We spoke to Auckland photographer Ilan Wittenberg about the thinking behind his latest collection.
That’s one reason Bare Truth, a collection by accomplished Auckland photographer Ilan Wittenberg, stands out. Another is his knife-sharp focus on every bodily detail of his 100-or-so unsmiling subjects, which include a former drug addict and a burns victim.
“Raw”, says the artist, whose work can be found at Auckland’s Northart gallery from June 5-22, is what he hears most in response to Bare Truth. But the photographs have no rough edges; they are exquisitely, acutely rendered. That’s intentional: Wittenberg chose specific lighting and processing techniques that would bring the literal mark life leaves on our bodies into sharp relief.
It’s also something of a warning. “There’s this idea that men are stronger,” says Wittenberg, whose 18-year old son features in the collection (he bares the scar of a tumor removed when he was small). “That may be true in some strength-related areas; men have more muscle tissue, for example. But when it comes to mental health or emotional health, the fact is that women actually talk more. They share more. They’re more open.”
He began to approach men on the street. “Out of every ten, four said maybe, four said no, two said yes, and one showed up.” But as the collection grew, so did their trust, and the project picked up pace.
“I asked them about their tattoos: What is it? What does it mean to you? One of them said, ‘Well, I was a drug addict and this tattoo helps me to remind myself how to be sober, and how good it is to be clean. Another said, ‘Oh, this is about my bestfriend who died.’ We’re all vulnerable.”
That didn’t mean they were all ready to share the experience. “Some men didn’t show it to their wives, because they think [their image] is too confronting. They’ve asked their daughters to do it for them; to explain the context to their wives for them when they pass away. Because it is confronting. We never show ourselves like this to other people.”
https://wowphotography.co.nz/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/DSC04432-Edit.jpg484725Ilan Wittenberghttps://wowphotography.co.nz/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Wow-Photograpjy-Logo-2021-Red-340.pngIlan Wittenberg2017-08-25 20:25:472017-08-25 20:25:47Men stripped bare
Shot in Talarc’s home, the photo was as much about the subject as it was his environment said Wittenberg who won NZIPP Auckland Photographer of the Year in 2016.
“One continues the story of the other. The environment that he sits … all of that tells a story.”
“The artifacts behind him actually tell a story about his life and about his parent and the things he does in his life,” Wittenberg explained.
Wittenberg met Talarc while buying vegetables at the Takapuna Sunday market on Auckland’s North Shore. The photographer approached the man selling bric-a-brac out of his truck to ask if he would have his photo taken.
It took several moves around the house, Talarc had inherited from his parents, to find the winning spot in the living room.
“You look at him and you look at the background and they are on the same plane field.”
“I like the fact that he looked straight at me. I think that, when a person looks at you, you sort of make a connection,” Wittenberg said.
“Ilan Wittenberg takes Lara Wyatt along on his visual journey through Jerusalem’s Old City to capture images for his series Faces of Jerusalem”
It’s not hard to see why the Old City of Jerusalem captured Ilan Wittenberg’s attention. It is beyond anything I have ever witnessed before. It’s a place with more than 2000 years of history, all bricks and iron gates, and tiny shops packed floor to ceiling with cultural items, souvenirs, religious artefacts, and day-to-day requirements, all up for sale. And then there are the merchants with very few smiles but plenty of pride and honour.
“They’re not happy, you can see that … but they are serious for a good reason: the economy is slow. But it’s who they are, this is their natural way. If you see people on the street, most are not smiling, and these people have seen their own share of hardship,” Wittenberg explains emphatically about the merchants.
It was during a family trip to Israel that they all went on a trip to the Old City of Jerusalem and came across the capital of Israel. “Usually I go with my camera and do my own stuff, but this time I said no, I’ll be part of the family,” he says, remembering. “I needed a strong collection of photographs to submit as a portfolio for my fellowship application to the Photography Society of New Zealand — and then I saw the huge potential there. It opened my eyes only when I got there, even though I’d been there many times in the past. It was interesting — the ancient streets, the people, the merchants, the mosques, the churches — it really is interesting.”
Adamant that this trip would be about family bonding rather than stopping to pull out his camera all the time to the dismay of his family, Wittenberg had to delay the spark of an idea that was forming in his mind for another day: “I said to myself, OK, I’ll go back again, and I extended my stay just a little bit longer. My wife hates it when I stop and take photos, she simply keeps walking while I stay behind. It’s not really enjoyable to walk with me, because I stop and I start talking to people — I could spend half an hour just photographing a wall. So, it really is just no fun … I accept that, so I made four other trips to Jerusalem … it was important to me.”
With each trip, he packed his Sony 7R and set about wandering the streets, entering many stores and speaking, or, if necessary, miming, to the merchants to gain their permission to take their photo.
