Rona Yefman’s ‘Let It Bleed’: A Review
October 7, 2016
Rona Yefman’s long-in-the-making book, Let it Bleed, was published this year by Little Big Man Press.
Leafing through the pages I felt a certain privilege as a reader in being given access to such intimacies. Largely documenting her sister Gil’s transition and de-transition in and out of womanhood and set against the backdrop of their tight-knit family life, Rona’s book is a narrative of exchange between two artists, siblings, and dreamers.
The project began in 1995 with a photoshoot of Gil posing on the beach. The Israeli siblings, although separated by 7 years in age, found themselves together at their family home for the first time in years during a shared moment of recovery. Gil was recovering from a near-fatal encounter with anorexia and Rona had returned to Tel Aviv after overdosing on a drug-fueled stint abroad.
Moving roughly chronologically, the book opens with Hug (1996), which shows the siblings entangled in a way that leaves both of their faces obscured; their identities virtually indistinguishable.
The next several pages quickly reveal the idiosyncratic genres of Rona’s life: from familiar family snapshots and awkwardly posed portraits that hold their own against the greats of 90s fashion photography (the painterly lushness of Collier Schorr and the harsh realism of Corrine Day are both there), to a roll of Gil camping up the bathroom in briefs, fishnets, a black wig and a feathery blue boa.
Gil is but a boy in the beginning. Her lithe frame and gentle face, captured in double self-portraits with Rona, are confused with her older sister’s relatively more severe stance. Each image finds Gil posturing with uncertainty towards the feminine, with Rona all the while recoiling from it in resistance.
Some of the book’s best images are found in Rona setting up these dualities, which never manage to stratify fully but rather ebb and flow against one another. The two sisters struggle between their bodies and whatever aspirational fantasies they imagine for themselves. The identities they fashion inform one another, opening doors the other wouldn’t have known were there.
In the afterword Rona writes, “Gil was a mirror for me. She took me to another world and allowed me to document a ‘dream-like’ reality anchored in the awareness that one could occupy an array of identities. Our interaction marked the thin line between art and life, fiction and reality, until it all began to bleed and there were no longer any divisions apparent.”
The siblings’ visual dialogue is further complicated by the introduction of their muscular older brothers, their mother and father.
In one image Gil and her mother sit in the back seat of a car. Wearing full drag (a word that feels appropriate for her), Gil looks directly at the camera while her mother, wearing matching eye shadow, looks directly at her daughter. In a following spread their father wears the same eyeshadow, penciled in eyebrows, and a face of white powder and rouge. Across is a holographic sticker that reads “My Daddy Cares for Me”.
As one moves through the book one cannot help but be immersed in Rona’s life and process. Constantly experimenting with photographic styles, just as Gil on the other side of the lens repositions herself as grunge, a goth, a punk, a garden muse, Rona allow her images to be both beautiful and ugly.
In his accompanying essay, Gary Indiana notes the technological conditions of the time. Reflecting on his own childhood, he recalls “the slender means we had for remembering ourselves later …. Photos were taken to register, not the way we were, but the fact that we were at all. It would never have occurred to us to picture ourselves with the aim of capturing our inner complexity or reflecting varied moods”.
The period covered by the book (1996-2010) exists somewhere between the early 60s of Indiana’s youth and the present, and one cannot help but appreciate the increased visibility of gender-nonconforming individuals today.
In this early moment of truly accessible and instantaneous photography, questions arise regarding what it means to have physical, arguably fictive images floating free of your body, particularly when these images don’t quite capture the person you imagine in your head.
Gil and Rona’s sessions allow a movement between the first, second, and third person. The photographs are mirrors that allow different versions of the siblings to exist as objects to be viewed without them ever necessarily having to leave the safety of their mutual company.
Blips of a boyfriend are mixed in with early experiments in video; acne comes and goes and eyebrows change. To some extent what’s astonishing about these images is that the violence that’s witnessed happens entirely beyond the images’ frames.
With Israel’s heavily militarized culture as an unseen backdrop, Gil talks about this period in a 2002 interview, grappling to explain the inexplicable process taking place:
It is to break everything you grew up on, everything you thought you understood, all you’ve seen, your own definitions, simply in order to break it and shatter it to pieces. To reach deep down to a point of total chaos, to the core. Not knowing anything, who you are, nothing. And then out of deep-seated, hidden intuition, a very primal notion of starting to connect and trying to build something different.
Their photo shoots tend to feel like private excursions, preceded by scenic drives and followed by giggles or tense silences. One imagines the images to be documents of Gil’s first times, wearing a bikini at the beach, for example, or first times of a more ongoing kind.
The sibling’s relationship allows for a different kind of space, a space that allows this building of “something different.”
Towards the end of the book Gil ponders in an interview, wearing iridescent fast glasses and a red bandana over her hair: “I don’t know how to make myself feel better. Maybe me feeling better doesn’t have to do with me being a man or a woman. It probably has to do with something else”.
The ease of the thought comes with the force of a revelation, and the almost endless posturing in the book feels decidedly un-neurotic but rather free.