One of the most striking images in an exhibition of photography currently on display at Haifa City Museum is of a young Jewish woman, clad in a white vest and shorts, readying herself to throw a discus. Shot in black and white, circa 1937, by Liselotte Grschebina, one of the most important female photographers then working in Palestine, the woman could be taken for some Olympian athlete about to perform some heroic sporting feat.
Several other portraits of athletes, executed in the same vein, also bear a resemblance to sculptures from classical antiquity. Those familiar with the work of German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl won’t miss the similarities seen in the photographs; a visual glorification of the body, akin to what Zionist leader and author Max Nordau referred to as “Muscular Judaism.”
The photograph by Grschebina is an example of what the curators of the exhibition, Zohar Efron and Anna Georgiev, refer to in the catalogue text as the “new woman” – a figure alternatively portrayed as strong, sophisticated, independent and decadent, but at all times a part of her distinct cultural milieu.
“New Ideals: the female figure in photography,” the title of the exhibit, displays a selection of photographs from British-Mandate Palestine, Germany during the time of the Weimar Republic and includes present-day works from Israel. The curators’ intention is to explore, through the works of both male and female photographers, the status of women in the field of photography, over the course of the 20th century. It’s an ambitious undertaking.
The initial idea for the exhibit came from Efron.
“When I started to work at the museum I noticed a picture from the 1930s taken by two women. I became curious as to who they were and whether they were professional photographers. Following up my curiosity I came across an article by Dr. Rona Sela – a curator, art historian and lecturer at Tel Aviv University – who had researched and written about women photographers in Palestine,” she stated.
“I discovered there were a lot of women photographers who came from Europe and particularly from Germany. When I met Anna (Georgiev) we realized we shared some common ground on the theme of gender in the history of photography, so putting together an exhibition seemed like a good idea,” continued Efron.
The majority of photographs in the exhibit were taken between the 1920s and 1940s – a time in which not only were women establishing themselves as photographers, but the medium itself was still relatively new. The advances and new designs in the field of photography, notably the first prototype of the Leica camera manufactured in Germany in the 1930’s, made the medium easier and more accessible for its practitioners.
The new technical developments also went some way to fostering a growing field of photography: photojournalism. There was a demand for photographs of Palestine and its Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites. Photographers were enlisted for propaganda purposes by the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency, helping to construct and promote Zionist ideals.
“The fund had strict rules [with regard to what should and should not be seen by the outside world and the Jewish Diaspora]. Some of the female photographers preferred to maintain their own independence and so worked and sold their photographs privately,” remarked Efron.
Women were seen to be active participants in the Zionist project. Photographs in the exhibition by Zoltan Kluger, Margot Meyer-Sadde and Rudi Weissenstein portray the “new Jewish woman” engaging in manual labor, cultivating the land, working in factories and doing army service.
Much like their male counterparts the women appear to revel in their work, radiating the communal spirit of the Zionist ethos. Shot against the backdrop of the Israeli desert landscape such photographs now appear nostalgic, a picture of a more innocent time, but did not quite reveal the whole story. Rarely was the Palestinian “other” to be seen.
The photography produced in the same period by Palestinian photographers had no institutional regulations or propaganda motives. For the most part their photographs had a documentary aspect, with a focus on the land and its inhabitants. Karimeh Abbud and Chillil Ra’ad’s portraits of women clothed in wonderfully colored, traditional garments provide a glimpse of the women’s different social backgrounds.
There is a kind of innocence seen in the portraits of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian inhabitants of Palestine. The Middle East had not yet become influenced by the Western fashions and culture seen in the portraits in this exhibit from Weimar Germany. In these photographs the viewer observes a different kind of “new woman,” a women at once more worldly, sophisticated and urbane and at home in the modern city; yet in moments, seemingly weary of it.
The fashionable European woman seen in the photographs from Germany contrasts starkly with the images of women in Palestine, who are more often than not seen as a simpler, less complicated figure. The juxtaposition of the photographs of and by these women from three different cultures succeeds in providing a small glimpse of the status of women in the early part of the 20th century.
The exhibition closes August 16. For more info visit www.hms.org.il/ museum.