the same time, they relate to the camera as to an audience. For them it’s a performance. I have a lot of respect for their approach to process. They have a tremendous work ethic. I can give them very abstract instructions and they’re very good at translating my words into physical movements.”

Why do you photograph men crying?

“It has to do with the questions a person asks himself. Men prefer not to cry – not just in public. They perceive it as weakness, as something that exposes their vulnerability. I find it the most attractive thing in the world.”

While “Inframen” differs in many ways from Arieli’s previous projects, it focuses exclusively on men. So why doesn’t he photograph women?

“That’s a question I ask myself. I’ve tried to photograph women, but I wasn’t able to achieve the same quality of work. I think that to create a good portrait you have to know something very personal about your subject,” he says.

“But I also don’t believe in prying. For me, men are naturally much more accessible, because I’m a man. There’s something about women I can’t manage to fully decipher.”

Does it have something to do with attraction, too?

“Yes. For me there’s no separation between myself and my work as a photographer. I’m a man who falls in love with men and has relationships with men, so it’s natural for my work to deal with this. But the work isn’t a tool for realizing passions. I have a great deal of respect for the subjects and models that I choose. They aren’t necessarily people whom I find attractive, but people who can be part of an interesting dialogue.”

Do you see yourself staying in New York or returning to Israel?

“I’ve been in New York for five and a half years, and except for a few pictures at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque’s gay film festival, I haven’t shown any work in Israel. I never had any ambition to conquer the world. Until now, it was very hard for me to think of myself as an artist. In fact, the current show is the first time I’m really starting to think about a career in the field.

“Now I’m telling myself that this is really an option and I should go for it. But I’m not sure I’ll stay in New York. It’s a very competitive place and a very tough place for artists. I’m not making a living from art. No one is giving me money to create a body of work. I’m going to invest money in renting a studio, and it’s risky.

“A few years from now I’ll have to ask myself if I have a future here. Right now it’s hard for me to really think of New York as home.”

Nir Arieli
Dan Keinan