An Israeli Photographer Looks Back

An Israeli Photographer Looks Back

If you’re like me, you may remember an older Israel — a dusty Levantine backwater of unpaved sidewalks and peeling stucco walls — with a mixture of nostalgia and relief. Today, Israel is a sparkling, Westernized techno-power with gleaming high-rises and computer ads lighting every corner; Igael Shemtov’s photos, “The Photo Album 1979-1980,” now showing at the Andrea Meislin Gallery, summon up a slower, hazier era.

Shemtov is a faculty member at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, where he chaired the department of photography, video, and computer imaging from 1994-2000. The photos now on display were taken in 1979-80, when Shemtov worked as a quality controller at a Kodak lab in Israel. Inspired by the vast numbers of simple “family photos” he processed there, he embarked on a summary project of his own, distilling the essence of that time and place.

This is an Israel of sticky plastic tablecloths in small new-immigrant “Sochnut houses,” with nibbling donkeys as common as the white-sheeted cars simmering in the heat, of decrepit sling chairs on empty beaches and sweating Paz gas pumps standing sentry. Recording it all through a shimmery, heat-filled lens, the photographer created his own personal album, but these are distant, objective views, not portraits of friends and family: A beetle-browed policeman sits astride a horse on a lonely beach, guarding the waves; a beached steel whale lies rusting, an abandoned remnant of an old amusement park. These are not today’s lean, hard-bodied Sabras, ear to cell phone and eye scanning for the next new venture. This is a softer, slower generation, newly-arrived immigrants, Russians perhaps, changing and adapting to the new landscape. Simply composed, but focused and visionary, Shemtov’s photos tell the story of an emerging unconscious reality.

“I worked on this project for two years, and then had to leave Israel to continue my studies in the U.S,” Shemtov says.” I didn’t look at these photos again for 33 years until, working on a retrospective, I found the negatives. One of the surprises for me was that I’m still looking at things in the same way — the same things still interest me — depicting reality as you see it. It’s my way of understanding, not analyzing but depicting. At that time, no one was looking at the country in that way, at the weather, the light, the typical environment, the subject matter summarizing the epoch in an independent way.”

As I was leaving the gallery, I noticed a young Israeli staring raptly at the photos. I asked him what he was seeing and he answered that he was a photographer and that Shemtov had been an enormous influence on his work. But it was the conjuring up of that earlier Israel, one that he remembered as a child, that kept him glued to the images, evoking a reality long gone.

Igael Shemtov's "The Photo Album 1979-1989” is on view at the Andrea Meislin Gallery, 534 West 24th Street until June 27, 2015.

Gloria Kestenbaum is a corporate communications consultant and freelance writer.

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