Artist Profile: Tami Bahat
In her latest series, Dramatis Personae, photographer Tami Bahat transports her audience back to the Renaissance using a modern lens.
Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Vermeer are some of the artists that come to mind while walking through Bahat’s first solo exhibition Revisiting Humanity: Secrets and Lifetimes at the Building Bridges Art Exchange in Santa Monica. There is a quiet electricity in the air produced by the mysterious yet playful nature of the series. Hung in vintage frames in a room filled with antique furniture, her portraits of human beings and their strange little worlds become the focus; embodying the characteristics found in Renaissance art. When speaking about the exhibit, Bahat says, “this series has given me a unique opportunity to exhibit my personal connection to history, and to share my deep longing for times that no longer exist.”
Like the Renaissance masters, Bahat uses real people as her subjects and arranges them in playful mise-en-scènes that reflect her “deep love for imperfect beauty and the belief that art is in everyone.” A boa constrictor entwining a set of twins, a woman engrossed in a red leather-bound book, a scorpion resting on a nun’s bosom; each photograph evokes the internal world of the subject. The period costumes, props, gestures and even the inclusion of live animals give the scenes a theatricality that is enhanced by her use of chiaroscuro; a painterly technique of contrasting light and dark for dramatic effect. And so refined and carefully orchestrated are Bahat’s compositions that it is difficult to distinguish whether her portraits are photographs or oil on canvas. Despite its historical and cultural references, Dramatis Personae holds a timeless quality that is seductive, sensual and whimsical.
Born in Israel and raised by a dancer and a graphic designer, Bahat was immersed in art throughout childhood. Encouraged to explore different mediums such as dance, music as well as the visual arts. She found photography as a teenager, “intrigued by the medium's ability to mold the obvious into the interesting, the commonplace into the comment-worthy.”Although her striking Dramatis Personae is no longer showing in Southern California, it is touring throughout the country.Rogue sits down with Bahat to discuss the process of making this series, what inspires her work, and what is in store for the future.
ROGUE: Do you remember the first time you held a camera in your hand? Is that when you decided to pursue photography professionally?
Bahat: The first time I held a camera in my hands certainly sparked an interest for me! And from very early on I had a passion to capture the essence of people. I remember when my friends and I went hiking as teenagers I would take pictures of the people in the group, the candid moments. My friends would photograph the flowers and wilderness. It’s interesting to see what each person is naturally drawn to. I started shooting professionally after I was brought on as a photographer for several events but quickly realized fine art was my calling.
You mentioned that you had experience as a performer before you transitioned into photography—has your style as a photographer been influenced by other artistic mediums?
I’ve had people mention that I have a theatrical approach when it comes to creating my imagery which makes a lot of sense. I was fortunate enough to study with an incredible musical theater teacher who broke me open in my first class and showed me how to push my own boundaries and to be bold. The thing I loved the most about performing was connecting with an audience and expressing a story from a unique character’s point of view. Something I love about photography is that the work can be up anywhere in the world and you don’t have to be present to tell the story. The images transcend words and each viewer interprets for themselves what they see based on their own life experiences or perceptions. Beyond that, I’ve also had a lot of interest in sculpture and have collaborated with artists to create pieces to shoot and have also made my own. I think it’s very important not to limit yourself when it comes to ideas and imagination, to explore and take the things you love and incorporate them into your unique expression.
You were born in Israel but lived most of your life in LA. Are there any cross cultural elements that find their way into your work?
My grandmother supported artists and collected their work and that’s what I would see every time we would visit her in Israel. I would be surrounded by beautiful imagery that took over all the walls. The Jewish people have been through a lot historically and have had to rebuild many times so I find that a lot of the work from Jewish artists tends to have a longing quality and also a whimsy to it. I don’t know that there are many cross cultural elements that you would see in my work specifically, other than I’ve always been tremendously influenced and inspired by humanity and every unique individual’s story.
Could you speak about the title of the show—Dramatis Personae? And what drew you to the world of the Renaissance?
Dramatis Personae by definition means “The characters of a play, novel, or narrative". This title speaks to my models who are predominantly family and friends and are the characters within the story of my life and also the cast of people we’ve created in this world. Regarding the Renaissance, I’ve always had an affinity for other places and times and felt like I was from another era. I’m very connected to work from this period and it has always felt very familiar to me.
On your website, the write-up on Dramatis Personae included a line that we just loved about your work: “Believing that art lives in the humanity of everyday people...concluding that prettiness doesn’t leave a lot of room for the imagination.” Can you extrapolate on that? It’s such a bold statement.
I truly believe that art lives in the humanity of everyday people, not just the ones on billboards or televisions. Beauty, to me, exists beyond societal standards. There really isn’t a perfect look. In general I like to see when a broader ideal becomes represented. If something or someone begins and ends with “pretty” it doesn’t tend to stay with me. I want to feel a sense of intimate connection when I look at a photograph or a painting. I want to feel that I’m let in and to experience that human connection. That is what I live for. That is what I find most beautiful and moving.
Your subjects echo some of the Renaissance Masters who purposefully used real people as models. Why do you choose to work with people from your own life?
My models oftentimes have little to no experience in front of the camera and I love that! I want them to be able to play and express themselves freely. There’s a comfort and childlike joy when they first try on their outfit or get to see the animal they’re working with. It’s beautiful watching them transform into art. I never set expectations and I tell them that beforehand to put them at ease. It’s more of a collaboration. The only thing I would ever try to avoid would be a model presenting themselves as a caricature. So far with family and friends that’s never been an issue.
How do you work with your subjects in front of the camera—how do you draw them out? Do you come up with the concept or do you collaborate with your subjects?
I usually start out with a couple ideas but also encourage the model to see where their instincts take them. So the place we start isn’t always where we finish but I think it’s so important to be open to that. Sometimes it’s better than you could have ever imagined. We play and see what happens. Sometimes that’s the only option when it comes to working with live animals in particular!
In all of your photo series, you focus on light. In Subsurface you explored how light reacts under water. In Reflection you studied light reflected like a mirror. In Dramatis Personae, you re-create an atmosphere evocative of painting, specifically chiaroscuro. What made you interested in exploring chiaroscuro in Dramatis Personae? How does this translate into photography? What techniques do you utilize?
From a very young age my father shared his love of the Old Masters with me and would point out small details about the work, so I had an awareness and admiration for the emotionality an artist could create based on how they utilized shadow and light to create a mood. I took what I loved about painting and translated it into this modern method. Instead of a canvas and paint I have my camera and lens. I use various means to get to my ultimate vision and that takes experimentation, patience and never cutting corners. The small details make up the big picture.
Dramatis Personae not only highlights the photography, but you also have fantastic vintage frames and the furniture. Can you talk about how you were able to find such beautiful pieces and your decision making in utilizing them in the exhibit? What is the process of curating this show?
I’ve been collecting antique frames and furniture to use in the photographs since I started this series. I definitely knew I wanted to bring people into the Dramatis Personae world once they stepped foot in the gallery. The wonderful curator Marisa Caichiolo and I worked together to create an environment as an experience. Her idea was to have enough of the furniture to create a world, but not too much to overwhelm the space. She really made it feel contemporary without stripping away the historic charm and character. There was a terrific balance of classic and modern.
What is the exhibit’s trajectory—where is it going after Los Angeles?
We are currently in talks about this show traveling within the U.S. and internationally. I can’t reveal where to yet but keep an eye out!
Any new projects in the works?
I’m focusing exclusively on this series for the time being. There are a lot more stories to tell and it’s important for me to bring them to life.
Written by Emily Blanton