Undercover through the lens

Savvy job interviewers know that life experience can be almost as an important a factor in a person’s professional development as their technical training.

Undercover through the lens (photo credit: SARA AYAL)
Undercover through the lens
(photo credit: SARA AYAL)
Savvy job interviewers know that life experience can be almost as an important a factor in a person’s professional development as their technical training. In Sarah Ayal’s case there is little to choose between them.
When Ayal died in 2004 at the age of 89, she left quite an inheritance behind for her family. We are not talking mounds of greenbacks or stocks and shares here, this is something of a far more aesthetically pleasing, spiritually uplifting and emotive documentary ilk. That is one of the primary senses one gets from observing the Emerging from the Shadows exhibition currently on display at Beit Avi Chai.
The show features around 60 works garnered from thousands of prints and negatives Ayal kept in her Tel Aviv apartment, and which later found their way to the home of her granddaughter Dafna Rosenne-Singer. All but one of the exhibited prints were taken in Israel in the 1960s and offer a fascinating glimpse of street-level life here at the time.
Ayal spent several decades keeping her head down and lurking in dark places. For most of her life, she earned a crust as a photographer with the Mossad. The pictures she took for her daytime job were of a consummately clandestine nature and remain under official wraps. Indeed, it appears that there are also still plenty of tales to be told about her undercover work that remain classified to this day.
Thankfully, the intrepid spy had some downtime and she never missed an opportunity to get out with her camera to snap something that caught her eye – and heart – while on vacation here, or on her trips around the world.
JUDGING BY the prints on show at Beit Avi Chai, Ayal had a keen sense of her surroundings, as one might have expected from someone in her line of work. She also used her espionage-spawned skills to stay out of the limelight, and capture her frame before her subject knew what she was up to.
“The thing is, you can tell people don’t know she is taking their picture,” Rosenne-Singer observed when we visited the exhibition together last week. “The people in the pictures look so natural.”
They do, indeed. This is long before the advent of smartphones when we all became so conscious of people committing events to digital memory at almost any given moment, that we produce the requisite beaming countenance at the drop of a hat. There are delightful snaps all through the exhibition. One with two women in earnest and friendly conversation at Tel Aviv’s old bus station is a charming case in point.
One of the most striking shots is the one of an elderly behatted gent holding his spectacles upside down in an attempt to decipher the front page of the day’s edition of the Haaretz newspaper in a newsagent’s shop window. That succinctly crafted photo helped to pave the way to the exhibition, and to finally getting Ayal’s art out there.
Actually, a smidgeon of the public got to know about Ayal’s photographic expertise at an earlier juncture. Rosenne-Singer’s son Itai must have inherited some genetic strain and took on photography as a hobby. One day he took some of his great-grandmother’s snaps to school to show his photography teacher. The latter was particularly taken with the pictures.
“The teacher wrote a paper about Sarah for her master’s degree,” notes Rosenne-Singer.
It seems news of Ayal leaked out in modest drips and drabs.
“There were some articles in the press around seven or eight years ago,” Rosenne-Singer continues.
Ayal’s photographer public profile rose considerably following a visit to her daughter’s home for a very different purpose.
“[Haaretz history correspondent] Ofer Aderet, who wrote a book about my father, went to my mother’s home to talk to her about my father and noticed some of my grandmother’s photographs on the walls.”
ROSENNE-SINGER’S father was Meir Rosenne, a lawyer and senior diplomat who served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States and France, and was also legal adviser to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is in this capacity that he played a key role in the peace talks between Israel and Egypt, with his mother-in-law, snapping him as an onlooker while Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat were being interviewed by, it seems, an Egyptian journalist.
The picture features in the exhibition, and we also get some idea of how the artist herself looked in a fun candid image of her walking smilingly towards the photographer, looking like she would blend into any crowd – surely one of the basic attributes of anyone involved in covert activities.
