Photography: Bloodless shots in time

Paul Margolis’s World War II reenactment photographs strike a chord.

GIs moving out, Fort Mifflin, Pennsylvania. (photo credit: Courtesy)
GIs moving out, Fort Mifflin, Pennsylvania.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One man’s meat is another man’s poison, they say. That could be adapted to this part of the world to something along the lines of, one country’s existential threat is another country’s leisure-time activity.
Paul Margolis fully understands that mind-set chasm. The seasoned American photographer’s latest body of work goes by the name of “A War Without Blood and Gore: Photographs of World War II Reenactors,” and will be on public display at the Hadassah Academic College from November 18 to December 1.
The highly descriptive exhibition title comes from a line in a Vietnam War protest song by the American singer Phil Ochs titled “Draft Dodger Rag,” which goes: “If they ever give a war without blood and gore, I’ll be the first to go.”
Margolis’s decision to document the weekend pastime of mostly young Americans – who, presumably, know precious little about the stark and horrific reality of actual military conflicts – naturally has a historical element to it and fittingly, he says he has at least one foot firmly planted in the past. That goes for his preferred choice of technological accessory, too.
“My daytime job is all digital cameras and video,” says Margolis, who earns his crust in the employ of the city of New York. But his off-duty documentation work is produced with much more hands-on apparatus.
“I use the old Leica just because I like the old technology.”
In fact, Margolis has a pair of Leicas at his spare-time disposal. “The newer one is from 1981 and the older one is from 1960,” he says. “I always wanted a Leica because it is such a beautiful thing.”
Paul Margolis points and shoots (photo credit: Courtesy)
He eschews polychromic film for his artistic endeavor and, over the years, has produced thousands of evocative, even emotive, prints, primarily of people and buildings. Some of the former were captured in this part of the world and include striking photos taken at Mahaneh Yehuda, Beersheba, the Old City of Jerusalem and a market in Haifa.
The process is, of course, definitively different when using a manual camera as opposed to a digital appliance. For starters, when using the former you cannot see what you have shot, and naturally the number of frames is limited by the number of reels you have with you. Digital work is only limited by the size of your memory card or cards and, if you are not pleased with what you can see on the camera display, you can just go right ahead and reel off a whole load of more pictures of the same scene.
So, does that awareness come into Margolis’s game plan when he’s toting his beloved Leicas, as opposed to his technologically advanced nine-to-five work tools? He says there are numerous benefits to the old-school approach, but he prefers to cite the emotional factor.
“Sometimes, during my work day, if I think I am going to see something potentially interesting I will take my Leica along. People will say, ‘What can that old camera do that digital can’t?’ Rather than give people a whole explanation about tonality, archival quality or the historical continuum of film, I just say it makes me happier than digital,” he laughs.
As an artist, he is perfectly entitled, nay duty-bound, to connect with his feelings when he goes about his creative business.
“I think that’s what it boils down to. And there are several reasons to use film, not least of which is the fact that it is the only archival medium. But basically, it would probably make no difference [if he used digital instead of manual cameras]. Even if I were to have $9,000 lying around, to buy what’s called a Monochrom Leica, the work would probably be essentially the same.”
Margolis likes to get to grips with his work, in more senses than one.
“I like the process,” he states. “I like the fact that film is a tactile thing, that I control the process. I am proud of my abilities as a darkroom printer. That’s something that took me decades to do. It’s really like painting. Sometimes when people ask me why I use the old-fashioned stuff I will say, ‘If I were to use oil paints, would you question why I did it? Would you say it is obsolete? Would you say that the camera made this obsolete 170 years ago?” He set out on his photographic odyssey over half a century ago, at the age of nine.
Then too, the spark for the now-63-year-old’s initial interest in the art form was ignited by history.
“Nineteen-sixty-one was the centennial of the American Civil War and there were a lot of daguerreotypes, glass-plate images [and works by Scottish-born American photographer pioneer] Alexander Gardner and [Civil War documenter] Mathew Brady around – and I was fascinated. It was 1961 and I was this little kid who loved history and the world of 100 years earlier, of the American Civil War, was visually accessible. I didn’t know about the technology, the glass plates an all that. All I knew was that someone had frozen the world of horses and steam engines and muzzle-loading cannons and all of that. It was all frozen for this little boy.”
Margolis’s infant attraction to photography was curtailed by parental intervention a couple of years later.
“My parents decided that photography, to use fine Yiddish word, was narishkeit [foolishness], and really a waste of mother on a child. Basically I was discouraged from doing photography until I was in my mid-20s, when I figured I’m old enough, I can have whatever I want.”
The sexagenarian has been busy freezing images on his old and trusted Leicas for many a moon now, often going to topics with a strong historical aspect to them. He is also drawn to left-field characters and people who live outside the mainstream of everyday, mass media-accessible, life. His voluminous oeuvre includes delicious monochrome prints of vanishing Americana, old buildings, visual excerpts of the Jewish communities of Cuba and Ireland, and what he calls “the vibrancy of life on New York City’s streets.” He was around to catch some stark and moving shots of 9/11, his office being only a couple of blocks away from the World Trade Center.
“I actually felt the impact of the first airplane. I thought it was construction or a heavy truck had gone by. To put it in perspective, if the first plane had not hit square on, if it had maybe sheared off a wing or something, it would have landed on one of the low buildings where I was working.”
The photographer in Margolis immediately sprang into action.
“I knew I would probably never see anything like this again in my life, hopefully not. Other people were running away and I felt I just had to be there.”
Luckily for him, he ran out of film and got back to the office, to pick up some more, just as the first building collapsed.
He caught some of the energy and color – albeit in black and white – of the streets and other public places, as well as private domains, in this part of the world. He made an abortive attempt at aliya in the late ’70s, and made a serious photographic foray back here a couple of years ago.
This time, however, Margolis is offering us a glimpse of a world that may, to most military conflict-weary Israelis, appear to be ridiculous in the extreme.
Posing in uniform (photo credit: Courtesy).
“It struck me as weird, too,” he confesses, although adding that therein lay the charm. “Of course, that’s why it immediately appealed to me.”
He feels that re-enactors have a heightened sense of nostalgia, and a longing for the events of yesteryear that they perceive as “the good old times.”
“These are people who are relatively young and I think that they have a belief that the last good time, the last time the United States was strong and united and did something unequivocally positive was 1945.”
Regardless of the motives, the World War II re-enactor prints provide for fascinating viewing and, possibly, for us in the war-torn Middle East, something that may raise a wry smile.
“A War Without Blood and Gore: Photographs of World War II Reenactor” opens on November 18 at 7 p.m. For more information about the exhibition: (02) 629-1950. For more information about the photographer: