Tel Aviv, 110 and counting

Boris Belenkin is a Tel Avivite through and through. The 60-year-old photographer lives and breathes the city.

A bus travels along Hayarkon Street, Tel Aviv (photo credit: BORIS BELENKIN)
A bus travels along Hayarkon Street, Tel Aviv
(photo credit: BORIS BELENKIN)
Boris Belenkin is a Tel Avivite through and through. The 60-year-old photographer lives and breathes the city and, naturally, employs the tools of his craft to document and present as much of the colors, sensibilities, bricks and mortar and human dynamics of his hometown as he possibly can.
He has been doing that for a long time. “I wasn’t born here, but I have been here since around the age of 16,” proclaims Moldova-born Belenkin. “This is my home. This is where I belong.”
All of this makes him the ideal person to try to encapsulate the pulsating metropolis and present his vignettes of urban life to the public. The “pretext” for the forthcoming showing is the 110th anniversary of the founding of Tel Aviv. The exhibition is due to open at Beit Manya Bialik, part of the Beit Bialik compound – which operates under the auspices of the Municipality of Tel Aviv-Jaffa – on May 17, and will run through to July 31. It is curated by Ayelet Bitan-Shlonsky.
Besides his extensive work in still photography, Belenkin also earns a crust as a movie cameraman. You can see that in the prints that will be on show from next week. There is, for example, a striking early evening shot of a bus traveling along Hayarkon Street by the seafront. The setting sun is reflected in the bus windows, along with silhouettes of palm trees and a fetching cloud formation. The colors are rich, and the combination of shades, in the golden epilogue of yet another brightly illuminated Tel Aviv day, gives off a sense of a burnished sheen. It is a dramatic, almost Hollywoodesque, frame which conjures up images of a palm tree-lined boulevard over on the West Coast.
You get the same feeling from a shot of a bunch of young people kicking a ball around on the beach, and from an arresting portrayal of Tel Aviv Port. In the latter, Belenkin creates a seamless palette of hues. The cold foreboding of the blue-tinged backdrop neatly complements and offsets the warmth of yellowy spots of electric light in and around some of the boats lolling in the marina and nearby buildings. The textural narrative is enriched by the mounds of intermittently lit fishing nets and paraphernalia.
Players kick a ball on the beach, Tel Aviv / BORIS BELENKIN  Players kick a ball on the beach, Tel Aviv / BORIS BELENKIN
Belenkin spent long hours, spread over many months, trawling the streets of the city which has been his physical and emotional home since he relocated from Tiberias, where the Belenkin family was provided with an apartment when they made aliyah in the early 1970s. It was the time of the so-called “villa and volvo aliyah,” when immigrants from the USSR were given housing and a vehicle to get their life in their new country off to, at least, a material good start.
BELENKIN HAS prior experience of documenting Tel Aviv. Ten years ago, he put together his tribute to his adopted hometown on its centenary, which was displayed to a highly appreciative public both in the city and in various venues around the former Soviet Union. Before that project, Belenkin spelled out his artistic credo to the somewhat apprehensive committee members ahead of getting out and about with his bag of photographic tricks.
“I told the committee at the time that they wouldn’t get from me Palphot snaps,” he says, referencing the Israeli postcard company of yesteryear. “I told them they wouldn’t see propaganda photographs, or politics. Then they said, ‘So what will we see?’ They were getting anxious,” Belenkin chuckles. “I told them they would see my take on the city in which I grew up, how I feel about it, how I love it and how I see it. Tel Aviv has long been a part of me.”
It is an ongoing love affair. Belenkin confesses to being besotted with the city in which he has been living and working for over four decades. “I’ve been all over the world,” he says. “I have taken fashion photographs in London and Paris. I have been to Vega, Macau, Singapore, and all sorts of remote places in Russia. But no matter where I go, I always compare it with what I see here in Tel Aviv. For me, Tel Aviv is more beautiful than New York or LA.”
Belenkin is based in Florentin, between the flourishing hipster bars and cafés and still dusty, yet-to-be-gentrified backstreets of Levinsky Market and its vibrant environs.  Interestingly, you won’t see much of that among the 70 or so pictures in the forthcoming Tel Aviv: 110 Years spread. While he knows pretty much every inch of his geographic milieu, Belenkin generally homes in on a specific street-level core, which he feels provides a microcosm of the whole urban shebang.
“If you know four streets you know the whole city,” he suggests. “If you are familiar with Hayarkon, Ben Yehuda, Dizengoff and Derech Namir, you’ve got the whole city. They all run in parallel. The cross streets are small change.”
Not that all the images in the 110 Years come exclusively from the aforesaid thoroughfares. “This is the one of the latest pictures I took for the exhibition. It’s from Florentin,” says Belenkin, picking up an intriguing intimate street scene shot. He also freely admits to following a cinematic ethos in fashioning his frames. “I am a movie cameraman. I look for movement. I look for things with depth and perspective. Look at this,” he says, lifting up a shot of the seafront. “There is foreground, background. There is information everywhere you look.”
MUCH OF Belenkin’s work also implies the existence of vistas beyond the scene we initially glimpse. “There is also the reflection of the sky in the sea,” I note. “Exactly,” comes the enthused response. 
With his 40-plus years of street pounding, and plain old day-to-day living, in Tel Aviv, and the centenary body of work he compiled a decade ago, Belenkin brings a wealth of knowledge and emotion to the current project. He says his mindset has evolved, as have his beloved surroundings. “I have changed, and the city itself undergoes changes every single day.” It is, he says, a multi-stratified continuum.
“The architecture has changed radically, and the human makeup of the city has too,” he notes as he unapologetically unfurls his undying affection for his urban homestead. “The city has developed. It is gorgeous. It is well-kept. It has taken on a completely new face over the past decade.” That certainly applies to his own neighborhood. “At the time of the centenary, this area was the garbage heap of Tel Aviv. But there was already a lot going on with youngsters and all sorts of people.” The shifting human mosaic, Belenkin feels, begat what he says, and what he photographs around him today. “You had students and migrant workers all fusing into this area. Today, you can walk around Florentin without hearing Hebrew.”  
You can also enjoy a rich cultural and leisure time existence there. “This is like the Montmartre of Tel Aviv,” he says, alluding the artsy Parisian quarter. “You have galleries, museums, wonderful cafés here. You see all kinds of faces here – students, people who come from abroad, rent apartments here and study at university here. I see all of this and it gives me a very different [photographic] impulse. This is the Tel Aviv I love.”
That undisguised delight with his locale comes across palpably in Belenkin’s Tel Aviv: 110 Years prints. It is a far cry from the handful of single-story domiciles that rose out of the Tel Aviv sands at the behest of Russian-born, Zionist architect, city planner and immigrant Akiva Aryeh Weiss. However, one assumes he would have been quite happy with the way his brainchild has evolved over the past century or so.
“In this city we will build the streets so they have roads and sidewalks and electric lights,” Weiss wrote in 1906, when the new city project was first proposed. “Every house will have water from wells that will flow through pipes as in every modern European city, and also sewerage pipes will be installed for the health of the city and its residents.”
It would have been interesting to see how Weiss might have reacted to the new pictorial offering at Beit Manya Bialik. Regardless, Belenkin’s labor of love gets the urban zeitgeist message across in succinct and polychromic fashion.