Aderet subsequently wrote an article about Ayal for Haaretz. Beit Avi Chai curator Amichai Chasson picked up on that, and soon found himself delicately picking his open-mouthed way through Ayal’s cache of Kodak boxes at Rosenne-Singer’s home.
The catalogue includes an essay by Aderet in which he notes some biographical data about Ayal. The youngest of four children, she was born in eastern Slovakia. She got married, at the age of 18, to Zvi Salter, and went to live with him in Romania. That saved her life, with Ayal’s parents and siblings all perishing in the Holocaust.
The couple managed to get to British Mandate Palestine in 1940, although they divorced in 1942. Ayal and her daughter Vera, who was born in 1935, moved in with her childless sister. As a single mother needing to find work, she began studying drawing and photography in 1948, learning the latter under the aegis of renowned educator Walter Kristeller, a German Jew who taught graphics and photography at the feted Bauhaus School of Art and Design. Kristeller’s bio included a stint with acclaimed movie director Fritz Lang.
Ayal soon began to develop her own pictures, and gained more valuable hands-on experience at the Pri-Or PhotoHouse on Tel Aviv’s Allenby Street. It was run by Rudi Weissenstein, on the country’s preeminent photographers, and his wife Miriam.
She quickly developed her own style and, probably due to her loyalty to her former service of the state – she worked past the age of 70 – she did not publish much of her work. Life magazine ran a couple of her pictures, but that was it. We do, however, have some inkling of her artistic philosophy from a short text she wrote herself. It seems she intended putting out a book of her photographs, although it never materialized. Describing the collection she amassed, Ayal wrote, “I tried to capture an Israeli reality that tends to be obscured by current events.”
That is undoubtedly what you get from the exhibition. Ayal snaps her subjects lovingly and respectfully, and with no agenda other than her own perception of life around her. One delightful portrait shows a young couple enjoying the Independence Day celebrations in then-Kings Square – now Rabin Square – in Tel Aviv, and even, on a rare occasion, when the photographees saw Ayal pointing her lens in their direction, she was clearly adept at making them feel at ease and got a natural relaxed pose out of them.
AYAL CAPTURED the zeitgeist and actual life in Israel in the 1960s. One frame shows two men blacking out the headlights of a car during the Six Day War, and another has four teenagers, with fashionable coiffures, hanging out on a street. There are charming, smile-inducing pictures all through the exhibition. One of my favorites shows two men in the middle of heated argument. You can almost hear what they are saying as they pontificate away. And there is an equally alluring shot of a fruit vendor smiling beatifically and insouciantly toward an off-camera customer.
Ayal also seems to have had a strong bond with the traditional side of Jewish life here, with Sukkot and Purim festivities featured. Primarily it is her ability to capture the essence of the mundane, the color and fabric of life here, that is her most appealing trait.
That she did not become well known as a photographer is undoubtedly due her employment by the secret services, her natural reticence to step into the limelight, and probably due to the male-dominated world in which she worked and lived. Photographer and Eretz Israel Museum curator Guy Raz posits, “The interesting aspect of the story of Sarah Ayal may actually be the fact that she missed the opportunity to be a significant photographer in Israel, which was not blessed with an abundance of women photographers at that time.”
Raz feels Ayal had all the talent and skill needed to make a real go of it.
“As someone who studies photography with Walter Kristeller, a Bauhaus graduate, and worked at the PhotoHouse, she should have developed into a central figure in the local photography scene.” Raz adds that “her transition to working with the army and state institutions meant her artistic pretensions were left behind.”
Beit Avi Chai executive director David Rozenson says that he was moved to house the first exhibition of Ayal’s work “because of her ability to tell the story of the first decades of the State of Israel in a way that brings us close to the people, street shots and landscapes captured by her keen, sensitive, talented lens.”
Although, sadly, Ayal did not get the kudos her talent so richly deserved during her lifetime, it is gratifying to know that, at least now, possibly the country’s photographic community’s best-kept secret is finally out.
Emerging from the Shadows is due to run until May 2020. For more information: (02) 621-5300 and www.bac.org.il/