Getting Free

A long time ago, when you were a wee thing, you learned something, some way to cope, something that, if you did it, would help you survive. Make ’em laugh, be the clever one, disappear behind a wall of personality… It wasn’t the healthiest thing, it wasn’t gonna get you free, but it was gonna keep you alive. You learned it, at nine or ten, and it worked, it did help you survive. You carried it with you all your life, used it whenever you needed it. It got you out—out of your walled-in city, away from a prancing narcissist, out of range of your father’s un-love. Or whatever. It worked for you. You’re still here now partly because of this thing that you learned.

The thing is, though, at some point you stopped needing it. At some point, you got far enough away, surrounded yourself with people who love you. You survived. And because you survived, you now had a shot at more than just staying alive. You had a shot now at getting free. But that thing that you learned when you were nine was not then and is not now designed to help you be free. It is designed only to help you survive. And, in fact, it keeps you from being free. You need to figure out what this thing is and work your ass off to un-learn it. Because the things we learn to survive at all costs are not the things that will help us get FREE. Getting free is a whole different journey altogether.

 – adapted from Mia McKenzie

Lot’s Wife

Do you remember when we met
in Gomorrah? When you were still beardless,
and I would oil my hair in the lamp light before seeing
you, when we were young, and blushed with youth
like bruised fruit. Did we care then
what our neighbors did
in the dark?

When our first daughter was born
on the River Jordan, when our second
cracked her pink head from my body
like a promise, did we worry
what our friends might be
doing with their tongues?

What new crevices they found
to lick love into or strange flesh
to push pleasure from, when we
called them Sodomites then,
all we meant by it
was neighbor.

When the angels told us to run
from the city, I went with you,
but even the angels knew
that women always look back.
Let me describe for you, Lot,
what your city looked like burning
since you never turned around to see it.

Sulfur ran its sticky fingers over the skin
of our countrymen. It smelled like burning hair
and rancid eggs. I watched as our friends pulled
chunks of brimstone from their faces. Is any form
of loving this indecent?

Cover your eyes tight,
husband, until you see stars, convince
yourself you are looking at Heaven.

Because any man weak enough to hide his eyes while his neighbors
are punished for the way they love deserves a vengeful god.

I would say these things to you now, Lot,
but an ocean has dried itself on my tongue.
So instead I will stand here, while my body blows itself
grain by grain back over the Land of Canaan.
I will stand here
and I will watch you

By Karen Finneyfrock

Lot's WifeLot’s Wife, part of a triptychon within the Sacred & Profane series.

Interview – Open Journal

Open Journal’s Cathy Marshall interviewed me recently, here it is:

German fine art photographer Yoram Roth is a man of many talents. From set construction and garment creation to floral arranging, Yoram is involved with almost every detail involved in the production of his highly considered images. By utilising techniques generally used within commercial imagery, Yoram sells narrative over product. He plays with the familiar language of fashion photography to lure the viewer into an open state, ready to receive a narrative.

His most recent project, Hanjo, speaks of the courage of committing to true love. A step in a fresh direction given that many of his previous images are highly sexualised. In Roth’s words, Hanjo is “like living sculpture”. The story is based upon a 15th Century Nôh Play (Japanese opera) and has come together in photo book form, which Roth explains is the ideal medium for photography.

On the eve of his visit to Tokyo Photo and the release of Hanjo, Yoram talks to Cathy Marshall about Hanjo, how to perfect a project, and recently being picked up by Camera Work in Berlin.

Your work is incredibly controlled and meticulously executed; do you have a background in commercial photography?  

I have never shot anything commercially. I really went to great lengths to acquire the skills and style to shoot this way, but it was clear to me that I did not want to pursue an actual career in commercial photography. I believe a lot of people really underestimate the effort it takes to become a fashion photographer.

I think it is “easy” to create pretty pictures in nearly any fashion style. It will take some accumulated experience and some high-end tools, but anyone can learn to shoot well. Not to sound snarky, but there are thousands of fashion photographers on PhotoVogue right now, with some great images. That doesn’t make them accomplished fashion photographer, just shooters who know how to shoot in that style.

