Trying to shoot God

Photographer Toby Cohen does the next best thing.

May 7, 2010 15:44
Sunrise at Massada

Sunrise at Massada. (photo credit: Toby Cohen)


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According to Toby Cohen, it all started around three years ago during a chance encounter with a strange guy named Musa in a Jacuzzi at the Daniel Hotel in Herzliya.  Cohen remembers it something like this:

“He must have been about 70 years old. I introduced myself. He told me in Hebrew, ‘I am Musa. My father was an Arab and my mother was a Jew.’

“He was angry, aggressive and condescending. He asked me what I did. I told him I was a photographer. He said, ‘So you take a few pictures. Do you really think that makes you a photographer?’

“He then asked me if I believed in God. I replied, ‘Sometimes.’ He said, ‘Okay, if you’re such a great photographer, why don’t you photograph God?’

“Well, the age-old argument is that anything can be God – a blade of grass, a flower. But after this encounter, I began to think about trying to find a way to capture people connecting to God. So, through Breslav hassidism and hassidic meditation, I found people who were at the closest point to God that I had ever seen. They were meditating in nature. And that was the connection between the people, the land and God. And that was the birth of my panoramic portraits in the Land of Israel project.”

A sampling of these panoramas, each achieving the breathtaking size of at least 2.4 meters in width, is currently on display in “Cherubim and Angels,” Cohen’s solo exhibition at Tel Aviv’s venerable Engel Gallery.

What kind of man lets a strange character in a hot tub talk him into trying to photograph God?

Born in London 30 years ago, Toby Cohen found both his current vocation and growing spirituality through many odd twists and turns.

“Although I went to schools that encouraged the arts, I was never encouraged to develop my passion, nor was I told that I had any particular artistic skill.  I took A-level photography when I was 18, mostly as an easy way to get the points I needed to get into university.

“I studied marketing in Bristol West of England University. When I finished university, quite by accident, I started working as a paparazzo press photographer, something I had never dreamed I’d be doing.”

A very successful paparazzo, Cohen had photographs on the front pages of such Fleet Street icons as The Daily Express, News of the World, Mirror, Evening Standard and  Independent by the time he was 21. He photographed the rich and famous, developed professional relationships with people like Sting and David and Victoria Beckham, maintained a personal relationship with then prime minister Tony Blair, and built a reputation as a photojournalist.

His work took him all over Europe, to India and the Andaman Islands, to Israel – and eventually to his meeting with Musa in a Herzliya hot tub.

Cohen’s meeting with Metro takes place at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, to which the young artist – predictably – arrives late, accompanied, surprisingly, by what appears to be a one-man entourage.

He is David Cohen, 51, whom Toby introduces as his “muse and confidant.” Despite their identical surnames, the two are not related.

Says David: “I’m a friend of Toby’s, who welcomed him to Israel. He told me that he wanted to do this, and that he wanted to do that, so I tried to help him as much as I could.” Says Toby: “Dave helps me make ridiculous ideas happen. Ninety percent of what he throws at me is completely and utterly nonsensical, but the 10 percent which he throws at me that I like is pure gold. David has been able to take my creative eye and help give it direction and focus.”

The relationship between these two becomes clearer as Toby Cohen describes the process by which his panoramic “Flying Sukkah” was conceived and created.

“I was sitting at David’s place during Succot, talking about the meaning of the holiday. He had a poster on the wall of his apartment and it was, like, a succa on the back of a camel, a succa on the deck of a boat… and I said to him, “Dave, what about a flying succa?’

“So David and I began talking about the idea of a flying succa. We found a location we wanted to use in a place called Sussiya. And we started going about plans, talking about getting a crane, building a succa, hanging it in the air from the crane.

“In the end it didn’t happen. So we started to look for other locations. I photographed a lot in the Galilee. And outside Safed, on the edge of this valley, we found what we were looking for. The sunlight there is amazing, and you can see in the panoramic that almost all the pictures I took were during the last 10 minutes or the first 10 minutes of every day. The way the sun hits the horizon and sinks creates a wonderful effect – rays of light reflecting off the edge of the mountain.”

“Anyway, we had this location. It was maybe 5 km. into the back of the woods, down this track. I made a decision to go with it. We found a scaffolding company which agreed to deliver scaffolding to this place out in the middle of nowhere.

“We had no idea what we were trying to take on. We started building – with me never having built anything in my entire life. I decided with David to hire someone else to build the scaffolding. But we built it. It took about three days. It started raining. So we had to leave, and we screwed up the underside of the car, and we had to borrow a jeep to come back.

“Then the police came, demanding to know what we were doing. Try telling the police that you’re trying to build a flying succa. So anyway, eventually we got the scaffolding up, and then on top of the scaffolding, we built the succa. As per usual, in a magic hour, I  magicked some hassidic musicians into the succa, and we created the image.”

David concludes the narrative, saying, “Every artist in Israel who spoke to Toby said, ‘Toby, just photograph the succa on the ground and then do some nice Photoshop effects to get the look you’re trying to achieve.’ But Toby said, ‘No, I want the people in the succa to know that they are waving around in the air. I want to wave them in the air, and for everything to be real.’

