Opening up in the South

Micha Bar-Am has taken some of this country’s most stirring photographs for over 60 years.

Micha Bar Am 521 (photo credit: Ran Erde)
Micha Bar Am 521
(photo credit: Ran Erde)
THE NEGEV Museum of Art in Beersheba may not be the biggest cultural facility in the country but, for Micha Bar-Am, it is close to home.
Bar-Am, 82, has been taking some of this country’s most memorable and most stirring photographs for over six decades, many of them in the South. His latest exhibition, Southward, currently occupies much of the museum’s exhibition space and offers a fascinating left field view of life in the “capital of the Negev” and its environs, as it has evolved since the 1950s.
Southward comes with a handsome catalogue of prints – mostly black and white – which could only have been produced by someone with an intimate and longstanding relationship with the human and physical vistas of the Negev.
Through Bar-Am’s lenses we learn that the Negev has a multifaceted society, that stretches far beyond the stock images of the urban scenes in Beersheba, postcardesque shots of Beduin towns and encampments around the region, and classic stark desert vignettes. The items in the exhibition exude a wonderful sense of humaneness, and frequently of taking life with a pinch or two of salt.
“Beyond anything I have ever seen in my long life to date, I am an optimist by design, otherwise there is no point to life,” says Bar-Am, whose dedication to his craft – and his unremitting sunny disposition – has not only brought him berths at some of the world’s leading cultural institutions, such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art, but also led to him founding the photography department at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which he headed from 1977 to 1992. He received the Israel Prize in 2000.
That positive attitude to life, says Bar- Am, has not been dimmed by exposure to some extremely traumatic scenes.
“I have another exhibition coming up, of pictures I took during the Yom Kippur War. Some of the images aren’t too easy on the eye or heart, and it isn’t particularly nice recalling them and the circumstances in which I took them, so maintaining a positive approach to life, by conscious decision, sometimes takes an effort. I know there are people who have been through terrible hardships and come out broken, and others who have come out with an ever greater belief in life. I don’t understand that [dichotomy], but at my age I have learned that there are some things I don’t understand, and that’s okay.”
Bar-Am took defining shots of the First Lebanon War in 1982.
He has done plenty of learning in his four score-plus years and counting, and most of it by his own means. The theory behind his artistic expertise was acquired from books, rather than at some well-equipped educational establishment.
“I am an autodidact,” he declares. “I read up on cameras, and how to take photographs, and how to develop them. There was nowhere to study that in Israel when I was growing up.’ That inquisitive mind led Bar-Am to the road to all kinds of discoveries from a young age. He was born in Berlin in 1930 and came here with his parents at the age of six. He grew up in Haifa and took a keen interest in the cultures around him.
“I wanted to know something about my neighbors’ way of life,” he recalls.
That curiosity generated an enthusiasm for the Arabic language. “The others in my class weren’t too crazy about studying Arabic, but I loved it,” says Bar-Am, adding that he made a number of excursions to the South to get firsthand knowledge of the language and culture. “I liked my Arabic teacher, from the Alliance School in Haifa, and he took me with him sometimes when he went to spend time with the Beduin. That helped me improve my Arabic, and I loved listening to their stories, sitting around the campfire all day and all night.”
True to his independent ethos, Bar- Am left school without graduating and got a job as
a laborer at Haifa Port, but in 1948 he was drafted into the Palmah and fought in the Negev during the War of Independence. Before that, while still in Haifa, he recalls witnessing the end of the British Mandate, when High Commissioner Lt.-Gen. Alan Gordon Cunningham, set sail for Britain. Bar-Am did not have a camera, but the event was documented by celebrated Jewish Hungarian photographer Robert Capa who co-founded the Magnum international photographic cooperative.
Twenty years later Bar-Am was invited to join the prestigious agency.
Bar-Am’s love of photography had already been sparked before he donned his Palmah uniform, although he lacked the means to do too much about it at the time. In 1949 he was a founding member of Kibbutz Malkiya in the Galilee, and later moved to Kibbutz Gesher Haziv, and he recalls borrowing friends’ cameras to document kibbutz life. He was, in fact, a photographer without a camera of his own, and it was his burgeoning enthusiasm for photography that eventually led to him forsaking kibbutz life and heading for the urban ambiance of Tel Aviv.