I studied with certain photographers. Melissa Rodwell was one of my teachers, and she is now actually part of the team that is launching Breed, an online school for high-end commercial and fashion photography. That’s a stellar group of masters to learn from. What people misunderstand is the entire universe beyond image creation. As a commercial photographer you really need to run a business. You have to be able to execute consistently, on time, and on budget. Conversely as an artist, you need to be very deliberate about the creative choices you make. Sure, plenty of people are willing to buy a nice-looking print and hang it on their wall; that’s not art, that’s decoration. Art requires more. And as an artist, you need to communicate your creative intent. You also need to get out there and show it to galleries, at fairs, and to collectors.

A large number of young photographers get very mad when I say this, but I really don’t believe it’s possible to start two careers simultaneously. Either be a commercial photographer, or a photographic artist. You can’t do both, they’re very distinct lives, and it takes years to get any traction. Yes, you create strong images, but that’s pretty much all the two careers have in common. I can think of a number of names who sort of do both, but that’s not how they started. Whether it is Erwin Olaf, David LaChapelle, or Izima Kauro, they each come from a specific creative place. Also… things are different now. Not to sound my age, but when we were still shooting film there was a LOT fewer photographers out there.

Not to mention that each industry is wary of the other. The art world wants to work with committed artists when dealing with photographers who are emerging, not someone who is dabbling on the side. There are plenty of talented creative people, but talent is not enough. The galleries want to know that an artist is fully committed if they in turn commit their limited resources. The same holds true for a commercial agency. The photographer should not be a neophyte with a unique vision; the agent needs to rely on this person to execute an important part of someone’s campaign. A good agency will expend substantial time and energy building up a commercial career.

How does the stylistic reference to fashion photography enhance the stories within your work?

Modern people see thousands of images every day. On websites, in magazines, and selling us products and services from every conceivable surface… walls, buses, high-rises, billboards. There are marvellously beautiful, perfectly cast people smiling down at us. The images let us know that if we buy these products – if we use these services – if we take that trip – we will be better. Not quite as good as those incredible people in the advertisement, but better. They promise us that others will find us more attractive, or that we will be safer, or more respected by the community.

That wasn’t always the case. Until very recently, people only saw images occasionally. Go back four or five long generations, and people saw maybe one or two images a day… and before that, it would be a painting at a rich man’s house, or something dramatic in church. Those paintings served the same purpose… though they were selling a slightly different product. They would illustrate stories from the bible for the illiterate public, but the images also did something beyond being narrative. They let the beholder know that if they were pious, it would make them better. Not quite as good as the saints, but it would make them more attractive in the eyes of God, it would make them safer, it would make them respectable.

People have developed image filters. We had to over the last forty years. When dealing with so many images every day, we have learned to look and promptly dismiss what we’re being shown. We look, and instantly understand we’re supposed to use a certain body spray, buy a car, go on an adventure, or simply smell like we might. We filter them out of our conscience.

But it is exactly at this point where I find creative opportunity. By using the language of commercial and fashion photography… Showing beautiful models, well-cast character actors, agile dancers, all placed inside narrative images, I breach the viewer’s image filter. The viewer recognises the familiar language… but nothing is being sold; the filter breaks down. It is unclear what is being pitched, what the product is… and that is where I try to tell stories, to engage the mind that back-fills the missing narrative.

Hanjo was conceptualised as a printed publication.  How important is the book as an object to you?  

Extremely. I consider the photo book to be the ideal medium for photography. The viewing distance is perfect, as is the way it fills the field-of-view. But more importantly, you can spend as much or as little time with an image as you like. In a gallery you’re often forced to move along, or worse – expected to stand there when you really want to walk away.

You are very interested in the notion of the story. Your work references German children’s stories, Edward Hopper paintings and Japanese plays. Does this make creating a series of work important, in which to take the viewer on an equivalent journey?

I prefer images that invite a narrative, and I work in series. Sometimes I tell a story, and other times I leave room for the viewer to figure things out. However I have done work that relies simply on visual context. I shot an homage to Christo & Jean-Claude’s early work, and that was simply image-driven.

The sets for your most recent body of work ‘Hanjo’ are even more elaborate then those constructed for your older series. They include not only the backgrounds and set itself, but traditional clothing, paintings, tapestries, floral arrangements etc. How much time goes into pre-production, compared to shooting and post?

Hanjo was 80% pre-production. I created an eighty page document with endless mood boards, sketches, quotes, ideas, etc. I spent about nine months going into deep geek-out mode on all things Floating World. I went into this total obsession with all things Japanese. I even went there, and bought all kinds of fans, fabrics, and other little props.

