A few years ago, the Israeli-American photographer Michal Ronnen Safdie was walking past a beach in Tel Aviv. She noticed a gate meant to keep visitors out was cracked open, and decided to walk through. What she saw stunned her: hundreds of Orthodox women, draped in colorful full-length dresses, bathing in the Mediterranean Sea.
Except for the lifeguards and a few groundskeepers, there were no men in sight. Ronnen Safdie thought the exception made for the male workers was strange — why not just hire women, and avoid the problem entirely? — but she didn’t bother asking. Instead, she planned another visit, this time with her digital camera and her own modest dress.
“I went there without judgment,” Ronnen Safdie, 60, said in a recent interview from Cambridge, Mass., where she lives with her husband, the renowned architect Moshe Safdie. “As you can see, there were a lot of tender moments.”
The photographs she took, hundreds of them over four years, have been pruned to about two dozen, which will be on view at the Andrea Meislin Gallery beginning March 1.
Titled “Sunday Tuesday Thursday,” which alludes to the days when the beach is closed for the Orthodox women, the show captures them with subtle complexity: serene and languorous at times, squinting and uncomfortable at others, gasping under the oppressively hot sun.
Some wear so much sunscreen that their faces take on a ghostly pallor, while others, having never learned to swim, loll about in the water cosseted by giant, candy-colored tubes.
The exhibit catalogue includes an essay by Stephen Greenblatt, the award-winning author and Harvard Shakespeare scholar. He writes that the photographs “capture, in the midst of swirling confusion, a peculiar, unexpected serenity. … These women may be the neighbors of the photographer and, for all we know, of ourselves. But they belong to a different world.”
Yet he notes that there is little condescension in the camera’s gaze. “What actually struck me in the pictures was not skepticism or disdain,” Greenblatt said in an interview, “but something like wonder. That on the other side is a whole other world.”
Ronnen Safdie agreed, noting that it was crucial that she keep her opinions out of her photographs. She even removed shots she took of the male workers from the exhibition, not wanting to draw unnecessary attention to the hypocrisy.
The decision allows viewers to focus on the tender, human, often humorous moments shared by these women. But it also lets the sheer oddity of this scene — fully clothed women at the beach — build in the viewer’s mind at a more cautious pace.
Still, Ronnen Safdie did not want to romanticize the women either. “I hope these images will make people think” about what it’s like to observe these laws, she said. “I also dressed like them [to take the photographs],” she added, “and I can’t tell you how unpleasant it is to be in the water with a wet full-length skirt.”
Images from Israel are a return to Ronnen Safdie’s first major work as an artist. In 1997, she published a book of photographs taken of the Western Wall, which she could see from the balcony of her second-home in Jerusalem. Since the late 1970s, she and her husband have lived in Cambridge, where Moshe Safdie was once director of Harvard’s urban design program at the Graduate School of Design. But missing the country of her birth, Ronnen Safdie persuaded her husband and two young daughters to move back to Israel in 1994.
“I wanted them very much to go to school in Israel,” Ronnen Safdie said of her daughters, Carmelle and Yasmin, who were in middle school when they moved to Israel. “I feel a deep connection to Israel,” she said, and she felt her children would not have the same relationship with the country if they weren’t educated there.
The experiment failed. After one year, she and her family moved back to Cambridge. But the year was the start of her professional photography career. Though Ronnen Safdie was then a stay-at-home mother, she started taking photographs of Israel.
She had some practice taking pictures of her husband’s buildings, but while in Jerusalem, she ventured into her own projects. Just before she began the Western Wall series, she was taking photojournalistic shots of anti-Arab graffiti made by Israeli Jews. Some of those images were published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
The photographs are all the more interesting, and startling, given her father’s strong influence and criticism. Her father, Meir Ronnen, was an art critic and political cartoonist for The Jerusalem Post, and his politics were decidedly to the right of hers. When she would show him her work, however, he kept his criticism to aesthetics. “He always supported my work,” Ronnen Safdie said of her father Meir, who died a few years ago. “But he was critical.”
Her Western Wall photographs gained her some traction in the art world. But it was her next series, of anthropomorphic-looking trees, that was her first big success. The prestigious Salander O’Reilly Gallery in New York, now defunct, exhibited the series, and Ronnen Safdie vividly remembers the opening. Her father flew in from Israel, and at a private walk-through just before the opening, he said only one word as they left together: “superb.”
“For me, this was the ultimate gift I could have gotten from my father,” Ronnen Safdie said. “That my father thought my art was perfect, I didn’t even need to open the exhibit.”
Ronnen Safdie does not consider herself a photojournalist, but her artwork is often socially engaged. The current “Sunday Tuesday Thursday” exhibit has obvious political overtones, considering how Israel’s tensions with its Orthodox communities are gaining international attention. Even the gallery owner Andrea Meislin said she decided to put this series on display now in part because of its timeliness.
“It’s an issue that’s now on the front page of The New York Times,” she said, alluding to Beit Shemesh, the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem where an 8-year-old girl and several women have been attacked for allegedly being immodestly dressed.
Indeed, some of Ronnen Safdie’s other major series were unquestionably political. In 2003, she took photographs in Rwanda, and a year later, in Darfur. Many of those images went on display at major institutions, like the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Jewish Museum in Berlin. And both projects were instigated by another Harvard professor friend of hers, Samantha Power, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” (2002).
Like Greenblatt, the Safdies are good friends with Power, who is currently a foreign policy adviser to President Barack Obama and is said to have played a key role in the decision to invade Libya. Ronnen Safdie struck up a friendship with Power when Power was just a student at Harvard Law School, in the late-1990s, and came to the release party for Ronnen Safdie’s Western Wall book. After “A Problem from Hell” came out a few years later, Power invited her on a trip to Rwanda, then Darfur.
“I was so shocked by what I saw there,” Ronnen Safdie said, referring to the first trip to Rwanda. “Why didn’t we do anything? … Especially after we said ‘never again, never again.’ I thought about my mother, my people.”
Ronnen Safdie’s mother, Vera, who became a well-known Israeli artist, was herself a Holocaust survivor. As a Hungarian child, she was to be sent to Bergen-Belsen, only to be saved by the Kastner transport. (Rudolf Kastner, a Hungarian Jew who helped transport 1,900 Jews to safety in Switzerland, was later assassinated by Jews in Israel, after an Israeli court accused him of collaborating with Nazis.)
Politics can be read into Ronnen Safdie’s upcoming “Sunday Tuesday Thursday” exhibit. But she is ambivalent about attacking the most explosive Israeli issue — the Palestinian conflict — head on. Though her personal website features a black-and-white photograph of the concrete barrier cutting off the West Bank from Jerusalem, Ronnen Safdie does not feel ready to devote herself to a full-length series.
That is not to say she doesn’t care about the issue. As she said, “When issues I care about in my society — and Israel is my society and I care about it very much — it comes through in my work. I do have my own values, my own political views,” she said. And her work, in subtle yet captivating ways, reflects that.
“Sunday Tuesday Thursday,” an exhibit of photographs by Michal Ronnen Safdie, is on display at the Andrea Meislin Gallery in Chelsea from March 1-April 21. The gallery is located at 526 W. 26th St., second floor, No. 214. (212) 627-2552.