Photography in Palestine and Israel: 1900-Present Day
Photography was the primary method used to document the Zionist enterprise in Palestine and photographers assumed the responsibility of creating and expressing its history. Thus, until the 1970s, most photography in Israel was used for recording facts, in contrast to much of the Western world where photographers were busy exploring the medium’s various possibilities. Volumes of photographs exist that record the growth of the Jewish community in Palestine prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. "Old Yishuv" refers to the Jewish community prior to 1882; "New Yishuv" to that following 1882.Yishuv from the earliest Zionists (1882) to the present; little in its history escaped the lens of the camera and its ability to communicate a convincing image. Photography in Israel, as both an art medium and a way to record events, is about the imagery of Israel—its history, people and land.
Photographs produced by women in Palestine will be considered in the context of the development of photography concurrent with the evolution and growth of the country itself. The women discussed in this essay span nine decades and a variety of aesthetics. They include serious photojournalists, portraitists, influential art-world photographers of great importance and younger artists who create and direct imagined scenes.
From the time of photography’s invention in 1839 through the 1880s, photographs in Palestine were taken mainly by and for non-Jews in the West. Primarily conventional views of historic and biblical sites, they were used for religious and commercial purposes. True Jewish photography in Palestine began in the early 1880s with Jewish immigrants of the First Lit. "ascent." A "calling up" to the Torah during its reading in the synagogue.Aliyah (1882–1903) from Eastern Europe, who saw the country in a new light and provided tangible depictions in the form of photographs for their fellow Zionists at home in Europe. Thus, for example, these photographs featured scenes with people working on the new moshavot (cooperative farming communities), with the figures playing a secondary role to the overall landscape and its effect.
Early in the twentieth century, two Zionist organizations, founded for the purpose of encouraging the growth of the new country, commissioned photographers to take pictures to document and further the national agenda. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) was established in 1901 as a fund for the purchase and development of land and in 1920 the World Zionist Organization created its financial umbrella organization, Keren Ha-Yesod (Palestine Foundation Fund). Every aspect of life in Palestine was documented extensively in the hope of encouraging fellow Jews around the world to take part in the enterprise of building a nation. Transforming the land, by Jews for Jews, seemed miraculous and no time was wasted before disseminating evidence of the progress around the world in the form of photographic images. Pioneers were portrayed working the soil and building roads and towns. These images formed a collective vocabulary for the new Zionism, one that endowed the working pioneers with heroic and romantic qualities.
The Yishuv was now clearly a state in the making and documentary evidence of the pioneers hard at work developing the land was an integral part of the JNF’s promotional material. At the same time, in order to make a living, several photographers set up private studios where they made portraits of individuals and families.
By around 1910 the work of the first woman photographer in Palestine is recorded. Sonia Narinsky was a member of A voluntary collective community, mainly agricultural, in which there is no private wealth and which is responsible for all the needs of its members and their families.Kibbutz Deganyah, the first A voluntary collective community, mainly agricultural, in which there is no private wealth and which is responsible for all the needs of its members and their families.kevuzah established in Palestine. She had emigrated from Russia with her husband, Shlomo Narinsky, a well-known and successful painter. Details of her life and activities are unclear and no photographs have been definitively identified as having been taken by her. It is assumed that Sonia and Shlomo emigrated with the Second Aliyah around 1905, lived in Jerusalem and together traveled around the country taking pictures until they were deported to Egypt in 1916, eventually returning to Palestine in 1944 after experiencing the Holocaust firsthand in concentration camps. They established a photo studio in Alexandria for Jewish refugees from Palestine. Historians are divided over the extent to which Sonia was actually involved in picture-taking; one states that during the four years her husband pursued his painting in Cairo she supported him by taking pictures, and that, as a woman, she had access to the harems of the Egyptian elite. She is also said to have been the first to take pictures of Egypt’s women without their veils (Gidal and Silver-Brody).
