In Israel, the light is direct, hard, strong and dense, not ideal for photographers, but it has been a place of intense picture-taking interest since the dawn of photography.
“This Place,” an exhibition just opened at The Brooklyn Museum, continues the tradition, with the work of 12 distinguished photographers from around the world.
“What I felt was needed was not more images, but a new grammar and syntax,” said Frédéric Brenner, the show’s initiator (and one of the dozen photographers) who invited the others to spend time in Israel and the West Bank and present their visions. “I came to feel that only through the language of artists could we hope to create an encounter that truly reflected the complexity of the place, with all its rifts and paradoxes.”
Some of the photos are visual poetry, like Stephen Shore’s awe-inspiring desert landscapes; others strike me as ballads, like Nick Waplington’s portraits of settlers. And other photographs give rise to silence, like “Daybreak 2011,” the one photo Jeff Wall created for the project that hangs at the exhibition entrance.
While on an introductory trip, traveling through the Negev with Israel’s leading expert on the Bedouin, Clinton Bailey, Wall came across an olive grove at sunset, as the Bedouin olive pickers were settling down to sleep outside. Behind them, a large prison with its watchtowers loomed. Immediately, Wall knew that this was a view he wanted to pursue, and he came back a year later during the olive harvest to capture the scene on film. The photographer and his assistants set up a darkroom in the laundry of a nearby hotel and worked for three weeks, shooting the scene in the early morning, in a short window of light before the light. In the photo the workers are still asleep, wrapped in colorful blankets, with a teapot and cooking implements nearby.
“I witnessed it and I didn’t invent anything,” Wall said. Throughout, the images are honest, sometimes unexpected, always thoughtful. The show projects different perspectives and different truths. Even those who think they know Israel well will encounter images and moments they’ve never seen before, furthering understanding, perhaps raising questions.
Captions are minimal, and viewers can visit the show’s website to read and listen to the photographers speak about their work and share backstories. Each photographer published a book about his or her work in the project.
The French-born Brenner, who spent 25 years photographing Jews around the world before turning his attention to Israel, raised $6 million to make “This Place” a reality. In part, he was inspired by a French project that sent 25 photographers out to document the French landscape in the 1980s, a remake of a government initiative a half-century earlier that had inspired the Farm Security Administration project, depicting life in the US in the 1930s. FSA photographers, including Walker Evans and Ben Shahn, were sent out with lists of places to cover, with an emphasis on rural areas. While Brenner’s project is significantly different, there’s something about some of the subjects in “This Place,” with their steady gaze and dignified stance, presenting themselves simply as they are, that recalls the FSA project.
Several of the photographers expressed an initial reticence about the project, but they were convinced by Brenner’s persistence, passion and insistence that there were no rules, no obligations, no agenda, that in fact they could photograph wherever they wanted, work according to their own rhythms in any format, with assistance from photography students. Brenner provided guidance and introductions to those who sought connections, while the most senior member of the group, Rosalind Solomon, chose to travel by public bus, encountering people and experiences she would photograph. Her photographs, she said, came “from the gut.”
“I wanted to reveal the humanity of every person I photographed,” she said.
Particularly drawn to religious pilgrims, Solomon met a group from Ghana that travels to Jerusalem every year. She accompanied the participants to Bethlehem and photographed two men; one is partially sighted, wearing a suit and tie and holding a child, in front of a fresco.
Wendy Ewald’s project entailed giving digital cameras to groups to create pictures of their own worlds — “helping them to see photography as a language made up of details.” Ewald has been collaborating with children, families and teachers for more than 40 years. Only a fraction of the 50,000 to 100,00 photographs that they took are exhibited here; an entire room is devoted to them and they are arranged on rows of shelves by group, including Israeli girls in a pre-army mehina, or preparatory program, kids in a joint Arab-Jewish school, Druze students, grandmothers from East Jerusalem and Gypsies.
In these photos, there can be humor in the juxtapositions, but the images are also full of sadness, celebration, longing, tenderness — a wide range of emotions also felt throughout “This Place.” Ewald’s book, “This Is Where I Live,” also includes her portraits of some of her artists. In conversation, she repeated a comment from her book that these photos are “not as stylistically guarded” as others in the show.
With an eye for light and presence, Brenner’s own work includes a portrait of a Jewish family of shepherds amid their sheep in the Judean Hills, a powerful scene that’s both biblical and modern. He agrees with those who say his work is more mature here.
Josef Koudelka, who was born in Czechoslovakia, was drawn to the separation wall built by the Israelis in the West Bank. “I grew up behind the Wall. All my life I wanted to get onto the other side,” he said. “One Wall, two prisons” sums up his feelings. For him, the wall is a crime against the landscape.
Shooting in black and white, Koudelka worked on both sides of the wall. “I look for the place where the photograph is waiting for me,” he said. In the exhibition, his photographs are presented as an accordion book in a long glass case, along with a large print and projections of his images on a wall.
Other photographers show walls splashed with graffiti, decorated walls inside homes, ancient walls, fragile walls, places where walls of homes used to be; agonizing over walls, shadowed walls, a wall of windows at Tel Aviv’s City Hall near where Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was shot and blank walls where history is yet to be written.
“This Place” is on view through June 5 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn.