Provocative photographer Adi Nes defies tradition by working off it.
By NATHAN BURSTEIN
Photographer Adi Nes is a secular gay man with graying eyebrows and a habit of quoting the Bible when talking about his work. The son of immigrants from Iran, Nes has a career-long history of referencing and reinventing the stories and images that create identity - national, religious, sexual. A print of his best-known photograph, a mess hall scene of IDF soldiers modeled on Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, earned more money at a Sotheby's auction in New York last month than any piece by any other living Israeli artist. Nes originally sold the print for $1,500 in 2000; seven years later, the buyer at Sotheby's paid $264,000.
Nes smiles modestly when asked about the sum. No, he didn't get any of it, and yes, of course it would have been nice if he had. But to Nes, money seems important only to the extent that it helps him finance his work, which has proceeded slowly by some standards in recent years because of its cost.
The 40-year-old Kiryat Gat native specializes in heavily researched, meticulously staged photographs that borrow images from classical and modern sources and reimagine them in an Israeli context. A collection of 14 Nes photographs taken since 2003, entitled "Bible Stories," went on display at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art earlier this month. The exhibition, which is already on display in New York City, will travel to galleries in Stockholm and Paris - and possibly Germany and Mexico - in 2008.
Shot in vivid color, often near dawn or in the middle of the night, the photographs depict a variety of biblical figures in what Nes describes as a "very urban" context, including a homeless Abraham pushing his son Isaac in a trash-filled shopping cart; a post-flood Noah lying naked and abandoned next to a DVD kiosk in Tel Aviv; and a tattooed Abel about to be struck dead by his curly-haired brother, Cain.
Not all the photos are quite so dramatic: Elsewhere in the series, a light-haired Joseph, still a young boy in a colorfully striped shirt, makes sullen eye contact with the viewer, while a portrait of a modern Job shows the biblical sufferer staring, his expression unreadable, into the camera lens.
"My style is not provocative," says Nes, who stirred complaints from some New York City subway riders in 1998 when his photo of a shirtless, kippa-wearing IDF soldier flexing his bicep was used in advertisements for the city's Jewish Museum.
He's mostly right, in the sense that his style of provocation bears little in common with the type of biblical art that roiled New York more famously the following year - Chris Ofili's portrait of a Holy Virgin Mary that featured the New Testament matriarch smeared in elephant dung.
But while Nes is correct that no one's going to "rear up on hind legs" over his art, it's not strictly true that his work isn't provocative. It is, but only in that it impels viewers to reevaluate the well-known images that have in one way or another become entwined with their own sense of history and identity.
IN ADDITION to the Last Supper and flexed bicep photos from his "Soldiers" series, another of Nes's best known pieces features a group of soldiers hoisting a flag pole in a manner that will resonate immediately with both Israelis and Americans. For Americans - and viewers of Clint Eastwood's recent World War II drama Flags of Our Fathers - the untitled photo quickly evokes memories of Joe Rosenthal's triumphal 1945 image Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. (Giving away his own vast knowledge of American art history, Nes notes that others will also be reminded of Emanuel Leutze's 1851 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware.)
For Israelis, Nes's photograph will even more closely resemble Micha Perry's 1949 picture A Soldier Raising an Ink-Drawn Flag at Umm Rashrash, a still-iconic image of IDF fighters raising the Star of David over a newly captured beach in Eilat. (Russians, Palestinians and ancient Romans would be among the other groups to see parallels between this photo and images from their own national lore, Nes says.)
Like the photos by Rosenthal and Perry, Nes's flag photo is staged - but, by contrast, almost explicitly so. Another "Soldiers" photo takes the fakery idea even further, replacing the Jesus and Virgin Mary of Giovanni Bellini's 1505 Pieta with IDF warriors, one of whose wounds are being painted on by a second soldier with blush from a makeup kit. The point, says Nes, who worked in an air traffic control unit during his IDF service, is not about the bravery and dangers of being a soldier, but about "how nations exist - [how they] convince the young to sacrifice themselves, to endanger their lives for their friends."
LIKE VIEWERS of "Soldiers" and Nes's later "Boys" series, exhibition-goers at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art will undoubtedly benefit from a grasp of Renaissance and American art history. Hanging simply on the gallery's white walls, the photos are accompanied only by placards bearing their names and year of creation, though a book providing detailed background information and smaller versions of Nes's photos is also available at the entrance to the museum.