Through the 1920s the content of photographs includes landscapes, settlements, immigrants and working farmers. Stylistically, these are straightforward and purposeful. Although their aim was to promote Zionism and the flowering desert, no artifice is detected. This characteristic was and remains distinctly Israeli—no pretense, no fluff, no extraneous detail. The art of photography elsewhere in the Western world had experienced several trends, including Pictorialism and Surrealism. Photography in the West was an art form, but in the Yishuv it was imbued with the soul and purpose of Zionism. The emphasis was on content, presented with a sensitive aesthetic.
By the mid–1930s the country was home to many artists and photographers fleeing Nazi Germany. They came with sophisticated equipment, training and an awareness of the various visual and technical experimentations that had taken place in post-World War I Europe and Russia. New angle shots and unusual ways of seeing emerged and the Europeans expanded their subjects to include landscapes, architecture, body parts and industrial scenes. It was a time of tremendous experimentation and abstraction and a new visual artistic language was established. The immigrants who came to Palestine with first-hand knowledge of this new genre found little to exploit their experience; rather, they hoped to be hired by the Zionist institutions to make pictures that would be used for promotional purposes.
In keeping with the democracy inherent in Zionist ideology, photographs taken by women in the years prior to the establishment of, and in the formative years of, the state are indistinguishable from those taken by men—subject, style, form and composition are consistent in the productions of both sexes. In light of gender equality in Israel, one may consider the relation of their gender to their images. If some aspect of femininity is revealed it is perhaps a femininity not of subject, but of interpretation.
The amount of time spent in Palestine by the female German immigrants varies; some stayed only one or two years, while several committed to living in the country for the remainder of their lives. A few dabbled while some had real careers in photography and a small number did go on to make real contributions to the medium. Perhaps the best known is Ellen Auerbach (née Rosenberg), born in Karlsruhe, who studied sculpture before turning to photography and taking lessons in 1929 with Walter Peterhans (1897–1960), the important Bauhaus professor. The following year she opened a photography studio in Berlin with her friend Grete Stern. Because they thought their own last names sounded too much like a firm of Jewish merchants, they called their studio “foto ringl + pit,” using their respective childhood nicknames; Grete’s was Ringl, Ellen’s Pit. The studio specialized in avant-garde advertising that won them assignments and awards but ultimately was not a commercial success due to the combination of their extreme avant-garde style and lack of business acumen. In 1933 Grete immigrated to London and Ellen to Palestine; that same year Ellen opened a studio in Tel Aviv called Ishon (“pupil of the eye”) to photograph children. By 1936 Ellen had left Palestine for London, where she took over Grete’s studio, but due to her inability to obtain a work permit she moved to the United States in 1937. She continued working as a photographer until 1965, when she became an educational therapist.
The sisters Charlotte (1911–1978) and Gerda (1913–1993) Meyer were born in Posen, East Germany, and moved to Berlin in 1921. Their education was overshadowed by the political climate: Gerda was forced to abandon her medical studies at the University of Berlin due to racial laws, while Charlotte opted to stay out of university and instead experiment with photography. By 1933 they realized they had no future in Germany; at the end of 1934 Charlotte left for Palestine and opened a photography studio in Haifa. Soon after, Gerda also decided to be a photographer, studying with Professor Fritz August Breuhaus (1883–1960) and working as an apprentice in the studio of Arno Kikoler, the official photographer of the Jewish community in Berlin. In 1936 she joined her sister and together they worked in the Haifa photography studio, which rapidly became highly regarded for portrait photographs and attracted an international clientele. Their famous subjects included Arturo Toscanini, David Ben-Gurion, Bronislaw Hubermann, Eugen Schenkar, Chaim Weizmann, Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan. In the mid–1940s the sisters also pursued industrial photography and were commissioned by the Iraq Petroleum Company to document the building works and refineries in Haifa Bay. This series of modernist photographs emphasizes the form of the machinery rather than its function. After Gerda left for Canada with her husband and daughter in 1953, the studio remained open until 1957 when Charlotte moved to London.
