Yana Toyber’s Life Aquatic

Jill Di Donato reviews the photography of Yana Toyber.

on January 26, 2019

By Jill Di Donato

Having spent her childhood growing up in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, Yana Toyber was slightly removed from New York City. “Ocean life is what draws me,” she says. “Growing up I was very attuned to the sea. I'd notice how on different days, different sea creatures would wash ashore. One day it was starfish, the next mussels, and then jellyfish.”

There’s something inherently female-centric about photographer Toyber’s work. Certainly, she is a woman with a camera, shooting bodies of women in motion. Toyber identifies as a feminist. However, the Russian-born artist, who has a BFA in photography from the School of Visual Arts, is not interested in dismantling the patriarchy. “I think if you're a woman you're naturally a feminist,” says Toyber. “As women, we have to fight harder. Life is already harder for women. Women think more three-dimensionally than men do. We bleed every month; we give birth. I do my work as a woman, but [my work is not] necessarily trying to bring down the patriarchy.”

“I find material in a woman’s view of the world,” says Toyber; this is her world.

In the photo and video-graphic series, EMBRYO, Toyber shot a series of identical twins Eva and Mia Fahler submerged in water—a foamy, viscous fluid reminiscent of the surf the artist grew up alongside. The artist submerged the twins in a pool and shot them dancing and moving with the water, or what Toyber calls, “the embryonic stage of life.” She describes the mood during the embryonic stage as cold, warm, melancholy, violent, and nostalgic.”

In SACRED, shot on the Islands of Hawaii, Toyber wanted to execute a “project that comments on the similarities between woman and water.” She says, “I began traveling to Hawaii frequently, shooting only local women. Water gives life, women give birth. The women floating in tide pools in many shots evoke the womb.”

“We are made of water,” says Toyber over tea she serves in delicate teacups from her Chelsea apartment, her brash voice accented by Brooklynese making for a nice contrast of elements. “Especially in this time, it’s important to stay connected to the natural elements of the world.” Toyber’s work is also concentrated with environmentally responsible living in an urban landscape like New York. “Recycle,” she tells me, and her voice has become somewhat maternal. “Like water, women are often disrespected and polluted, but both can be restored and purified.” This seems a central message of Toyber’s work—that awareness can restore and purify that which has been degraded.

Historically, women are noted for connectivity. Certainly it is a trope that women are more fluent at communication than their male counterparts, but in the art world, women have to be, according to Toyber. “The dominant point of view among creative directors is male,” says Toyber. “When we get hired for our point of view, we need to get paid the same. We need to not be sexually harassed. We are better communicators because we have to survive.”

Like many photographers, Toyber’s curiosity drives her work, in the natural world and beyond. Ethereal, grainy, evocative of a 1970s surftown, Toyber’s portraits of bodies of water and bodies of women evoke a surreal realism. “I want my photos to leave a imprint on your psyche,” Toyber says. Indeed, they do, as does the woman behind the lens.  

Yana Toyber is the author of THIS TIME, (Damiani Factory). Her work can be found on her website.

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