Ultimately I shot it in three days, with a team of eight people. Hanjo was more like a movie production in that I had a complete shot list of about seventy images in ten distinct scenes that I needed to capture. It’s the last time I shoot like that. I made it work, but it really leaves no room for creative experimentation. There’s one scene that I wanted to play with some more… but I couldn’t make the light work the way I wanted, and I was running out of time. So I had to skip my idea. But it’s a really efficient use of resources, there’s a reason films get shot with a script and a shooting schedule.

‘Hanjo’ is an homage to Yukio Mishima’s version of the 15th Century Nôh play, (think opera).   Were your images based directly from stills from the play or were they from your mind, inspired by the play?

They are completely new. A traditional Nôh performance is actually more like living sculpture. There are very specific poses with masks that the performer needs to hold while reciting the lines. Hanjo is really a bunch of ideas all tossed together. I really love those hand-colored images from Japan that were created in the 1860s right up to the turn of that century. They’re beautiful. But I also went through this phase of reading every graphic novel I could find, spending all my time at Forbidden Planet in New York or Golden Apple down on Melrose in LA. I still think this is an incredibly powerful medium for telling a story, and I am surprised more photographers aren’t creating hybrid forms like this. My Hanjo isn’t a photographic comic book, it’s really more of a dream sequence – but that fits in this case, so much of Nôh is otherworldly anyway.

Your images are often highly sexualized, such as the Hopper’s Americans: Stories From Sun-Lit Rooms series. Is this something you adhere to for a particular reason?

Good heavens, wait till you see what I am currently working on… I expect to be banned from certain countries. Yeah, sexuality matters. But I’m still formulating my take on that, so it will have to wait another year until I explain it further.

You have recently been picked up by Camera Work in Berlin who also represents the likes of Stephen Klein and Nadav Kander. Do you feel this representation has solidified you as a contemporary photographer in Germany?

Very much. Working with CAMERA WORK means I have time. Everything changed. For several years I was shooting various projects as quickly as possible in an effort to realise my visions, because I wanted to create a body of work that I could point to. Now suddenly the mission is the opposite. Go slow. Focus on perfecting a project. It’s become a very different creative process. I’ve been shooting a single project for over a year now, and it affords me considerable creative luxury. My gallery has told me repeatedly that they’re happy to put on a show, with one caveat: I need to feel that it’s ready. They are very committed to building their emerging artists, and they realise it takes many years. CAMERA WORK has an incredible roster of artists, and living up to my place amongst them really means not showing new work until it’s ready.

Sanctified Object

“Dreams, memories, the sacred–they are all alike in that they are beyond our grasp. Once we are even marginally separated from what we can touch, the object is sanctified; it acquires the beauty of the unattainable, the quality of the miraculous. Everything, really, has this quality of sacredness, but we can desecrate it at a touch. How strange man is! His touch defiles and yet he contains the source of miracles.”

Yukio Mishima, Spring Snow

_MG_9846_web_sRGBHanako does not recognize Yoshio, from my photographic adaption of Yukio Mishima’s HANJO


I am not a superstitious person. I don’t believe in the supernatural. No amount of rabbit foot rubbing is going to bring me good luck, nor do I consider spilled salt a bad omen. I don’t believe some vengeful invisible God will send me to heaven if I fast on high holidays, punish those who transgress laws written by elites thousands of years ago, or guide me toward victory in sports – there is no force in the universe powerful enough to get me to exercise competitively.

I must admit I have one or two rituals that matter to me, which reinforce the importance of some moments. I get it, codified rituals are effectively superstitions, and that is how religions ultimately get built, but these are just personal little events which I vest with a sense of importance. I don’t expect my kids to follow my lead, but rather to discover their own.

Most of my moments happen as I get ready for the day ahead. On days when I need luck I wear my wedding ring, because its one of the few things in my life that has been a pillar of strength. On important business days I use a particular aftershave. It reminds me of my father, because I will always associate business with him. For over forty-five years he has used the same pen to sign his contracts, so I’m not the only one with personal rituals.