Other photographers who came from Germany include Lotte Errell, Sonia Gidal (b. 1922), Rachel Hirsch (b. 1937), Aliza Holz (1898–1993), Frieda Mayer Jacobsohn, Hannah Degani, Bettina Oppenheimer, Ricarda Schwerin, Liselotte Grjebina and Marli Shamir. Hannah Degani (b. 1917 Saarbruecken) moved to Italy in 1935 and while there studied photography until moving to Palestine in 1936 with her family. She was initially a portrait and medical photographer in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. In 1944 she married Ephraim Degani (1912–2001) and the couple operated Photo Prisma, the premier photography shop in Jerusalem, located in Zion Square. She is best-known for her 1936–1937 Tel Aviv series “First Impressions: The Carmel Market,” of which “The Shoe Maker” is one of the most poignant examples. Ephraim Degani moved to Palestine from his native Berlin in 1933. In the 1960s he founded the Photography Department at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and went on to found the Photography Department at Hadassah College, Jerusalem.
Bettina Oppenheimer (née Sander, 1919–1972) was born into a Zionist family in Stuttgart. In the mid–1930s her brother became a farmer in Palestine and she joined a group of Germans planning to go to Palestine to work the land. In 1939 she moved to London for agricultural training, joining her brother in Palestine when war became inevitable. After several years of study she married Dr. Willi Oppenheimer and had little time to pursue her photography until two years after the War of Independence, when she trained with Ephraim Degani. In addition, she managed her husband’s office and assisted him in scientific studies that would influence her work. One photographic technique she enjoyed working with was that of making photograms. Each photogram is a unique print made without the use of a camera by placing an object on top of a piece of paper or film coated with light-sensitive materials and then exposing the paper or film to light. Where the object covers the paper, the paper remains unexposed and light in tone; where it does not cover, the paper darkens. If the object is translucent, midtones appear. After exposure the paper is developed and fixed. Bettina experimented with light and color, ultimately creating many photographs featuring the dandelion—a flower that brought to mind happy memories of her childhood in Germany.
Ricarda Schwerin (née Meltzer, 1912–2001) had a deep interest in photography from the time she was a child. She interned at Herrnhuter Brüder and argued successfully with her father to allow her to study photography in Dessau from 1929 until 1933. She was acquainted with the Bauhaus professor Walter Peterhans, apparently at the same time as Ellen Auerbach. While in Dessau she met Heinz Schwerin and after 1933 spent two years looking for a new homeland before settling in Palestine in 1935. Together they established a workshop where they made wooden toys. Unable to manage the shop alone after Heinz’s death in 1948, Ricarda returned to her original profession of photography in 1956. She met Alfred Bernheim (1885–1974) and developed a close working and personal relationship with him until his death in 1974. The two photographed together and her work after 1965 is virtually indistinguishable from his.
As mentioned above, the German photographers introduced new subjects that were incorporated into the lexicon of Yishuv images. These include portraits, architecture, industry and dance. The themes that remained constant were those supporting the agenda of the JNF, which included pioneers creating new settlements, farmers working the land, the armed forces, and immigrants arriving in their new country, all created with a sense of pride and new-born identity.
A watermelon photographed in the 1930s by Liselotte Grjebina (1908–1994, born Germany, immigrated to Palestine 1933) is modernist in subject, composition and lighting. This still-life composition was evidently not produced solely for artistic pursuits because stamped on the melon in clear Hebrew letters is an insignia with the words “Hebrew watermelon,” articulating the pride the early Zionists felt in the produce of the land they cultivated. In a later work, Discus Thrower, we see a strong, beautiful female athlete poised before throwing the discus, shot from below; she is the female equivalent of the male pioneer, forming a “larger than life” heroic figure presenting an unmistakable argument countering any antisemitic notion of weakness, physical or otherwise.
This technique of “elevating” the figure(s) by taking the picture from below, which was brought by the European immigrants in the mid–1930s, endows the subject with an all-powerful, almost mythic quality. The photographers and their pictures are telling the viewer that this new country is being built equally by men and women with strength, both physical and personal. Proud and strong pioneers are creating a state, from untamed land, with their own hands. The message is clear.
As the country matures and grows stronger, the photographs become bolder, both visually and in content. Now the figures are in the foreground, no longer anonymous additions to the landscape. Faces are close to the picture plane, defiant and stubborn. In spite of centuries of antisemitism and the current Holocaust, these people are unquestionably here to stay in their new Jewish homeland.