The insights and small ironies of the "Bible Stories" photos stand on their own, but as with his previous work, Nes has invested his latest project with nods both overt and subtle to masters ranging from Caravaggio and Titian to Dorothea Lange, the celebrated American photographer known for her black-and-white images from the Great Depression. One of the photos, Untitled (Hagar), depicts the banished handmaiden sitting pensively - despairingly? stoically? - and looking off-camera to her right, covering her chin with her hand as she considers her uncertain next steps.
As with the Lange original, the seeming simplicity of the Hagar photo is belied by its artistic pedigree, and by Nes's fastidious research and attention to detail during the shoot.
A 1992 graduate of Jerusalem's Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Nes says his work continues to be influenced by the years he spent supporting himself and his photography with work in the television industry. Though Israeli photography has grown considerably in prestige and popularity since the 1990s, making a living as a full-time photographer remains elusive. (Nes now teaches part-time at Bezalel and other Israeli arts institutions.)
But the artist's work behind the scenes on sports and talk shows and doing research for TV documentaries has proved useful during nearly every step of his career since he left television, and in several ways his approach to photography continues to resemble that of a TV producer.
The Noah photo, for example, is partially based on The Drunkenness of Noah, a Michelangelo fresco that appears in the Sistine Chapel. But it's also the product of a casting and location-scouting process that would be perfectly familiar to the makers of a weekly prime-time TV drama.
THOUGH MAINLY remembered for surviving the flood and making humanity's first pact with God, the Noah of Nes's imagination recalls one of the biblical hero's less noble deeds - passing out drunk and naked not long after saving mankind. According to Genesis, two of Noah's sons, Shem and Japheth, "walked backwards" while covering their father's body so as not to see his indiscretion - but only after a third son, Ham, looked directly at his father and, rather than covering him, went to report on the scene to his brothers. (Noah subsequently cursed Ham for his lack of respect.)
Nes's photo - his only nude - shows Noah still drunk and exposed, now an aging homeless man sleeping on a grimy sidewalk in Tel Aviv. Like Ham, the viewer - and Israeli society more generally - is implicated in the scene, observing the degraded old man with the same detachment as one of the movies in the kiosk behind him. (Though clearly quite serious, the photograph isn't entirely bereft of humor: It's not by accident, Nes says, that two of the DVDs behind Noah are Identity and Yossi and Jagger, films dealing with the kinds of ideas that figure prominently elsewhere in his work.)
As with the TV programs Nes used to work for, the star and setting of Untitled (Noah) were carefully chosen. After examining earlier artistic depictions and the Genesis account of the scene - Nes discusses secondary and tertiary biblical figures like they're familiar TV characters - the photographer began looking for his Noah.
Appearing in the Bible long before Abraham's fateful covenant with God, the true Noah, Nes notes, would have been uncircumcised - a physical trait not easy to find among the country's Jewish and Muslim populations.
Though Nes often uses family members in his work - "Job," for example, is an uncle - a desire for accuracy led the photographer to search for his Noah within Israel's less traditional Russian immigrant community, ultimately finding his model by placing an ad in a local Russian daily.
The photograph's setting, he says, was the result of a similar search, though in contrast to other photos it doesn't feature a set Nes built from the ground up.
His models, he continues, aren't posing so much as acting, with photos generally taken after lengthy discussions about what the biblical figures might have been thinking and feeling at the time of the scene being shot. For the Job photo, he recalls, he instructed his uncle to remember the dying breaths of his brother - Nes's father - at the end of his agonizing struggle with lung cancer.
Photo shoots see Nes in a variety of other roles as well, working to adjust a scene's lighting or modify the look of a set. In a soup-kitchen scene partly inspired by a 2006 photo of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the campaign trail, the Middle Eastern stew at the center of the shot is, like the rest of the photograph, something Nes made on his own.
BUT WHILE he also regularly serves as costumer, props master and lighting technician, Nes ultimately ends up playing the role of director, advising his subjects on how to portray their characters and working with the limitations his models bring to the sessions. A short "making of" video from the "Bible Stories" series shows Nes coaching his Abraham on posture, while elsewhere in the clip he looks on as an assistant adjusts the costumes of twin actors playing Jacob and Esau.
