A Photographer Who Loves the Overexposed

Frustrated with the lack of creativity in Israel's fashion industry, Ron Kedmi began pushing the limits of artistry, shooting models without clothes or fighting the elements. His new exhibition in Poland challenges the very idea of beauty.

He wraps his models in cow intestines, sets their clothes on fire and claims to only enjoy commercial work when it involves female models in the nude. Now, with a new exhibition in Poland, photographer and boundary-pusher Ron Kedmi says he is charting a new artistic path.

After two decades of working in a large studio tucked into one of Tel Aviv's industrial neighborhoods, last year Kedmi moved his operations to a more modest space, studded with a row of large windows, in the same building. The photographer, 52, says the move brought about a perspective shift as well as a geographical one.

"It changed the way I take photos. For example, I started to shoot in natural light more," he says, glancing at a row of large windows in his new workspace.

Kedmi has led a successful commercial career, which he scaled back in recent years, he said, because it had become stifling. Over the past year, however, he took on a flurry of new jobs, photographing campaigns for the Israel urban fashion label TNT, the popular jewelry designer Michal Negrin, and other big-name brands.

He has learned, he says, to check his expectations and accept that commercial work means less creativity.

"I'm experiencing a revival," he says. "Life isn't black and white," he adds, explaining that his spate of new ad work has allowed him an inlet to the newest and hottest industry trends. It has also, however, made him somewhat sad: With the influx of foreign brands into the Israeli marketplace, Kedmi says, many of the big creative campaigns have gone by the wayside.

In the 90s, Kedmi was instrumental in launching innovative advertising strategies for major brands like Fox and Castro. Those days are no more.

"Today the approach is simple," he says. "It's more about doing a campaign to rival the likes of H&M, which basically means just shooting a model and then printing the cheap prices of the clothes next to the photo."

So he is more grateful than ever that recent years have also brought with them more opportunities for creativity.

At the beginning of 2008, Kedmi presented his first solo exhibition, "Full Frontal," at the Museum of Israeli Art in Ramat Gan, an event which earned him an invitation to the Art Basel Miami Beach show in Florida at the end of that year. Kedmi headed down the Magic City and exhibited some of his best-known works, including the photos of soldiers Keren Michaeli and Dudi Balsar he created in the mid-90s along with artist Nir Hod. He also unveiled a series of new photographs taken especially for the exhibition, some of which depicted the model Yael Reich, pregnant and nude, in poses rife with religious symbolism.

And his international exposure continues. This week, Kedmi launched a comprehensive solo exhibition at the Film Museum on Lodz, Poland. Occurring in tandem with Polish fashion week, his art is being shown across seven exhibit spaces in the second floor of the museum, one floor above the work of Roman Polanski and Krzysztof Kieslowski. It includes 49 printed photographs and five video pieces, and despite its broad scope, Kedmi – who is one of the leading fashion photographers in Israel – refuses to see this as a retrospective exhibition. In some ways, he says, it is the beginning of something new.

Playing with fire

Last summer, Israeli curator Michael Markman Goldman was in Berlin with the head curator of the Polish museum, a chance encounter that paved the first few stones of Kedmi's new path. Markman Goodman, a fan of Kedmi, showed some of his work to the Polish curator, whose interest was piqued. Kedmi was invited for a meeting, and in preparation he created two new series of photographs, "Elements" and "Cover-Uncover," which are both part of this current exhibition.

True to its name, "Elements" deals with fire, earth, water and air. In the series, Kedmi literally tests the elements on the bodies of his models, pouring water on his subjects, inviting them to wallow in dirt on the floor, and perhaps most radically, lighting their clothes on fire and flirting dangerously close to the tinge.

Playing with fire meant another element, the air in the models' lungs, was scarce.

"We dipped the edges of the models' clothes in gasoline and set them on fire," he explains. "Just before the fire reached their bodies, we poured water over them. After they had managed to catch their breath we started again."