The State of Israel was founded in 1948 and, along with celebration, new realities emerged. Immigrants and refugees from Arab countries and Europe streamed into the country; their obvious relief and joy were coupled with the realities of adjustment and absorption. Through the documentation of this period, photojournalism became the prevalent mode of photography in Israel for the next decade. The work of Israeli photojournalists Boris Carmi (b. 1914), David Rubinger (b. 1924) and Micha Bar Am (b. 1930) was recognized at the highest international level. Loaded with emotion, their work provides a view of many important moments in the early years of the new country. Few women worked in this field, although in 1951 American photographer Ruth Orkin (1921–1985) traveled with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, lived on a kibbutz for several months and photographed Iraqi immigrants arriving at Lod Airport.
Photography in Israel during the 1950s and 1960s for the most part remained photojournalistic but was enhanced with a new sense of artistry. The late 1960s through 1970s were marked by the realities and consequences of the Six Day War (1967) and the The Day of Atonement, which falls on the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei and is devoted to prayer and fasting.Yom Kippur War (1973), the effects of which were extensively documented in photographs. By the late 1970s a change in photography in Israel is seen in the work of both natives and immigrants who studied in Europe and America, returning with new ideas and influences. International trends and a sophisticated understanding of the medium and its possibilities became very much a part of photography in Israel. The economic and political maturity of the country enabled the medium to develop as an independent art form and to be accepted as such. Though the photographers were free of the need to create “Israeli” images, their work was still informed by their own individual connection to the country. Gone were the early days of Zionism and the deliberate, emotionally charged images. Innovative and creative photography blossomed and the medium was essentially liberated from its ties to the past.
A dominant theme of photography that developed during the 1970s and continues until today is that of the “land” of Israel and the issues that accompany it. The earth, the soil, the very ground that the people of the country continually battle for, cultivate and build structures on takes on new significance. As for the early Zionists, the sanctity of land was a central tenet of Israeli ideals, perhaps stemming from the idea of striking roots and creating a sense of belonging. Preoccupation with the land, its geography and territorial issues is seen in the work of Chava Salomon (b. 1914), Dalia Amotz (1938–1994) and Marli Shamir (b. 1919). The imagery produced by these three women is created through a combination of direct knowledge of the history of the land and their individual perspectives of its transformation and development.
Arriving in Palestine from Germany via Sweden in 1937, Marli Shamir has been a photographer since that time. Known for outdoor images that study the effect of light on man-made structures, her landscapes are powerful and substantive. Dalia Amotz is the first noteworthy female photographer to be born in Palestine, specifically on a kibbutz, a significant explanation for her ties to the land. The subject of her photographs was consistently the Israeli landscape and the effect of natural light on its transformation. Amotz’s connection to the physical “land” of Israel is both visually and metaphorically powerful, particularly in her photographs of Arab villages. Chava Salomon came to Palestine in 1936 after three years in Prague. Born in 1914 in Stettin, she taught anthropology at Hebrew University and is known for making the important connection between art and photography in her nature photographs of the 1970s.
PHOTOGRAPHY AS AN ART FORM
By the mid–1970s, photography’s significance in visual culture was recognized around the world. Museums began to form photography departments and collections, galleries opened and auction houses offered sales devoted exclusively to photography. Though the medium was over 130 years old it was newly perceived as an exciting and important mode of expression. Photography’s recognition as a legitimate art form was no less evident in Israel than in the rest of the modern world. The Israel Museum began exhibiting photographs in the early 1970s, and in 1977 both it and the Tel Aviv Museum opened their Photography Departments. Numerous schools created departments dedicated to photography, staffed by an influx of new teachers who had trained in other countries. Photography in Israel flourished with the active support of museums, curators, collectors, schools and galleries.
The most recent years have witnessed a remarkable increase of creative activity by Israeli women photographers. No matter where they studied or produced their images, these photographers have consistently allowed their “Israeliness” to inform their work. The country continues to be consumed with conflicts relating to national, religious, political and cultural identity. Interwoven with these issues is the country’s very survival. The threat to the nation’s existence predominates in Israeli society, a part of the fabric of daily life. Many photographers reveal a social conscience that, while in keeping with liberal opinion elsewhere, has a certain extra element specific to Israel’s political complexities and almost daily moral dilemmas. The majority of Israeli women photographers have chosen to explore their own personal realities as well as the lives and experiences of others. In addition to social and political issues of the state, these also include issues of nationality, ideas of identity, and an almost obsessive preoccupation with time, place and self.
