Photography, when you get down to brass tacks, is all about seizing the moment. Okay, so having digital cameras, not to mention the ubiquitous smartphone, means you can reel off an almost infinite number of shots, trash the dross and still end up with “the moment” you were looking for. But Joel Kantor was merrily snapping away long before technology made film largely redundant and pushed the 36-frame constraint almost into oblivion. Luckily for Kantor, he has always had the indispensable knack of being in the right place at the right time.
Some of that timely proactiveness comes across in Kantor’s exhibition, “Night Guard,” which was unveiled to the public at Beit Avi Chai on November 11. Kantor, who was born in Montreal and made aliyah in 1976, also clearly has an eye for the seemingly quotidian, and a well-developed ability for perceiving the dramatic elements that are probably there for all to see, but are only consciously caught by the chosen few. The 69-year-old photographer belongs to the latter select bunch.
Kantor came here as a young father of two, together with his Israeli-born wife, who hailed from Kibbutz Kfar Menahem near Kiryat Malachi. The family duly set up house there and Kantor slipped seamlessly into the collective rural lifestyle. The oleh dutifully carried out his daytime work and, by all accounts, was delighted with having made the geographic and societal transition from Canada to kibbutz.
“It was great for the kids, and you’re free on a kibbutz,” he says. “You don’t have this bourgeois North American mind-set – what you do about meals, what you do on the holidays, how you dress, where you can go or where you can’t go.”
Considering Kantor and his first wife got divorced only a year into his aliyah, having the security of such a solid community safety net around helped to ease any post-breakup shock waves.
“I moved to a house a couple of rows from my ex-wife, and the kids came to me or to her every other day.”
You get a sense of that seemingly insouciant dynamic from some of the prints that are on display at Beit Avi Chai. There’s a smile-inducing shot of one of Kantor’s sons tussling with a pal at the children’s house on the kibbutz, and there is a pervading laid-back vibe about much of the photographer’s work. Anyone who has spent time on a kibbutz – I enjoyed a 13-month stint as a volunteer 40 years ago – and worked out in the fields will, for instance, no doubt be able to identify with the view of the dirt track receding into the light of the sun dipping toward the horizon and the sandaled feet hanging over the pickup tailboard. It is a monochrome vignette of a bygone era, when a kibbutz was a kibbutz.
In general, back in the day when kibbutzim still adhered to the social, Soviet-inspired philosophy, you put in your six- to eight-hour daily shift and then you were free to go about your personal business. Kantor found himself at a bit of loose end.
“I tried writing, but it was clear to me that I wasn’t good at it,” he recalls.
SALVATION CAME in the form of another import, technological numerical challenge notwithstanding.
“There was a Swiss guy on the kibbutz who took photographs, so I asked him if he thought I could handle a camera. I was frightened of the numbers. There were numbers on the lens and all those buttons. I thought I’d never be able to handle all of that.”
Luckily, Kantor got the encouragement he needed.
“The guy said, ‘Try it, it’s not that hard.’”
He duly borrowed an Olympus from a neighbor and made several forays, together with someone who knew their way around a camera, and basically, the rest is history. Kantor was hooked; before long, he decided to take his snapping up a few notches. After acquiring his own Olympus, while on a trip to Canada, he asked the kibbutz if he could take on formal photography studies.
Approval was forthcoming, and in 1980 Kantor enrolled at Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem. In the event, the classroom proved to be less of a lure than he’d hoped.
“It was too technical for me,” he explains. It wasn’t artistic endeavor he was after, either.
“I went to Bezalel to speak to someone there, and they said, ‘Art, art, art.’ I just wanted to know how the camera works. How you do things. I didn’t do well at the technical stuff, and I immediately discovered that what I was interested in was documentary photography, street photography.”
If it was street life he was after, he had come to the right part of the world.
“I’d go to Mea She’arim to take pictures. I spent much more time there than in class.”
Clearly, that was not at all to the detriment of his professional progress, and some of the delectable results of those jaunts can be viewed in Kantor’s first published tome, In Our Image, which came out in 1986, with a foreword by celebrated intellectual Yeshayahu Leibowitz. That is one of five books he has put out to date. It was followed in 1987 by Hasidim. And there is Tel Aviv Amour, Kantor’s ode to the city that he thought, back in the 1990s, was on its way out.
Kantor also proved to be savvy about how to get his pictures without causing too much of a commotion.
“When I went to Mea She’arim, I’d dress like a haredi. I’d have a tallit bag with my camera inside, and I’d sort of pull the camera out a bit and take photos.”
That was a bit of a hit-and-miss method. In the analog age, you couldn’t know what you’d got until you got back to your darkroom, but as his published work attest, he proved to be pretty adept at getting the goods.
Kantor is a soft-spoken genial gent with a demeanor tailor-made for adopting the requisite fly-on-the-wall position. The works in the Beit Avi Chai spread demonstrate unequivocally that his fellow kibbutzniks evidently felt comfortable having him around, and even when he encountered some objection to pointing his lens in someone’s specific direction, his friendly air quickly defused any perceived lack of cooperation. While I was at Kantor’s abode in Old Katamon, he showed me a simply delightful print of two removal works, both of impressive of girth. One had an old TV set hoisted on his shoulder while the other happily pulled up his T-shirt to display his belly in all its gargantuan glory.
“Initially, they didn’t want me to take their picture, but when they saw I was smiling and not threatening, they were happy to cooperate.”
So, it seems, Kantor has all the characteristic and abilities that go to making a successful street-level snapper. He knows his way around a camera, has a keen eye for drama in everyday situations, possesses the right sort of poise and is always on the lookout for a story. That got him down to Yamit, on the north coast of Sinai, in 1982, shortly before Israel withdrew from the town as part of the peace treaty with Egypt. He even managed to inveigle his way into Lebanon at the very beginning of what was then called Operation Peace for Galilee, and subsequently known as the First Lebanon War.
YOU COULD call it serendipity, an ability to identify an opportunity and latch onto it, or just plain old curiosity. But it is one thing being in on something, and another to have the gumption to make things happen. That was certainly the case with Kantor’s six-week foray over the border, into Lebanon.
“There was someone on the kibbutz who worked for the Government Press Office. He told me that their main photographer had just gotten married and was on his honeymoon and if I wanted to take photographs [in Lebanon] I could go to talk to them [at the GPO].”
The GPO guys were happy for Kantor to document the progress of the IDF north of the border, and even supplied him with a couple of cameras.
“I got a lift with a friend of mine who worked for CBS News.”
This was the very first day of hostilities.
“When they opened the gate and the tanks crossed into Lebanon, our white Volvo was right behind them.” Kantor says he had a couple of hairy moments but came out of it with some great pictures and enduring memories.
As we sift through some of Kantor’s enlarged prints, he comes across an arresting shot of two elderly physically disabled women in wheelchairs. The picture is yet another example of Kantor’s get-up-go credo.
“This was the J’accuse conference of survivors of the [Mengele] twins experiment at Yad Vashem,” he explains. “Again, I heard it was happening, I went there and I clicked. I didn’t say to the women, “Hey can you stop a second?’ I never set things up.”
Quite the adventurer.
“No, I’m not intrepid,” he protested, “but I wanted pictures.”
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