“When I realized I could never have the freedom to take photographs when I wanted, as long as I was a kibbutznik, I left the kibbutz,” he says. “I took pictures with other people’s cameras, and if I asked for a bit more money because of the extra print paper I needed, and the kibbutz authorities made a face, that’s when I left.”
It was around this juncture that he began to spend more time in the South, although not always in the environs of Beersheba.
During his time on kibbutz, Bar- Am’s interest in the people and regions around him got him on the road or, more precisely, the trails of the Western Galilee.
“I joined up with a local Arab and we would go off, on horseback, to do all kinds of survey work on sources of water and also sorts of ancient fortresses,” the octogenarian recalls. The latter was to have a definitive impact on Bar- Am’s life and work. “I got to know [archeologist] Prof. Yochanan Aharoni and I helped him with his work in the Galilee, and I later joined him in the Judean Desert when he was searching for the Dead Sea Scrolls,” explains Bar- Am. “Sometimes I’d be less at the kibbutz than in the desert.”
Over the years, Bar-Am began to accumulate photographic experience all over the country, but particularly in the South.
“There is something so open and liberating about the South and desert,” he declares. “The South has a special place in my heart. I was taking pictures there, and elsewhere, but it was only in 1953 that I became what I called a conscious photographer.”
Four years later, after taking pictures during the 1956 Sinai Campaign, Bar- Am published his first book, Across Sinai, and was offered a position on the editorial staff of Bamachaneh, the IDF publication, as a photographer and writer.
“In those days, everyone read Bamachaneh, so that was a wonderful job to have,” says Bar-Am. His work took him all over the country, including to the South, and he had plenty of adventures en route.
Bar-Am says that one of the things he likes about his photographic escapades is that surprises constantly crop up.
“Once I was sent to take pictures of Masada and I decided that it would be best to take photos from the air, so I went in a helicopter. I took lots of pictures but, on the way back, I saw a camel in the desert and I asked the pilot to swoop over it. I took a few snaps and one of them was so wonderful, that was the one that went in to Bamachaneh.”
That became “Camel and Rider” and features in the Southward exhibition.
Bar-Am also took pictures at the Eichmann trial in 1961, and covered the Six Day War, and six years after that took photographs of the Yom Kippur War, from the Suez Canal to the Golan Heights. Shortly after that he became the Middle East photographic correspondent for The New York Times, a position he held until 1992.
Although he was present at many of the country’s defining moments, Bar- Am’s work has never become overly stiff and formal. The works in Southward capture unfolding life in Beersheba and the Negev but, besides the wonderful composition, all the photos are unapologetically human, and often with more than a modicum of humor.
There is a delightfully fluid shot of David Ben-Gurion taking a constitutional near Kibbutz Sde Boker, and a couple of prints from Kiryat Gat, taken in 1959 when it was still a transit camp, of a makeshift knife sharpener’s stand and a diminutive shoemaker’s outdoor outlet. “Bus Stop in Dimona,” taken in 1958, encapsulates the improvisatory nature of life there at the time, while his 1973 snap, “Parade in Beersheba,” portrays the festivities from an unexpected and fun angle.
Bar-Am also takes us into some intimate scenes, such as his 1958 shot of a doctor’s house call at the Azata transit camp, later to become Netivot, and a picture of IDF Beduin trackers warming their hands over a small bonfire, taken in 1971.
“I have always been driven by curiosity and a passion for photography,” states Bar-Am. “I try to show life as it is, and I don’t feel I have to apologize for that. And I have never taken pictures to order, in the sense that I have been told what to photograph and what not to. I hate that idea.”
Over the years, Bar-Am has built up a huge archive of around 500,000 negatives and prints, and he would very much like his treasure to find a suitable home.
“You can take photographs from my collection and compile something on practically any subject going connected to Israel,” he says. “All the pictures I took because I loved what I was going to document. I am not an artist who produces works to be hung on the wall, although I have exhibits in museums here and abroad, but I would like my collection to be cared for.”
The Southward exhibition will run at the Negev Museum of Art until June 1. For more information: 08 699-3535 or