Aliza Auerbach (b. 1940) began her photographic career in 1972 making movie stills, portraits and photojournalist pictures. In 1991, aware of the enormous influx of immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union being brought to safety in Israel, she went to these countries and accompanied them on their flights to the holy land. She witnessed and documented the realities of the process of leaving one’s homeland and family and becoming female/sing.; individual(s) who immigrates to Israel, i.e., "makes aliyah."olim (new immigrants) in Israel. Lit. "ascent." A "calling up" to the Torah during its reading in the synagogue.Aliyah, the Hebrew word for the act of moving to Israel, signifying “going up” to the holy land is also the title of Auerbach’s 1992 book of photographs of the new olim. The images are faithful to their subjects: neither idealized nor superficial, the photographs are sensitive and meaningful, enabling the viewer to understand the realities and complexities of the immigrants’ lives.
In her photographs, Michal Ronnen Safdie (b. 1951) creates thoughtful portraits of both people and places. Born in Jerusalem, although primarily working in the United States, she consistently seeks out the beauty in her subjects. Her 1998 book on the Western Wall in Jerusalem concentrates not only on the physical wall itself, but on the people and surroundings that sustain its existence. More recently she set out on an international mission to photograph and interview people over one hundred years old. “They have lived our century, end to end … they are living vignettes of our history.”
Vardi Kahana (b. 1959 in Tel Aviv), who studied photography at the Art Teachers’ College in Ramat ha-Sharon from 1978 to 1982, is an honest portraitist who was asked by a friend suffering from cancer if she would document the remaining years of her life. Gili Pattir was diagnosed in the early 1990s and soon afterwards Kahana and she began their collaboration. The only stipulation made by Pattir was that the photographs be exhibited after her death. The result is Beauty Has Cut Itself Off, a group of remarkably powerful photographs. They are direct and, ironically, oddly life-affirming in their sustained beauty.
Before Ariela Shavid turned her camera on herself as breast cancer victim, she had been a fashion model, artist and mother. In Beauty is a Promise of Happiness, her 1996 exhibition at the Israel Museum, she examines femininity, sexuality and ideal notions of beauty through posing and photographing herself in a variety of guises; all accentuate her post-mastectomy physique. In one series she is a single-breasted calendar pin-up girl, in another her face and body are projected onto cut-out paper dolls; both are evocative and question the idea and significance of beauty. This visual autobiography presents Shavid’s effort to investigate character and feminist ideology.
Kiki Elefant (b. 1956) also uses herself as the primary figure in her photographs. Technically not self-portraits, they attempt to solve a “multi-level identity dilemma … in relation to her past (the Holocaust) as well as present condition (gender).” In one 1997 work she holds a white strip in front of her eyes, creating a barrier between subject and viewer. She is apparently both shielding herself and preventing the viewer from seeing who she really is. This deliberate covering of the eyes may perhaps be a desire to block out the obvious sights and signs of Israel’s volatile history.
The portraits by Sharon Bareket (b. 1967) are unidealized and striking in their anachronism. Using teenage girls and women as models, she presents them wearing clothing and hairstyles that were popular many years ago in another, foreign country. The females project a sense of displacement: taken from one time and place and seemingly dropped into another—those of the land of Israel. Reminiscent of the many thousands of immigrants from Georgia and the former Soviet Union living in Israel, these are people who are regularly confronted with the issue of “being Jewish” and therefore eligible for citizenship in Israel, according to the Law of Return. The absorption and adjustment of the immigrant population is a prevailing issue facing the country and Bareket couches this political and social issue in artistic terms. Not only does Bareket’s subject in one portrait have the facial features of a typical C.I.S. immigrant, but her overall appearance suggests someone living a life not of her own choosing. She clearly wants to be accepted as a Jew, as evidenced by the hamsa necklace on her neck.