Wittenberg didn’t want to portray the merchants in any way other than their natural state. He did not set about posing them — other than a few very rare situations in which he needed to raise someone’s arm to get the composition of the image right — he did not ask them to smile, he only used the lighting available (no flash and no tripod), and he didn’t create a photo-shoot atmosphere. Most of the time he would only take a single image, then put his camera away. On one occasion, though, he disobeyed all these rules when he was trying to take a photo of a man working in a traditional coffee shop, but it achieved a beautiful result.
“It was extremely dark and grimy,” Wittenberg recalls. “He became a little embarrassed because I took so many photos of him, because, to be honest, they weren’t all in focus and there was such bad light. I think he was joking with the people behind him that he was a model, that he was now a movie star. You can see the movement of his hand — that’s how slow the shutter speed was. It’s like a gamble when I take these photos; some are as slow as 1/30s, using high ISO because of the dim light.”
With a cold atmosphere and a lack of customers filtering through the city, an air of tension is bred, and Wittenberg put out all the right signals he could to ensure he did not incite any trouble during the course of his roaming the streets and photographing.
“When I travel there, I am a proud New Zealander, which removes a lot of tension. People are relaxed and agree to have their portrait taken. I am also an Israeli, but I have to be careful not to mix politics in, because, if they knew that, it may create unnecessary tension. Some wouldn’t be as natural with the camera or wouldn’t allow me to photograph them. I walk the dark and empty streets at night, by myself — it could become dangerous too. If you say you’re from New Zealand, ‘Oh, Kiwi, welcome!’. Part of the problem, is that there are very few customers, very little foot traffic, because there is a lot of stress in this region — wars, religious tension, and ongoing conflict, which scares tourists away,” he explains.
But after showing his work to people and entering it into awards, including the Epson / New Zealand Institute of Professional Photography (NZIPP) Iris Professional Photography Awards at which he was named a finalist and his images received a silver award, many tell Wittenberg that they want to go there. “Not just because of the photos,” he says, though. “They’ve always wanted to visit the holy land, so even though these are not always happy faces, people say, ‘Wow, that’s such a different culture’.”
In terms of how the Faces of Jerusalem photographs work as a series, Wittenberg is quick to point out how the sepia toning of the images was a way to give them a timeless look while also ensuring they had a consistent and uniform appearance.
“If I was actually trying to put these in colour — which is nice to be able to see the colourful merchandise — then the faces would turn out yellow, orange, or pink because of the different light sources; some are fluorescent and some are ambient … I can remove the issue of different colours of their faces this way, or it would have been very distracting,” Wittenberg explains.
Titirangi’s Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery exhibited Faces of Jerusalem during early 2016, fulfilling Wittenberg’s goal of bringing the series to an audience to experience. “I want people to see it, it’s a rare opportunity to see large prints,” he says. “People who come to the exhibition will be able to gain more insight … most have never been in this sort of environment. You are actually there, you can see how they live and how they play, and you can see their faces — they tell a story.”
https://wowphotography.co.nz/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/North-Shore-Times.jpg595953Ilan Wittenberghttps://wowphotography.co.nz/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Wow-Photograpjy-Logo-2021-Red-340.pngIlan Wittenberg2016-07-05 17:04:402017-08-25 17:08:59Bare Truth wins at Iris Awards
See a striking collection of images of bare-chested Kiwi men
Auckland Council, Tuesday 31 May 2016
Bare Truth – Auckland Festival of Photography
One of the key aims of photographer Ilan Wittenberg’s ‘Bare Truth’ campaign was to counter-balance the portrayal of men as strong, physically and emotionally.
“This stereotype sometime leads to dire outcomes when considering how poorly typical men treat health symptoms such as depression, stress and anxiety,” he says.
“I wanted to raise awareness; give men the freedom to express their feelings and connect with their emotions. This fresh look at men is an eye-opening opportunity to see real people without the ‘shield’ of clothes. The project simply reminds us of how fragile we are.”
The combination of shooting in monochrome, using soft, directional light and adopting a special post-processing technique allowed Wittenberg to enhance the features of his ‘models’ so that the images are raw and crisp. The simple backgrounds eliminate distractions so the viewer can focus on their body language and facial expression.
The biggest challenge was finding the first man to agree to pose. After a few rejections, Wittenberg created portraits of close friends and family members. As the portfolio expanded, he formalised a consistent style and became confident in approaching strangers – men who had an interesting appearance or whose face told a story.
“While some men are very comfortable with having their portrait created, others feel this is completely outside their comfort zone, particularly when asked to strip down to the waist. One man expected the experience to be therapeutic while others were slightly nervous. The results show a captivating mix of men that are humble, courageous and vulnerable.”