And like a TV director experienced in soothing star egos, a somewhat bemused Nes recalls convincing his battling Cain and Abel - recruited from an Israeli "no rules fighting" league - to take on the part of the losing brother. (After each man refused to play Abel, Nes brokered a compromise in which the two fighters would play both roles, and Nes would simply select the most compelling photo from the bunch.)
A chosen artist since 2005 of the Israel Cultural Excellence Foundation, Nes has earned attention from increasingly influential corners, including International Men's Vogue, which in 2003 commissioned the photographer to come up with a new series depicting the challenges facing his country.
The resulting effort, "Prisoners,"was published alongside images by Egyptian, Jordanian, Lebanese and Palestinian photographers, though unlike its Arab-world counterparts the series didn't seek to underline the Westernness of the photographer's homeland. (The fact that the issue's publication coincided with the anniversary of the September 11 attacks may have had something to do with his colleagues' arguably defensive artistic choices.)
The editor of Vogue issued two rules concerning the Middle East photo series: that the images not be political, and that they feature the expensive designer clothes that give the magazine its name.
NES BROKE one rule and made satire with the other.
"I told him [the Vogue editor] that in the Middle East you can't do anything that's not political. Even a landscape is political," he says, "even a picture of water."
"Prisoners," which was shot as Israel began construction on its West Bank security barrier, explores the idea that, in Israel as in prison,"you can't choose your neighbors."
The concept was inspired partly by Nes's own reserve duty as a guard at Ketziot Prison, where interactions with Palestinian inmates combined with stark desert surroundings to form "an amazing visual" Nes later transferred to his photos.
But while Nes expresses clear ambivalence about the region's overriding conflict - Palestinians are suffering but Israelis "are fighting for their country" - "Prisoners" also looks inward, at times suggesting white-collar crime and corruption, and also referring to tensions within Israel's Jewish majority and the country's treatment of foreign workers.
In one photo, stylishly dressed models - several of them handcuffed - perform an unconventional catwalk beneath an imposing wall lined with barbed wire, while another shows a fierce guard dog barking viciously in the night. (After debate with the magazine's editors, one of the photos in the series was altered, Nes says, because he feared it might unintentionally echo imagery from the Holocaust.)
The desire to combine a prison setting with what was essentially a high-end fashion shoot proved a challenge, but here Nes was aided by his childhood in Kiryat Gat, the long struggling "periphery" town known for its impoverished, largely Mizrahi Jewish community. The marginal status of Kiryat Gat and other development towns in the northern Negev served as the backdrop to Nes's 2000 "Boys" series, which mixed images of modern Israeli poverty with poses from classical Zionist artwork and the masterpieces of Caravaggio.
In the Kiryat Gat of his childhood, Nes recalls, a wardrobe from the nearby Polgat clothing factory served as a key status marker, with the perverse result that young people often sought to indicate their individuality by wearing the same clothes. (Aware of his homosexuality from a young age, Nes tried to signal his separateness with slight alterations to his Polgat-wear, a memory he now recalls with hints of irony.)
Similar thinking among Vogue readers is gently parodied in the "Prisoners" series, with the warden and inmate of one photo staring each other down in a battle of sleek Ray-Ban sunglasses against a stylish leather jacket.
Elsewhere in the series, expensive Paul Smith outfits become the uniform of materialism and conventionality, with pairs and trios of prisoners looking back at the camera in matching high-end outfits.
"BIBLE STORIES" sees Nes dealing once again with the themes of his early career, though his first-time use of female models also adds a layer to his work. Despite - or possibly because of - their addition, sexual politics plays a less prominent role in the series, though the issue will inevitably emerge in an image Nes plans to shoot of Moses's Midianite wife, Zipporah, a dark desert woman he believes offers parallels with modern Israel's Ethiopian population.
Like his earlier projects, the series strips its subjects of the grandiosity and sentimentality with which others have treated them, but does so by providing them new levels of meaning. Untitled (Elijah) shows the biblical prophet asleep outdoors in Tel Aviv, surrounded by the ravens God promised would feed him after his confrontation with King Ahab. The scene is biblical but modern, and certain to startle anyone who recognizes its origins in a 1950 Werner Bischof photo of a European refugee still homeless five years after the end of Nazi rule.
Nes is toying with themes for his next project but, still surrounded by material for more "Bible Stories," declines to say what they might be. He has, after all, both the Bible and Western art canon to work with, and growing critical and commercial success behind him.
"I want to understand this baby who came to the family," he says, "before I move on to [ideas for] the next one."
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