Despite their bright, almost preternatural illumination, the works that make up Rafaël Herman’s solo exhibition, The Night Illuminates the Night, were taken in total darkness and contain no digital manipulation. It's no surprise, then, that they're not immediately processed by the brain as photographs. Shot between 2010 and 2015, they’re a strangely-hued set of bluish-green and lavender-toned dreamscapes, the layers of their depicted environments flat and shiny like mirrors.
As both a place and idea, darkness is mythical and metaphorical. We’re taught that darkness scary and inextricable from death, the greatest unknown (Google “darkness mythology” and you’ll get “List of death deities”); but you can’t get to Hindu god Brahma’s cave (the center of vision) without closing your eyes. The Night Illuminates the Night features photographs of Herman’s homeland, Israel, shot in the pitch-black of night, utilizing a specific technique to create beautiful and dreamily lit exposures. He’s deliberately placed himself in the tradition of the Old Masters who, he explains, “represented the Holy Land without any direct knowledge or experience… Even in my works, I wanted to make myself blind to my own land and experience the familiar places of my childhood as if I was distant to it.”
These images—of the Judean Mountains, the Forest of Galilee, and the Mediterranean Sea—are like revealed secrets, alternative realities of a landscape that the mind’s eye can see (even if it’s too dark for the other two). The unusual colors and shapes are not intentional, but a lucky byproduct; the result is a feeling of the uncanny--real, but not quite. “My quest is ontological,” Herman explains. “I am not after an aesthetic effect or a psychological investigation. I want to gain a new access to reality. And, by doing so, I discover that every empirical vision contains a heart of darkness, a moment of blindness.”
Herman’s process requires patience. “I use a long exposure following the results of the calculation and I manipulate the cameras in order to achieve exactly what I need,” he says. “I deconstruct it in order to obtain this kind of picture, with no light; there is no digital manipulation in the pictures.” Herman must be in solitude, away from city lights. “I dwell in a mystical time of waiting,” he says. “The Italian language has the word attesa that describes very well this situation of imminence, of a strong belief that something is about to happen.”
The artist, who is also a percussionist, is familiar with darkness. As a teenager on his way to a concert, he got into a car accident, leaving him with a left eye cut into pieces. Herman had several surgeries, one of which, he says, “was 14 hours long…literally stitching the eye together. Nobody could tell me if I would see again or not.” Over the course of a year, the light slowly crept back in until his vision became “better than clinically perfect.” His recovered eye is unique: “The pupil is larger and higher so that more light goes through the eye. The feeling of seeing in the dark makes me feel that in every darkness there is light and, even if for a moment, it is impossible to see, there is always something good to expect.”
It’s a good metaphor for the rest of us, but for Herman’s photographic practice, too. “Seeing in the darkness is an act of faith,” he adds. It’s not so much that his process creates a light in the darkness—rather, it reveals the light that’s already and always there inherently. Interestingly, he does not consider his work photography in the traditional sense: “It’s a conceptual work about the nature-of-vision. What I am doing is revealing a reality outside of an existing reality […] I am not intervening; here is the beauty for me. I am just curious and I am transmitting my curiosity to the public, and discovering, together, these hidden realities.”
The Night Illuminates the Night is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome (MACRO) Testaccio from January 25-March 26, 2017. For more info, Click here.