‘The things you see from there, you don’t see from here,” sang Yehudit Ravitz back in the ’70s, at the start of what has turned out to be a long stellar career. Yankeleh Rotblit’s evocative words could equally be applied to how Ezra Landau goes about his business.
Landau made aliya from France 29 years ago and quickly became an avowed Jerusalemite. Some of the results of his passion for the city can be seen in his outdoor “Jerusalem Moments” exhibition, which opened in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City a couple of weeks ago.
If pushed, Landau defines his artistic pursuit as street photography. So, what do you need to take on that alfresco role? “You need to spend a lot of time on the street,” comes the somewhat tongue-in-cheek quick-fire response. “You need a camera and” – here comes the real deal – “and I think you need to be able to look at things in a slightly different way. As a spectator, and less as a player.”
That’s a pretty neat tip for anyone considering venturing out, for example, onto a downtown thoroughfare to capture the transient sights and spirit that we are unlikely to notice while we go about our everyday business.
All told, “Jerusalem Moments” takes in 50 prints, covering a broad swathe of topics and dynamics, featuring scenes from across the capital. The half-century quantity quota was set as a nod to the Jerusalem reunification anniversary.
While Landau is unapologetically besotted with his adopted hometown, he does not confine his artistic shooting to Jerusalem.
“I take pictures all over the country, and abroad as well,” he notes. “Whenever I get to some place, I try to fathom what is special about it, what the unique point about it is – the people, the surroundings, and that sort of thing. I am always looking for the leftfield aspects of a place.”
A Zen-like take on the dynamics of life around us can help. It is about seeing the here and now, when it happens.
“Every moment is different, and every moment is special,” Landau observes. “If we can stop a moment we can suddenly see, wow, things are happening all the time, right in front our eyes. It’s like a butterfly effect.”
On a purely technical level, Landau is a classic example of an autodidact, with a genetic nudge in the right direction. He grew up in an artistic home, and picked up the technicalities of operating a camera as he went along.
“When people ask me who my photography teacher was I tell them that my great teacher was Rabbi Nahman of Breslov. He teaches that we should stop and observe. In his vernacular it is called to seclude oneself, to ask yourself questions – Who am I? What am I? What is this world? Where is it going? When you do that spiritual work for a few years, things begin to take on a different appearance, and every situation takes on completely different dimensions. Everything takes on greater depth and power.”
Some of that certainly comes over in Landau’s offering in the Jewish Quarter, along with more than a touch of humor and not a little quirkiness. One item in particular has the viewer guessing. It looks like the result of multiple exposures, with bits of a number of photographs superimposed on each other. Landau keeps his artistic cards close to his chest, although he vehemently rejects any suggestion of technological manipulation.
“It is a bit difficult to understand what I did there. I used a quite innovative technique in a single frame,” he states. “When they see my pictures people generally say, hey, that’s Photoshop. My photos are photos, and there’s nothing to be changed in them. If they need touching up, I’ll quit photography.”
Throughout our chat Landau repeatedly mentions the idea of “connections,” of oxymoronic juxtapositions and of noting and capturing them. One delightful picture in the exhibition, for instance, is a bunch of haredi kids having a grand old time in the water sprinkler attraction.
“Yes, seeing those hassidic kids playing in the water, and right near them a bunch of Arab girls in bathing costumes. That’s the way it is in Jerusalem,” says Landau.
“Jerusalem is a crazy city in which everything happens the whole time – it’s a nonstop city. I’ve taken pictures in New York and in places in Europe and a lot in Tel Aviv, but I still don’t find in those places, including Tel Aviv, what I find in Jerusalem. I manage to do things in Tel Aviv, but it’s nothing like what I find in Jerusalem.”
That may come as some surprise to those who hold the generally accepted view that Tel Aviv is where the action is.
“In Jerusalem I find inconceivable contrasts that connect – in the Old City with Jews and Arabs, with secular and religious Jews, tourists and residents. Everything here connects in an absurd, funny, moving and sad way. Everything is mixed up together. All the emotions flow together.”
And Landau can’t find that in the Big Apple, that most dynamic of urban centers? “New York is just a regular city,” he says surprisingly. “I mean that in the sense that you don’t find such special moments like you do in Jerusalem. I could spend a long time in New York and not find what I get in Jerusalem in a single day.”
For Landau, there is also a religious element to his artistic pursuit.
“As a believer, I connect directly with the belief that every moment there is hashgaha pratit [personal providence] – that everything connects, that everything is one big symbiosis.
The whole of creation is one unity. All the parameters we see in creation, all of that is coordinated. Without that it is inconceivable that everything is connected.”
While everything may be fused, to spot things and then document them through his lens, Landau needs to deconstruct what he sees, and extract individual items in order to discern what interests him and us. He sees no contradiction between the oneness and extraction process he undertakes in his work.
“We see the greatness in the finer details,” he says, “on the micro and macro levels.”
Presumably, if Landau were not an observant Jew his photography would come out differently.
“Everyone sees things according to their understanding, their grasp of things, their memories and all kinds of things they have experienced,” he notes. “What I do is certainly also contingent on what I have absorbed over the years too.”
At the end of the day, what Landau does is a subjective exercise.
“There is no such thing as an objective photograph,” he notes. “It is all a matter of the angle, what grabs me or maybe something that annoyed me.”
Landau is not only a whiz at snapping fleeting and seemingly improbable moments, he is also a dab hand at wordplay.
“I give my pictures names, which is also an important part of what I do,” he says.
“There is a photo I took that a lot of people responded to from a previous exhibition. The picture shows a young boy dragging a pile of heavy pieces of wood, on his back. I called the picture Via de Lag Ba’omer,” he chuckles, referencing the custom of building bonfires on Lag Ba’omer and the Via Dolorosa thoroughfare of the Old City, which Jesus is said to have traversed on his way to his crucifixion.
“I did a little research to see who understood the confluence between the two concepts,” he adds. “Not that many got it.”
What you do inescapably get from Landau’s prints is a sense of the moment – the Jerusalem Moment.“Jerusalem Moments” closes on October 31.