Elinor Carucci, born in Israel in 1971, received her B.F.A. from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem before moving to New York in 1996. Since then she has been awarded two major prizes: the 2001 ICP (International Center of Photography) Infinity Award for the Young Photographer and the 2002 Guggenheim Fellowship. In addition to doing commercial work, she photographs herself and her family members in Jerusalem—including husband Eran, mother, father, brother and grandparents. While not altogether free of sexual tension, these intimate pictures convey the warmth and intimacy of her family life in Jerusalem and capture the essence of her relationships with those most important to her. Free of pretense, as is generally typical of Israel, relationships rapidly tend to become warm and meaningful; Carucci’s pictures express this characteristic of Israeli life and culture. Clothed or nude, her subjects are as comfortable with themselves and the presence of the photographer as if the camera were invisible. The viewer becomes a voyeur, watching complicated familial relationships in situ as though through a two-way mirror (Eran Holds me in Hotel Room, 2000). Carucci currently teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Her first monograph, Closer, was published by Chronicle Books in 2002.
In her 1992 series Rusted Pioneers, Gaby Salzberger (b. 1962) questions the idea of the national identity and the validity of Zionist ideology. She started with photographs of female pioneers, etching them onto steel, a material that decays naturally. “My art work is a tool that enables me to reveal and discover different layers of my identity. Working with images from my past, personal past, national and collective past, enables me to touch my feminine mythical past.” She studied at Hebrew University (1987–1988) and at the Camera Obscura Art School in Tel Aviv (1985–1988), receiving her B.F.A. degree at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
The Limbus Group is comprised of three women: Judith Guetta (b. 1963), Galia Gur-Zeev (b. 1954), and Dafna Ichilov (b. 1964). While each woman is a photographer in her own right, they create photographic images together. They founded and continue to run The Limbus Gallery, a Tel Aviv gallery that is an important feature in the contemporary art world in Israel.
Their seminal work, Embroideries of Generals, 1997, has largely been recognized as an iconic work that undermines the myth of the Israeli war hero. They took fifteen portraits of former Israeli army chiefs of staff and printed them onto a needlepoint canvas. The notion of the macho male, as personified by the Israel war hero and leader, is thus undermined by the use of a material associated with women’s handiwork. It is a feminist statement unambiguously debunking the myth of the Israeli soldier, who has always been a symbol of masculinity and machismo. In a country rife with devastating wars and their aftermath, the male soldier/hero is today no longer mythically masculine and gone are the days of his elevation to heroic status. This comment on Israel’s social and political situation conveys a specific message by confounding predictable expectations and thereby revealing contemporary concerns about security, military service and war.
Michal Rovner (b. 1957) is an artist who creates photographs, videos, paintings and films that transcend both reality and abstraction. She studied at Tel Aviv University and then at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Jerusalem. In 1978 she co-founded the Camera Obscura Art School in Tel Aviv. Since 1988 she has lived in New York and spends much time in Israel, where she often shoots her material. She starts her photographs with images, from a Polaroid or video still, of staged or actual scenarios and then drastically reworks these images so that it is impossible to decipher what, where or who is being represented. The results are powerful images that are blurry and almost featureless. In Decoy #12, 1991 (from video, triptych, each panel 27–3/4 x 27–3/4 inches, Chromogenic color print), Rovner photographed documentary footage from the television screen while the news showed images of deployed soldiers actively engaged during the Gulf War. She captured the running soldiers on film and then repeatedly rephotographed them to enhance the color, scale and texture until they were reduced to blurred outlines and fields of hazy color. Of her two-year compulsory service in the Israel army she said, “Being in the army had a very bad effect on me. I got sick. I hated it.”
Rovner, considered one of the medium’s most important photographers working today, had a mid-career survey exhibition of her work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in Summer–Fall 2002. She was the first Israeli artist to be thus honored. Rovner represented Israel at the Venice Biennale, Summer 2003.