The oldest one I have happened again this morning. I believe – well, I would like to believe – that blowing a loose eyelash fulfills a wish. My mother explained this to me when I was a child. Ever since then I stop, and think about what mattered most to me. And then I wish for something big. Health, success and general happiness, a good exam season when i was younger, a deal to work out nowadays. That sounds like prayer, but somehow the eyelash is the only messenger I’ve entrusted with this responsibility.

Looking back, I’d say it’s worked out well about half the time.

I made a big wish this morning, and I hope it goes my way. The only other superstition I have is not telling people what I wished for. It might not come true.

Hanjo – The Foreword by John Wood

There are few moments greater for an artist then when his work is understood. Without lengthy description, without a wordy artist statement or a Gallerina standing nearby and whispering visual cues, the person simply comprehends the artist’s work. So it was when I began communicating with John Wood, photographic historian, and lover of Japanese art, who ultimately composed the foreword to HANJO. His words put my work in a context I would be too shy to provide myself, but I admit it makes me brim with pride that my efforts were recognized and appreciated.


It reads as follows…

   – Yoram Roth’s Re-Revealed HANJO

Today when one speaks of “Japanese photography,” he or she is more likely to be thinking of the work of Masahisa Fukase, Masao Yamamoto, Daido Moriyama, Eikoh Hosoe or some other recent or contemporary artist. The idea of “Japanese photography” to others who are scholars or students of the subject might possibly think back to Japan’s leading Pictorialists, Shinzo and Roso Fukuhara, to Isao Kakefuda or Motowo Ohtaguro and/or to Modernists such as Kiyoshi Koishi, Ei-Q and others. But few are likely to think back to Kimbei Kusakabe or other late nineteenth century artists whose works are primarily characterized by being richly, hand-colored albumen prints, few, I should say, but visionaries such as Yoram Roth who has no fear of a modern vision shaped by influences from the past.

Perhaps the most daring of Roth’s work is his series HANJO, a series in which he re-tells a classic Noh drama that Yukio Mishima had previously re-told. But Roth, of course, is re-telling it purely in images, images that both poignantly and peculiarly suggest their precursors, those late nineteenth century hand-colored albumen prints. One of Roth’s most striking is of a man, a kind of contemporary samurai holding a fan and wearing a Western-style jacket over his armor. Outside his open window one sees a modern factory with smoke stacks rising from it. Past and present collide here, but the jarring is beautiful. One thinks of contemporary performances, such as David Tennant’s, of Hamlet in modern dress, or François Girard’s new version of Parsifal. A modern visual aesthetic attached to a classic always allows the viewer a new perspective—and a fresh perception.

Yukio Mishima, one of Japan’s greatest modern writers, took the story of a female painter who had never found love but found an image of it in Hanako, a beautiful geisha waiting for the return of Yoshio, her love, with whom she had exchanged fans years before as a promise that they would eventually be together. As Roth wrote, “HANJO is the story of three people who want love, but each lack the ability to pursue their personal happiness. … Yoshio has gone missing, and so Hanako sits there, no longer able to perform as a Geisha, waiting, [but] her waiting has left her increasingly detached from the world, and the world regards her as mad.” Jitsuko buys Hanako from the Geisha house, but when Yoshio finally appears, as Roth points out “a struggle develops for Hanako between Yoshio and Jitsuko, but when Hanako finally sees Yoshio … she no longer recognizes him.” This is classic Noh drama. Of the some 250 Noh plays, nearly a third of them are madness or vengeance plays.

Roth’s colored images perfectly capture the action of the play. We see Hanako sitting at the train station waiting for Yoshio, Jitsuko’s jealousy and rage, Yoshio with Hanako’s fan, as well as the other events of the play rendered and caught in the suggestions of some of the earliest and most beautiful of Japanese photographs. As both a photographic historian with a major interest in Japanese photography and as a collector of Japanese paintings, I would not have thought such a series could have been created. Yoram Roth’s sensitivity to the aesthetic both of the Noh drama and of those early photographs is as creative as it is inspired.

1234174_10151935850482754_1453184620_nImages courtesy of Alexander Scholz at Galerie Vevais


Tumblr List

My guiltiest social media pleasure these days is Tumblr. It’s a simple blogging service that lets anyone to set up a blog full of images and links. But the most powerful part of it is the social media aspect, which allows all participants to like or re-blog other people’s content. Once you join (I guess you could forego posting and just follow others) all of the blog posts show in the aggregated Dashboard feed, a marvelous way of seeing powerful art and images… ummm… or a lot of really crazy Justin Bieber and Miley Cirus GIFs, depending on the people you choose to follow.