Haaretz: Weren't you scared a disaster could happen?

"Of course, but I love these risks. I love testing out boundaries and this is the place I can do that. The idea is to push my subjects out of their comfort zone."

Could this be a reaction to your work in the local fashion industry?

"There is no doubt that it's a reaction to my commercial work in the fashion industry, where you have to be very restrained, stick to a style that's agreed upon beforehand with the brand managers and advertising agency representatives. Working on these series of photos, though, I started on a journey that had no set path. It wasn't predetermined."

Kedmi says that the last time his commercial work excited him the same way was in the 90s, and both instances involved showing a lot of skin. The first was when he created campaigns for the major Israeli clothing line Castro showing model Keren Michaeli naked, and the second was when he worked on a denim campaign with model Nina Brosh, who appeared in the buff, hiding her body with a pair of jeans.

"That was for Jordache [jeans], I think, and it appeared on billboards all across the country. But those were different times," he says.

Bovine beauties

In "Cover-Uncover," Kedmi continues the search for feminine beauty, but from a slightly different direction. He plays peek-a-boo with his subjects, producing visual meditations on the ideas of modesty, sexuality and all that human beings keep hidden.

"The starting point was veils," he says. "Veils started as a way to conceal femininity and sexuality, but I recognize something else in them. I find that it's precisely this delineation of the face that helps to define inner beauty. It's something that focuses the gaze inward."

Plain old fabric, however, proved too humdrum for Kedmi. So he went slightly radical and began draping his models in animal intestines.

In the photos, models wrap the skin of a cow's stomach around their faces and bodies. The texture of the flesh, so foreign and surprising, at first looks as though it could have been scraped from a sea creature, or whipped up in a fashion designer's studio.

In one of the photos, model Noam Frost's face is covered in what looks like white lace or some sort of futuristic silicon, but in reality she is breathing in the layer of fat that surrounds a cow's lungs.

Pushing the envelope even further, Kedmi also poured Coca-Cola and cleaning detergent over his models, warping the texture and appearance of their skin so it looks as if they, too, might be made of animal flesh.

"Surfaces are still the area of photography I'm most interested in," Kedmi says.

How did you direct the models?

"I was looking for an authentic gaze, not someone acting pretty for the camera. I didn't ask [the models] to look sexy or friendly or to try to play any sort of character. I wanted a direct, honest gaze." 

He knows that what he asks of his models is almost absurd, but he won't apologize.

"The androgyny they transmit is a stance of upfront vulnerability," he says. "It's not typical masculinity or femininity, and there is something extremely sensitive and vulnerable about it. Today that interests me more than the typical images of the macho man or femme fatale. "

The importance of being photographed

Kedmi's work calls to mind the extraordinary lengths taken by American photographer Ryan McGinley, who in the quest for the perfect shot brought nudity, smoke machines, fireworks and flames into this images.

But Kedmi is interested in emotion, not action. His selected frames show that his focus is on the subjects, not the environment he places them in.

"The quiet moments that don't necessarily disclose the process are the ones that fascinate me," he says. "In photography, the process matters less than the result."

Beauty on the edge

In his pieces contrasting female beauty with animal decay, another photographer, the German artist Juergen Teller, is brought to mind.

"I appreciate his work a lot," Kedmi says of Teller. "I think there are parallels in our search for a different kind of beauty to the one the fashion industry is dedicated to. The extremes interest me. Of course, he does it in his own way."   

Teller, however, has the luxury of being able to combine his radical visions with his commercial work, and in his campaigns for luxury brands such as Celine or Marc Jacobs he pushes against the boundaries of conventional beauty.

For Kedmi, his home country is too small for such big ideas.

"Oh, for that you have to work abroad," Kedmi says. "In Israel there's no chance of doing something like that. I don’t know what will happen and how it will happen, but this entire industry will need a boost for something else to occur."

Tomer Appelbaum
Ron Kedmi