Using bomb shelters as stage sets, Tiranit Barzilay (b. 1967) typically presents a group of young women and men in states of dress and semi-undress standing in a carefully arranged group pose. Her characters are usually dressed in white, white and grey, or white and blue. White and blue, the national colors of the state of Israel, are traditionally worn by schoolchildren on Holocaust Day, Memorial Day and Independence Day. The combination of this allusion to Israel, the subjects’ apparent emotional lack of interest in what they are doing, and their unresponsiveness to the camera in these tableaux vivants all evoke the sense of a soldier performing his duties. The mechanical gestures of the submissive young adults seem to portray the conflict between the collective and the individual that is inherent in Israeli society today. They are all together in the bomb shelter, yet engrossed and involved in their own separate activity.
Not restricted to idyllic scenes of nature, landscapes are in essence pictures of places. In her large format color photographs Ruth Agassi (b. 1949) conveys a strong sense of time and place without actually disclosing where the subject is located. The viewer is drawn into the scene by its pure beauty and familiarity, but then distanced by its anonymity. Agassi has also done photographic series of domestic interiors that are devoid of specifics about place, but succeed in capturing strong feelings of rootedness. Agassi studied at the Camera Obscura Art School in Tel Aviv from 1982 to 1986 and taught there from 1987 to 1991.
Efrat Shvili (b. 1955) is a photojournalist who works in the Jerusalem bureau of the Los Angeles Times . She studied photography at the Meimad Art School in Tel Aviv (1989–1990) and the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Jerusalem (1991–1992) and received an M.A. in political science at Oxford University, England (1978–1981). For artistic reasons her photographs are untitled, although when used for documentary purposes they are designated eponymously. They depict towns and neighborhoods, including Ramot and Pisgat Ze’ev—land that was lost by Jordan to Israel during the Six Day War. These lands, considered by some to be disputed territory, are referred to as the “Occupied Territories” or, alternatively, as “Greater Jerusalem,” depending on the speaker’s position on the political spectrum. The photographs are clear political statements: the houses shown appear to be half-built and devoid of life; they are not integral to the surrounding landscape; they are presented as uniform pre-fabrications, and yet are still standing in spite of all of the above. Disclosing no unique characteristics, the houses and towns are interchangeable one with the other. Shvili has the distinction of being featured in three major international exhibitions in 2003: Venice Bienniale, Istanbul Biennial and the International Center of Photography’s Triennial.
Noa Zait (b. 1967) photographs slices of life. They are not snapshots that record a decisive moment or capture a significant event. Rather, they are pictures of stories: street scenes, interiors, or urban landscapes—with people, but not necessarily about people. In this picture a seemingly homeless man crosses the street, his possessions in tow. Surrounded by signs telling him where not to turn, he nonchalantly walks ahead, against the red light. The idea of a bridge leading to an unknown destination combines with the undetermined fate of the homeless man to convey a sense of existential disinterest that is not an uncommon concept amongst younger Israeli artists.
The most recent images in the Dreams series by Deganit Berest (b. 1949) were created by the layering of images (both visually and metaphorically), resulting in provocative photomontages difficult to decipher. The ephemeral qualities of these large-format color photographs force the viewer to explore the possibilities of interpretation. A painter as well as a photographer, Berest has had many solo exhibitions around the world and is an important teacher in Israel. She graduated from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem in 1973 and received her M.F.A. from Pratt University in New York in 1980.
Michal Heiman (b. 1954 in Tel Aviv) studied photography at the Hadassah College in Jerusalem (1977–1979), painting and sculpture at the Art Teachers’ College in Ramat ha-Sharon (1982–1984) and was curator at the Camera Obscura School in Tel Aviv (1992–1994). She continues to teach and curate extensively throughout the country. Heiman uses photographic material to explore the viewer’s psychologic and sociologic responses. She is perhaps best known for reinterpreting the T.A.T. (Thematic Appreciation Test) developed in the 1930s at Harvard University and still used today by psychoanalysts. Renamed the M.H.T. (Michal Heiman Test), this project premiered at Documenta X in Kassel, Germany in 1997. More than one thousand viewers participated in the interactive psychological process of looking, thinking and analyzing, thus becoming Heiman’s subjects. The M.H.T. box consists of thirty-one photographs by unknown photographers from her personal archives and family albums. At Documenta X she created a station based on the M.H.T. box that included a table, earphones and microphones for the viewer/subject and the examiner. This test invited the viewers to participate as subjects, asking them to describe their responses to the plates presented by the examiner. A video camera then documented the subject during the test. A complex and intellectual artist, Heiman essentially employs an anthropological approach to looking, decoding and understanding patterns of perception.