“That’s how Toby gets his magic – because they really are up there, waving in the wind, blowing around in that succa, with the whole thing feeling like it’s going to blow down any second.”

The resulting work is fascinating and extraordinary, with every inch of the enormous photograph captured in fine detail.

How does Toby do it? 

“I call my panoramics a marriage of portraiture and landscape. These are usually two distinct disciplines,” he explains. “I try to imagine my final piece as a giant canvas, and I’m just using the camera as a paintbrush to fill in all of the spaces.

“The reason I do it this way instead of shooting one picture is that I’m able to retain the high details in every part of the picture. So I choose my canvas, set up my camera completely manually, set all my exposures exactly the same, wait for the right time of the day, and then boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom,” he says, simulating the snapping of a shutter as he moves his imaginary camera in an arc slowly across the room.

“Then I put that all together, using stitching software, Photoshop, and then I work on it afterwards. Aside from that, there’s the whole magic. It’s a combination of all the work and technology, and a bit of magic.”

In addition to “Flying Sukkah,” other Cohen panoramas in his current exhibition include “Mincha,” one of his first experiments with the panoramic format; “Fiddler on the Roof,” which Cohen describes as his contemporary, Israeli answer to Chagall; “Sunrise at Masada,” in which contemporary ultra-Orthodox warriors don tefillin at the ruins of the ancient fortress; and “Gedalia and Cows,” a whimsical picture of cows watching a hassid at prayer.

It is important to make clear that none of these photographs are or are intended to be candid, spontaneous glimpses of everyday life. They are tableaux vivants in which Cohen searches for the “reality” of people’s connections to God through staged scenes enacted by cooperative “performers.”

Not all the panoramas are set in Israel. In “Ariel” we see what is described as an “Abir ninja warrior” at the grave of the Baal Shem Tov in the Ukrainian town of Medzhybozh. “Avi Jumps for Joy” depicts a golden sunrise in Romania, somewhere on the pilgrimage to Uman, after a bumpy, 10-hour bus ride. As with the scenes set in Israel, these panoramas convey the joyous connection between people, visually exquisite nature, and God.

Interestingly enough, however, the centerpiece of the exhibition – and perhaps of Cohen’s work to date – is not a panorama at all, but rather a precise, painstaking recreation of a 19th-century painting, “Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur” by Maurycy Gottlieb, prominently displayed at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Cohen’s photographic recreation, entitled “Day of Atonement 2009,” is the inevitable result of love at first sight. Standing in front of the painting, Cohen says: “I came to the museum looking for Jewish artists as my artwork started to develop. I felt a tremendous connection to this painting the second I stepped into this room. I was instantly drawn to it. As soon as I looked at it, it made me want to explore it, to dig into it. It’s more than just an artist’s self-portrait. It’s a self-portrait of a whole life.”

The more he investigated, the more Cohen decided that Gottlieb’s “whole life” and his own were marked by some remarkable similarities, both as people and as artists.

“I felt that by unlocking some of the mysteries within the painting I would gain deeper insight into myself. So this was the first time I decided to take an actual painting and build it into a living photograph,” he says.

Building that painting into a photograph quickly became a major production.

“We had the idea for the picture for over a year before we shot it. I realized before I did anything that I needed a budget to shoot it. The set was built and painted by a famous Israeli artist, Giora Bergel. We got some of the costumes from the opera, for a lot of the others we went to charity stores in Safed and Jerusalem. We bought all of the prayer shawls and prayer books. We went to the flea market in Jaffa to buy cloth.  Eventually, we spent about $10,000 producing “Day of Atonement 2009.”

Fortunately, none of the “actors” in the picture needed to be paid. They included some of Cohen’s friends, members of Cohen’s family, David Cohen, and Toby himself.

Also in the photograph was Cohen’s fiancée, who ended up jilting the young artist soon after the picture was shot, leaving him sadder but wiser. Cohen takes the disappointment philosophically, deriving a sort of grim satisfaction from the fact that Maurycy Gottlieb was also jilted by his fiancée, who similarly appears as a character in his original painting.

What is next for Toby Cohen? One apparent certainty is that he will continue to create his art here in Israel for a long time to come.

He says: “I’m fascinated by the inspiration that surrounds me on a daily basis here. Israel is such a small country, but there are so many vast landscapes. Israel is like a miniaturized version of the world. We’ve got our own miniature grand canyon. We’ve got our own salt lake, the Dead Sea. We’ve got the whole Mediterranean coast. We’ve got hills up around Haifa that look like little Switzerland.

“So many wonderful, wonderful landscapes in this small microcosm. And when you mix that with some of the crazy and wonderful characters you find in Israel, it’s almost a recipe for something to visually feast upon.”

Crazy and wonderful characters. Yes, indeed.

“Cherubim and Angels” is showing from May 6 (opening night) through July 8 at the Engel Gallery, 26 Gordon Street, Tel Aviv. Tel. 03-522-5637, Fax 03-522-6145.
Sun. – Thurs., 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.; Fri., 10 a.m. – 2p.m.

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