A man of leisure

The Haifa City Museum presents a new exhibit of the photography of Ze’ev Aleksandrowicz, who traveled widely in Palestine between the years 1932 -1935

Children in Ha’ovdim neighborhood, Kiryat Haim. (photo credit: ALEKSANDROWICZ FAMILY COLLECTION))
Children in Ha’ovdim neighborhood, Kiryat Haim.
The changing face of town and city, the diversity of peoples and cultures, the hustle and bustle of street and port life, and the poor and impoverished are the dominant subjects and pictorial scenes in an exhibition of the photography of Ze’ev Aleksandrowicz, now on display at the Haifa City Museum.
Aleksandrowicz, a Polish Jew and man of leisure, traveled and photographed British Mandate Palestine between 1932 and 1935, eventually marrying and settling in the land. Despite considering himself an amateur photographer his photographs were occasionally published in Jewish newspapers in America and Poland and he was awarded a special prize for his work at an exhibition at the Diasporo Museum in 1984.
Aleksandrowicz’s affluence enabled him to travel widely. He took thousands of photographs as he did so, but is best known for his shots of Palestine and Japan.
Many of the photographs he took went unseen in his lifetime and it was the chance discovery in 2003, 11 years after his death, of an old suitcase containing over 15,000 negatives that led to more of his work being made available to the public.
Inbar Dror-Lax, the museum’s senior curator and responsible for mounting the present exhibition, chose to focus the exhibit on the older cities Aleksandrowicz most visited – Jerusalem, Haifa, Jaffa, Jericho and Tiberius.
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post, Dror-Lax said that initially she had reservations about presenting the exhibition.
“I was interested in the collection. The Aleksandrowicz archive is large, but I wondered about the relevance of the work from a modern perspective.
Aleksandrowicz was a Zionist, yet his work reflects an interest in the Palestinian other. He did not confine himself to simply photographing Jews. People of all persuasions were equally important to him in his portrayal of life in Palestine,” she said.
Aleksandrowicz did not fit the mold of the typical Jewish photographer then working in the country, the majority of whom worked for the Jewish National Fund or Jewish Agency providing idyllic photographs of the holy land and the progress of the Zionist project.
Dror-Lax likens Aleksandrowicz’s role as an independent photographer to that of a flâneur, roaming throughout the land while taking random shots of its inhabitants and landscapes when and where he wished.
The comparison is well observed and more than borne out when contemplating the many urban and rural settings in the photographs. Judging by the numerous small-town scenes and landscapes, Aleksandrowicz was much inclined to stray off the beaten track and explore unfamiliar and isolated locales throughout the land.
The early 20th century was a period in which the country was coming to terms with the end of the Ottoman empire’s influence, the rule of British government and the beginning of the influx of Jewish immigrants from Europe. Aleksandrowicz’s photographs reflect some of the cultural richness and transitions then taking place in Eretz Yisrael, including, said Dror-Lax, “the development of commerce, construction and road networks.”
The grouping of the photographs under headings such as “work and labor,” “market life,” “the passerby” and “paupers and beggars” lend the exhibition a documentary aspect and reveal Aleksandrowicz’s unromanticized and personal approach to capturing local life.
The street scenes, both in town and city, show the wide variety and mix of the country’s inhabitants, reflected in the array of traditional and modern dress and particularly noticeable in people’s choice of headwear.
Turbans, headwraps, the keffiyeh and the Turkish fez are much in evidence, while the kippa is almost nowhere to be seen since Jews were more likely to wear a peaked cap or alternate type of headcovering.
Most striking in the photographs is the sense of life and activity and the vigor and grittiness common to daily life in the Levant.
Scenes from Jaffa Port show porters hauling wooden crates on their shoulders and the loading and unloading of cargo from ships in dock; men and women going to and from market balance caskets and cases on their heads; donkeys were still used as a means of transport and it was not unusual for workers and people to go barefoot.
Palestine, its towns, cities and villages, is seen as an undeveloped and rugged country. Aleksandrowicz captured some of its teeming vibrancy, but was just as liable to focus on a small, intimate scene of Bedouin making coffee or a lone cobbler working on a pair of shoes.
“People were most important to him,” said Dror-Lax.
“He had a genuine sense of adventure and an informal approach to photography. As a Westerner he likely found his subjects exotic,” she explained.
The exhibition displays some 200 photographs, and Dror-Lax pointed out that “the process of selection was extremely difficult and did not aspire to encompass all aspects of Aleksandrowicz’s ouevre.” Despite that, the exhibit offers a somewhat panoramic view of Palestine and a look back at a time very different to our own.
The exhibit runs through till February 2015. For more info visit www.hcm.org.il.