Whether photographing the insular world of Me’ah She’arim, body parts floating in water, or still lifes of dead animals, the work of Pesi Girsch (b. 1954 in Munich, moved to Israel in 1968) consistently emphasizes formal composition. Flawless both technically and compositionally, her images reveal a quiet and peaceful beauty. From 1969 to 1974 she studied sculpture with Rudi Lehmann (1903–1977), in 1977 at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich and in 1987 at the Art Teachers’ College in Ramat ha-Sharon. She now teaches photography at the Art Department of Haifa University. Untitled, in which body parts from several human beings can be discerned, is a clear reference to Girsch’s experience as a second-generation Holocaust survivor.
In her photographs, Orit Raff (b. 1970) scrutinizes man-made objects so closely that they become abstractions and appear to be natural formations. Ranging from a close-up of a row of buttons on the front of a white shirt to ice formed in a freezer (Bineth Gallery, Tel Aviv), the resulting images are elegantly minimal yet visually rich. Her works are quiet, intelligent studies of what appear to be abstractions but which, under close examination, are revealed to be everyday white things simply transformed by the photographer and her camera into conceptual images. Though she focuses on the abstraction of objects, there also exists a political context. Allegorically, her photographs can be interpreted as representing the fragility of the borders of the land of Israel. Without being blatant or literal, Raff expresses the body and domestic space we inhabit as symbolic of the land of Israel. She moved to New York in 1994 after graduating from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Jerusalem, and has since graduated from the School of Visual Arts, The Whitney Museum Independent Study Program and the International Studio Program, receiving her M.F.A. degree from Bard College.
Judy Orgel Lester (b. 1944) is the only Israeli woman with the double distinction of having achieved successful careers in both commercial and artistic photography. She studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York in the late 1960s with her husband, photographer Kenny Lester, at the same time as Gary Winogrand, Robert Frank and Bruce Davidson. After returning to Israel in 1970, the couple opened the Judy and Kenny Studio, a successful commercial photography establishment. Judy was instrumental in the founding of The White Gallery, the first photography gallery in Tel Aviv, and exhibited her work there beginning in 1979. She is a senior teacher at Hadassah College of Technology in Jerusalem, giving courses that focus on the Metaphoric Meaning of the Image: Documentary (looking out) and Expression (looking in).
Leora Laor (b. 1952) left Israel for New York in the late 1970s and experienced great success as a photographer. Upon returning to Israel in the mid-1980s and marrying Michael Sgan-Cohen, another artist, she stopped doing photography and instead focused on raising her family. In 2003 she again picked up her camera and produced very painterly stills in and around Gan Sacher and Me’ah She’arim. Her pictures are about people and their psychological states. Observed from afar, the subjects range from playful children to alienated adults. All are infused with an unusual combined sense of pictorial wonder, romanticism and emotional isolation.
The women discussed in this essay are only a sampling of the many productive and talented photographers working in Israel today. Others include: Osnat Bar-Or, Sheffy Bleier, Ayelet Hashachar-Cohen, Avigail Schimmel and Naomi Talisman. Shai Ginott specializes in scenes from nature; Cathy Raff is a commercial photographer working primarily with corporate clients; Ronit Shani, Naomi Tsur and Elia Onne are important teachers in the field; and Vivienne Silver-Brody is both an accomplished photographer and a historian of photography in Israel, the author of two important books on the subject: Documentors of the Dream: Pioneer Jewish Photographers in the Land of Israel 1890–1933 (1998) and From Mirror to Memory—One Hundred Years of Photography in the Land of Israel (2000). Until her untimely death in 2001, Shosh Kormosh was for many years a highly creative and unique force in the field of photography in Israel, specializing in portraits and a super-realistic style.
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How to cite this page
Meislin, Andrea Popowich. "Photography in Palestine and Israel: 1900-Present Day." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 14, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/photography-in-palestine-and-israel-1900-present-day>.