So to get you started if you haven’t joined the fun yet, here is a small selection of my favorite Tumblrs to follow. I will keep this list updated. My idea of a good Tumblr is a collection of images that inspires me. But I believe that curating has become a minor art form in its own right. Just consider DJing to understand what I mean. Sometimes the selection process gives the art a whole new context.

Yoram Roth – My own Tumblr. I quite like it, take a look. (Just to get that out of the way…)

Not shaking the Grass – Known by most as Like A Fieldmouse. One of the great Tumblr curators.

Sour Cream & Bookmarks – Originally went by Everything is Beautiful all the Time. A lovely selection.

Artchipel – Can veer into the illustrative sometimes and thus feel a little ffffound, but worth following.

Photographs on the Brain – Nomen est Omen, as they say in Latin. The name says it nicely.

Arpeggia – Art on the cusp of fashion.

Nuclear Harvest – A current favorite of mine.

The Predatory Pose – my idea of fashion photography.

Art Mastered – one of the many art history Tumblrs I like. Also seek out Caravaggista!

Staged Photography – Obviously a huge fan of a Tumblr that celebrates my style of photography…

The Only Magic left is Art – Good curator.

Concept of Mind – Good taste, simply presented.

Frictious – A great visual DJ of color and content.

Coleurs – A nice flow of image and music links with an emphasis on color transition.

… and When You Live in Berlin – because OMG there’s a lot of ridiculously pointless but fun stuff on Tumblr, and I live here… And if you’re nice to me you can send me an email and ask for my favorite NSFW / Adult Tumblrs… because unlike Facebook, Tumblr lets us be grown ups.

I follow 189 Tumblrs, so this list is nowhere near complete. Feel free to add any I may have missed out.

The Easy Life

We have all heard about the casual easy life that artists get to live. Get up at noon, have a long breakfast while re-reading Infinite Jest, then meander over to the studio. Late night work with nude models, organic cigarettes and art-house dub-step…

Yeah, not really.

If you’re serious about being an artist you have to pay attention to the details, and push yourself out into the world. This notion that an artist toils away in a rarefied world of exquisite isolation is a wonderful idea, but it doesn’t work. No one is going to just discover you one day, then lift you out of obscurity. Those days are over, and I’m not sure that ever really actually happened. Unfortunately no one is going to do this work for you, so you have to do it yourself. It is a LOT of work to stay in touch with people in your network, to let people know what you’re working on, and to present your work at the appropriate time in the best venue.

Being an artist isn’t just making wonderfully creative work. The hard part is often the execution. If you paint you better have clean brushes, stretched canvases, and access to good framing. You need your tools to make art, and to present it. The same is true in every other discipline. As a photographic artist, I need my gear to be ready. But the most time-consuming work is printing. It takes inordinate amounts of time to find the right paper, to profile it correctly, and then to fine-tune the images until they look they way you envisioned them.

Preparing the Hanjo book right now is even more difficult, because it is a collaboration between several craftspeople. The printer is helping me evaluate different papers and the way the ink penetrates the surface of the hand-made paper. The carpenter is building the very detailed and exquisite boxes, silk screens are applied to the outside, and a book-binder is assembling the leporellos. The graphic lay-out requires fine-tuning, and the business around it needs to be put in place. Display stand, limited edition certificates, and shipping crates are all being made to get everything to Japan in time for Tokyo Photo 2013. Unfortunately none of these people are even in the same city, so everything needs to be shipped back and forth, or picked up and driven half-way across Brandenburg, before it can get on a plane to Asia.

All of this has me pretty frazzled and stressed. This is how I felt yesterday afternoon…

_U1J8260_web_sRGBJitsuko about to explode in rage and frustration

But I’m not complaining loudly. It’s being managed by my publisher at Galerie Vevais, I’m just high strung and hyper nervous.  And honestly…? This is the good stuff. This is what it means to be an artist in this genre. Yes, we love to create images, to sketch out new ideas, or to pin mood boards to Pinterest. It’s the emergence of the image from a great data file into the physical world that lifts it into a new realm. I envy my friends who shoot Polaroids or Collodions… they end up with a piece of art much faster.