Romance of the reborn state

Boris Carmi showcases photographs of Israeli women shot from 1940-1980 reflecting the New Hebrew Femininity.

boris carmi 88.298 (photo credit: )
boris carmi 88.298
(photo credit: )
Fed up with history, Zionists sought a radical break with western culture as they knew it. Thus the image of the pioneer woman - confident, strong, eager to grab a pistol or shovel alongside the men - is part of the Israeli visual vocabulary. While the late photographer Boris Carmi also broke with art history's established modes of viewing women, his view is less straightforward than the typical Zionist's. The photographer's lens is confounded by his desire and respect for beautiful, caring yet, by necessity, active women. Carmi's vision of New Hebrew Femininity appears more natural - rooted in the land and in traditional women's roles. Nevertheless, the photographer's own biography places him neatly in the mythology of the state. Born in Russia in 1914, Carmi was orphaned at 16. He lived in Warsaw, Germany, Italy and Paris, knowing full well that he had to get out of Europe. After studying ethnography at the Sorbonne in Paris - where he first began to use a camera - Carmi finally made it to Palestine in 1939. Here, he worked first as a farmer and soon after as a documentary photographer for the British Army, then the Hagana, and finally for the Labor Party newspaper, Davar, from 1952 until 1976. While he shamelessly admitted that his true dream was to be a fashion photographer, Carmi is considered to be the first staff photographer of the Israeli press, starting with his work for the soldiers' paper, Bamahane, in 1948. Despite the reality of everyday life in Israel, Carmi never lost his romantic view of women and the Land - the glamor usually only seen in fashion photography. For example, in one 1948 work, the viewer sees a relaxed young woman with well-combed brown hair flowing over her feminine white blouse, looking through binoculars over an expansive valley. The figure could easily be a sophisticated Holy Land tourist (think Kitty Freemont in the first scenes of Exodus), but the picture's title: "Kibbutz Mishmar Haemeq - Waiting for the Attack of the Kawukgi Army, 1948," presents quite a different story. In another work of the same year, "Around Degania and Kinneret," a woman looks into the distance, this time holding a gun from atop a tall white horse. Carmi upends the leader-on-a-horse motif of Western art into an image directly opposed to the traditional idea of power: the hero here is a Jewish woman, seemingly soft and gentle. It didn't matter if he shot girly soldiers or exotic new immigrants in the first years of the state, or even portraits of political demonstrators in the Seventies; the beauty, drama and sense of empowerment are there. In fact, some of the more touching portraits are of women immersed in daily life: cooking, hanging laundry, teaching, nursing, or just laughing in the kitchen. These are real women - not some Zionist ideal. Carmi found them all over Israel: in absorption camps, rugged moshavim, and on the streets and beaches of Tel Aviv. A picture of a skinny elderly woman crouched on the ground smoking a nargila and a picture of robust women in swimsuits - both from the 1950s - appear to come from totally different worlds. Actually, they do, but Boris Carmi celebrates the fact that all these women are a gorgeous part of the new state. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. through 2 p.m. Adult admission: 35 NIS, (reduced for residents of Tel Aviv, children, students, soldiers and pensioners). Telephone: (03) 641-5244. Rehov Haim Levanon 2, Ramat Aviv, Tel Aviv. The exhibition will be open through July 2006.