It was raining, and then she looked up and saw buttocks in the limb of a birch tree.
After that, she saw body parts everywhere: buttocks, legs, torsos, knees, breasts, genitals.
Trees had become human, animated, full of movement, grace and oh, look, there's a lithe dancer stretching her arms to the sky.
Michal Ronnen Safdie, 54, is a photographer who captures images of things that, before she took the time to look, no one knew existed.
In addition to her anthropomorphic trees, her lens has found tension in ice, a glimpse of peace at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, humanity in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, and the commonplace amid the violence of Darfur.
In fact, her own career has been a discovery. Married to Moshe Safdie, the renowned architect responsible for some of Canada's most significant buildings (the National Art Gallery in Ottawa, the Pearson Airport redevelopment in Toronto and the Vancouver Public Library, among others), and mother of two grown daughters, she didn't know her career was even there until she had the time to concentrate on it.
Think of her as the accidental photographer, because what distinguishes Ronnen Safdie is her lack of preconception, both in her own life and in her work. She pursues what she sees and feels. And maybe the reason for that is not only her emotional intelligence, but also her sense of duty -- her attachment to the demands of the moment.
"Okay, I was born in Israel," she begins solemnly, once she seats herself in a chair in her studio in the historic house she and her husband share in Cambridge, Mass. Ronnen Safdie lays out her past like a map, without being prompted, as if she has read what a profile entails and she is determined to fulfil the requirements. Her mother, Vera Ronnen, an artist in Jerusalem who's known for metal sculptures and installations, is a Holocaust survivor. Her father, Meir Ronnen, originally from Australia, is a well-known political cartoonist in Israel who has also written art reviews for The Jerusalem Post for more than years.
After completing mandatory youth service in the Israeli army, during which time she became an officer, she entered Hebrew University to study sociology and later worked in social services, helping new immigrants integrate into their new country. She met Moshe in 1973, when she was "barely 21," 13 years his junior, and he, the creator of Habitat 67 at Montreal's Expo, only three years out of McGill's architectural program, was "a formed man in his profession." He was also a divorced father of two children by then, in Jerusalem to help rebuild the Western Wall precinct following 1967's Six-Day War.
They fell in love, and in 1978 they moved to Boston, where he became director of the urban design program at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. Ronnen Safdie continued her studies, earning a masters degree in sociology at Brandeis University. They married in 1981, and soon she became a mother. "I am a very old-fashioned type of wife," she confides easily. "I had no issue with that. I had two little girls at home, and it was my responsibility to bring them up." Her husband travelled extensively, and still does. In fact, the demands of his work helped get her involved in photography.
"I travelled with Moshe quite a bit," she says, "and I started photographing some of his buildings, just documenting them. And then Moshe said, 'They're good,' and other people in his office said, 'Why don't you photograph more?' and so I did, because I thought it would make our life easier, to do something together." For 10 years, she worked alongside him, in a studio in his office, photographing his architectural models and some of his completed buildings.
The next step in her "evolution," as she puts it, started in 1994 when she and Safdie decided to spend a year based in Jerusalem. Years before, they had brought a ruin next to the Western Wall, which her husband turned into a home. "The view is so beautiful," Ronnen Safdie says in her straightforward manner. "The walls frame the view, and he added a beautiful dome, half concrete, half glass, and the glass opens as a door, and we overlook the wailing wall and the Dome of the Rock and half of the old city, and one day, I said, 'What am I looking at?' " What she saw was the range of emotions that people -- Muslims, Jews and Christians -- bring to the wall: hope, memories, festivity, grief.
"I understood how complex it was," she says. "It's a view into Israel society."
Her daughters, she confides, were the ones who suffered most during that year. "I don't think we had one breakfast that wasn't interrupted. I would look out and see something happening, so I would grab my camera. I didn't know how to restrain myself." In 1997, her book The Western Wall was published, and an exhibition of those photographs circled the globe, ending at New York's prestigious Salander O'Reilly Gallery. Still, she says, when she was doing the work, "I never thought of it as art." She had never taken a course in photography, only a workshop on how to make prints in a dark room.
Her next project, the "body trees," also began as a result of circumstance, this time a difficult one. Ronnen Safdie's sister, Keren, a textile weaver in Jerusalem, was diagnosed at 44 with leukemia. Ronnen Safdie brought her to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and for a year, refused to travel so she could attend to her. Tragically, Keren died soon after.
"I had to photograph something," she explains. On her walks through Cambridge with her husband, she always takes a camera, and one day, just as the sun was coming out after a rain, she looked up to a small branch above her head, and saw what would become her preoccupation for the next two years. She took notes on the light, and the way it fell, and would return at various times in the day to see how it affected the contour of a limb or a knot that she knew could be a perfect belly button.
Ronnen Safdie is one of those people who remind you of the importance of living life as it unfolds, and that there is wisdom in remaining rooted in the present, paying attention to the ground beneath your feet. There is a casual honesty about her, not forced, not strategic, that plays itself out through her willingness to scrutinize her own life, and through her wide, generous eyes that rarely shift away from whomever she is addressing.
If a house is a reflection of its occupant's personality, then hers exudes a similarly casual comfort. Built in 1753 and lived in by Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, a professor at Harvard Medical School who, in 1800, was the first doctor to test the smallpox vaccine in North America, it is unpretentious. The intimate rooms of the original house are offset by a large atrium at the back designed by her husband. It's filled with books, stacks of CDs and an assortment of antiques, objects (a wall hanging from India, ancient wooden horse figures bought in Paris) and art, including an abstract painting by their eldest daughter, Carmelle. . At the foot of the garden sits a whimsical treehouse designed by Safdie for their children when they were young. The house exemplifies one of the principles of architecture -- that it should serve the people who inhabit it.
"I was at the beginning of my search when I met Moshe," she tells me. "And basically, I've gone through my search in my life next to him." She doesn't consider herself a success, and like many artists, she always worries when -- or if -- she'll have another idea. But something always surfaces. She just has to see it. "Two people sometimes have such different opinions when they have experienced the same thing," she says. "And it's the same in yourself. One day you notice something, and one day you don't."
Michal Ronnen Safdie's series on trees and ice appear at Toronto's Drabinsky Gallery May 6 to 29 as part of the Contact photography festival. Artist in attendance from 1 to 4 p.m. on May 6 (416-324-5766).
RONNEN SAFDIE ON HER AFRICAN PROJECTS
On her series on Rwanda: "I met Samantha Power. She came to a party launching my book, The Western Wall. She had written a book that won the Pulitzer [in 2003] A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. And so there was this opportunity to go to Rwanda [with her] I had never done photojournalism before. I just plunged into it. I had to develop my own way of being. And I thought, 'How will I be able to capture it?' It's eight years after the genocide and also, everything looks so beautiful: the people, the colours, the landscape. I took two cameras all the time, one for colour and one for black and white. I know the convention of black and white, that it's the language of drama. But I did a lot in colour, because, you know, people die in colour, atrocities happen in colour."
On her series on Darfur: "I don't think photojournalism work is my strength, but I still feel that I have to do it. Maybe it's a failure of mine, maybe it takes away from my strengths and maybe I'm not devoting enough to my other [art]photography, but for me, it's my way of being in the world. Its about my social conscience. We've combined the two, calling it Rwanda After and Darfur Now, so it's really a call, I hope, for people to understand that [genocide]is happening now."
-- Sarah Hampson