Precision and Bottomless Depth

text by Hans-Joachim Gögl Artistic Director at BTV Stadtforum; developed the «INN SITU—Photography, Music, Dialogue» series for BTV Stadtforum.


The Israeli photographer Orly Zailer recreates photographs from family albums by photographing descendants of family members with as much precision as possible. She reconstructs decades-old photographs by photographing daughters, sons, grandchildren or great-grandchildren, who for a brief moment slip into the role of their forebears, thereby producing images of alleged doppelgängers who possess an almost magical charisma.


One’s initial response is surprise: for an instant you think you are seeing the same photograph twice. But then you spot differences, minor ones, sometimes significantly different objects, clothes, rooms, or landscapes. At that point the process of looking becomes intensive, as you hunt down similarities, and find them—but not exact matches. The feeling is of looking, rather than seeing. Viewing an Orly Zailer work transports you inwards into your own personal experience of being a certain way, yet different.


Consider the question of family resemblance: so often, children are informed of a striking facial resemblance with their uncle when he was their age, or with family members on their mother’s rather than their father’s side, or are told have their aunt’s eyes, or hands... or, surprisingly, that they do not resemble anyone in the family at all. Orly Zailer’s photographs seize upon things which in daily life cause us only fleeting concern,minor irritations which we do not pursue any further: the somewhat amused remark of a friend, an encounter with a relative at a family gathering, the feeling of surprise upon glancing at a photo album... The vague suddenly becomes the obvious. Suspicions become revelations, on the basis of compelling evidence of the type which only photography can provide.


Photography’s specific strength is that it can reproduce reality. Therein also lies its weakness, however: sometimes a print can no longer show us things we have already seen too often. Some argue that photography in certain instances merely shows reality, not truth (for example when your find yourself leafing impatiently through a photo album; or pacing up and down at an exhibition with the slightly baffling realisation that with your first, seemingly cursory, glance you have actually taken in the entirety of a photograph; or the feeling of being in an emotional and intellectual wasteland, as though looking at a set of pictograms).


Orly Zailer’s photographs, by contrast, engender an impression of entering a labyrinth (in contrast to a maze, a labyrinth, of course, leads to a centre). You find yourself engrossed, ruminating on medium and portrait, on relationships between society, family and individual, culture and history, and on your own personal history—though in fact you are just standing there gazing at a photo of a young man in an early 20th-century interior who looks remarkably like his great-grandfather, who is wearing the uniform of an Imperial and Royal Navy sailor.


For a curious, timeless moment, the great-grandson steps into the essence of the century-old photograph, though we know perfectly well that immediately afterwards he will go and change his clothes and check WhatsApp on his smartphone... What we perceive are connections that call to mind our own attachments. And as we do so, a wide range of questions are addressed with great precision, and the works themselves at the same time possess a poetic bottomlessness.


INN SITU—twenty new portraits created in Tyrol and Vorarlberg

Orly Zailer began the series of works entitled «The Time Elapsed Between Two Frames» in 2012, with photographs from her own family album and images of friends and neighbours. The works have been exhibited in London, but until now not in continental Europe. Orly Zailer has appeared in TV documentaries on ARTE and 3sat, and her works have been covered in various print media articles. For INN SITU, we invited her to continue that project, on this occasion outside Israel for the first time, in preparation for a full-scale exhibition at BTV Stadtforum.


For the project, following an open call for participants in Tyrol and Vorarlberg, numerous families began taking an interest. Zailer selected suitable album photos from among those received, and arranged meetings with the descendants to get to know them personally.


Scouting out suitable shooting locations and conducting painstaking research into clothing, furniture and other objects in the historic photos took around ten months. One of the reasons was that Zailer stays as close as possible to the original photograph and carefully avoids any manipulation of the physical reconstruction of the images, retouching, or use of digital methods to integrate items into the photographs.


The resulting discourse within families, their engagement with their own past, and some unique moments (such as when a young woman for a brief moment transformed herself into an image of her deceased mother) have created an invisible social sculpture which exerts influence on the exhibition.

Twenty new works involving Tyrol and Vorarlberg residents were created for the INN SITU project, thereby doubling the total number of works in the series. The present publication is the first time the series has been documented comprehensively.


The more local, the more global

One of the goals of the INN SITU series is to use photographic and musical methods to attempt to organize artistic perceptions of the region, for the region’s sake. We look for art photography approaches where the process of establishing contacts and relationships and the in situ «execution» of the photographs have synchronous importance along with the end product (the resulting photographs themselves).

At the start of the development process for the Orly Zailer project—which is the second in the INN SITU series—an open call was held in the region, asking for family photographs and photos of descendants who closely resemble forebears in family photographs.

One photo shoot in Innsbruck was featured on regional television: the extensive report focused on the project itself and the participating families, and prompted discussions among viewers, as an organic outgrowth of the artistic work itself.


It is worth noting in this context that when Maria Rørbye Rønn, head of public broadcasting in Denmark, was asked to account for the worldwide success of the political drama series Borgen, she replied: «The more local, the more global.» Her implication was that getting to the heart of local reality can be an effective way to achieve broader relevance and stimulate interest in the wider world.


The work of Orly Zailer is paradigmatic of that idea. At first glance, Zailer is concerned with family history and remains consistently in the private sphere, in terms of content as well as aesthetics, staying as close as possible to the original family album photos. However, the viewer never has the reductive sense of merely looking at someone else’s family, with little relevance for his or her own life. Instead, looking closely at a region stimulates precise questions about one’s own living space, wherever that may be. The profoundly private in Zailer’s works opens up the labyrinth of the private per se.