July 20, 2008, Updated September 14, 2012

“I feel like a different person, a more confident person, when I am behind the camera,” photographer Michal Chelbin.When Haifa-born Michal Chelbin, 34, sent in a collection of her photos to the Aperture Foundation in New York City two years ago, she was shocked when the high-end photography book publisher quickly responded that they wanted to back her first monograph.

Chelbin has exhibited her work in various galleries in Tel Aviv, New York, LA, and London; and has even had one of her pieces purchased by Sir Elton John for his private collection, but still she felt that without a book, she didn’t have an audience.

“Everyone knows Aperture; they enjoy a very strong reputation. Getting this book published by Aperture is a dream come true,” she tells ISRAEL21c. “It is my greatest professional accomplishment.”

A small and refined crowd gathered at Aperture’s gallery near Chelsea Park recently to celebrate the launch of Chelbin’s first monograph, Strangely Familiar: Acrobats, Athletes, and Other Traveling Troupes, and to get a little insight into the woman behind the series of often haunting images.

Over the last five years, Chelbin traveled to small towns in Ukraine and England to take photos of the Eastern European circus performers that comprise the bulk of the collection’s subjects. She first encountered this style of subject in Israel. “I started off working with families from the Former Soviet Union (FSU), new immigrants to Israel,” explains Chelbin. “This experience inspired me to develop outwards.”

Her interest in photography dates back to high school, when at the age of 15, Chelbin joined her school’s art department. “Photography appealed to me because I was shy and I felt I could hide behind my camera,” says Chelbin, who admits that if she could have, she would have become a painter instead. “My photographic influences still come from painting and the history of painting,” she says. “And I still feel like a different person, a more confident person, when I am behind the camera.”

Chelbin got her first taste of professional photography in the Israeli army, from 1992 to 1994, when she served as a photographer in the IDF Spokesman’s unit. Thereafter, she worked as a photojournalist for Israeli newspapers. “I hated every minute of it,” says Chelbin. “I hated photographing people in their grief, in hospitals and courtrooms. Plus, I was always late, so eventually I got fired.”

In 1997, she commenced formal studies in photography at the WIZO Haifa Academy of Design and Education. It was there that she began her first artistic projects. By the time she graduated in 2001, she had developed both a collection of photographs of subjects from the FSU, and a keen taste for this subject. Finally, in 2003, she began work on what would eventually grow to become her monograph Strangely Familiar.

Chelbin says she is attracted to these subjects due to some inner conflict she senses within her subjects. “These people are full of contradictions. They are tough on the outside and warm on the inside. They encompass this tension between common and glamorous; familiar and strange; fantasy and reality; odd and ordinary,” she explains. “I like their images because they present more questions than answers. I like photographs that provide a starting point for many different potential stories.”

According to Chelbin, this tension must exist naturally. It cannot be contrived. For the same reason, she takes an old-fashioned approach to photography and rejects all forms of digital manipulation. “I respect things that are real,” she says. “To change a photograph after it has been taken, it would be like cheating. The magic needs to happen.”

As a result of this approach, Chelbin spends a lot of time with her subjects, getting to know them. “One secret to taking great photos is establishing trust between photographer and subject,” says Chelbin. “Every subject has a story to tell. I have encountered many fascinating personal stories.”

Says Chelbin, this deeper entry into the individual is what makes her work, although distinctly Israeli, also universal. “Great art should be universal,” she says. “It should be accessible to all people, no matter where they are from.”

Perhaps this artistic philosophy is what accounts for the recent emergence of Israeli artists across the New York City photography scene, most notably Barry Frydlender, who recently exhibited his work at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and at the Whitney. “Over the past five years or so, more Israeli artists have crossed the Atlantic and are making it big,” says Chelbin. “It’s nice.”

A lot of Israelis come, she says, because there is a lot more opportunity for artists in the US, and in New York City in particular. “I came because of the opportunities in both the worlds of fine art and editorial,” says Chelbin, who since moving to Brooklyn a year and a half ago has taken photos for feature articles in The New Yorker, New York Magazine, and The New York Times.

Chelbin hopes to shoot more editorial features, as well as to start work on her next monograph, based on one of the themes in Strangely Familiar: wrestlers. Chelbin also has several exhibits coming up, both in Israel, at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and in the US, at the Andrea Meislin Gallery in New York City.

“It is nice to be an ambassador for Israel in the US,” says Chelbin, who adds that most people she meets in America assume Israel is much larger than it actually is, because of the increasingly disproportionate presence of Israelis on the New York City art scene. “It makes me feel good that Israel is on the art map, and that I am a part of that.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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