The project gained momentum after selected prints from the body of work won awards in the Portrait Classic category of the 2015 Iris Awards from the New Zealand Institute of Professional Photography. ‘Bare Truth’ was also selected to be an Associated Exhibition at the 2016 Head On photo festival in Sydney.
Photographer Ilan Wittenberg exposes the Bare Truth in portrait exhibition
Last updated 05:00, May 22 2016
‘Attitude”, a portrait from Ilan Wittenberg’s latest exhibition, Bare Truth.
A former drug addict, a burns victim and a burly builder are hardly typical male models.
But these men – and around 100 more – are the subjects of an Auckland photographer’s latest exhibition.
Ilan Wittenberg began his project, Bare Truth, a year ago, with an idea to portray New Zealand men as they truly are.
‘Pukana’, a portrait from Ilan Wittenberg’s latest exhibition, Bare Truth.
Bare-chested, blemished, scarred, and tattooed, the men’s histories are etched on their skin. One of the men had received skin grafts as a child – a pot of boiling jelly had ended up on his chest. Another has a prayer inked onto his arm.
“It’s interesting where people find strength,” Wittenberg says.
At first, his subjects were friends and family (Wittenberg’s 21-year-old son is among the men featured in the exhibition).
‘LOKADIE’, a portrait from Ilan Wittenberg’s latest exhibition, Bare Truth.
But as his collection and his confidence grew, Wittenberg began approaching strangers on the street. Market-goers, roadworkers, hedge-trimmers – any man who looks like he might have a story to tell.
“Out of every 10, four say ‘no’, four say ‘maybe’, two say ‘yes’, and one shows up.”
Wittenberg spent an hour speaking with the men before they went in front of the camera, asking them about their families, jobs, and the tales behind their tattoos.
The first photograph was of a friend who’d resisted participating in the project until the day before he departed New Zealand forever.
“He wasn’t very tidy – not scruffy, but he didn’t take great care of himself,” Wittenberg says of the man.
“In the photograph, you will see he puts his hand up to chest and he touches his heart… he has a little bit of sadness in his eyes.
“I thought, ‘this is real’.”
Wittenberg has about 100 photographs in the Bare Truth collection. Each of his subjects received an A4 copy of their photo, as thanks.
‘Skulls’, a portrait from Ilan Wittenberg’s latest exhibition, Bare Truth.
Some of the men were happy with the result, others felt confronted by the image.
“They didn’t actually show it to their wives, because they never saw themselves that way,” Wittenberg says.
The series is inspired by the work of famed photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Platon. Shot before a blank background and converted into monochrome, the photographs depict a stark spectrum of Kiwi masculinity.
“When people look straight into the camera they actually look at the person on the other side, they look at the person who views them, and you can read their eye, you can actually see their soul – that’s what I felt.”
Bare Truth is Wittenberg’s third exhibition this year, showing in Sydney earlier this month, and in Auckland in June.
While images of topless women have become cliches of Western society, there’s something about a photo of a shirtless man – unretouched – which makes observers take a closer look.
“We see thousands of photos every day – on social media, in magazines, on tv, on the internet, billboards – and we ignore…” Wittenberg says.
“If you go to an exhibition, it’s not like looking at something on the computer… you stand in front of a photograph… and you let it talk to you.”
Visitors to the Sydney exhibition offered a range of interpretations, Wittenberg says.
“They say this person is looking very confident, very strong. And that person looks a bit… shy, and that person looks dangerous like, I wouldn’t want to meet that guy down a dark alley or something like that.
“It’s so interesting how in a fraction of a second we judge other people, even when they’re not there, just based on their body language – their eyes, their shoulders.”
But Wittenberg hopes the exhibition will also raise awareness of men’s health issues. Without a shirt, it’s difficult to hide the hallmarks of past surgeries, or chemotherapy.
And the camera offers insight into the soul.
“When people look straight into the camera they actually look at the person on the other side, they look at the person who views them,” Wittenberg says.
“You can read their eye, you can see their soul – that’s what I felt.”
Wittenberg emigrated from Israel with his wife and two children in 2001. The North Shore resident had been working as a business analyst before he took up portrait photography full time in 2011.
While portraits pay the bills, the Bare Truth project was a labour done for love, not money.
Quoting business leader Stephen Covey, Wittenberg says: “We’re here to live, to laugh, to love and to leave a legacy.”
“We’re not getting any younger… my legacy is about pictures I do.”
The exhibition will also feature in the 2016 Auckland Festival of Photography.
https://wowphotography.co.nz/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/DSC02446-Edit.jpg6831024Ilan Wittenberghttps://wowphotography.co.nz/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Wow-Photograpjy-Logo-2021-Red-340.pngIlan Wittenberg2016-05-22 20:27:582017-08-25 20:30:38Bare Truth in Stuff