New exhibit covers the images of 1990s Israeli rock

200 of Ronen Lalena's prints, taken between 1992 and 2016, are exhibited at Hangar 11 at the Port of Tel Aviv.

 THE WORK of Ronen Lalena: Dana Berger. (photo credit: RONEN LALENA)
THE WORK of Ronen Lalena: Dana Berger.
(photo credit: RONEN LALENA)

Something happened to Israeli rock sometime around the early 1990s. In a word, it grew up. 

I confess that when I made aliyah, in the late 70s, I was not overly enamored with the local pop and rock scene. That may have had something to do with my then-limited Hebrew vocabulary, or I just didn’t dig the music or the way the far more staccato Hebrew was sculpted into the rhythms.

Either way, for me and many sabras, rock here enjoyed a renaissance in the 1990s, as the likes of new wave, post-punk Sderot-based band Knessiyat Hasechel (Church of Reason), Eifo HaYeled fronted by vocalist Hemi Rudner, and Girafot added some collateral to the marriage of “Israeli” and “rock.”

All the above, and many of their contemporaries and successors, were deftly snapped by photographer Ronen Lalena, often as compelling images for album covers. 

Sadly, 55 year old Lalena contracted a rare eye disease a few years ago and is no longer able to work in the field. However, he will be afforded a well-deserved salute for his peerless oeuvre this Saturday evening when 200 of his prints, taken between 1992 and 2016, are exhibited at Hangar 11 at the Port of Tel Aviv. It is a worthy pictorial adjunct to a stellar roll-call of rock acts who benefited from his artistic talents and his gift for divining some unique eye-catching angles on his subjects.

 THE WORK of Ronen Lalena: The Girafot. (credit: RONEN LALENA) THE WORK of Ronen Lalena: The Girafot. (credit: RONEN LALENA)

The roster for the event, which goes by the name of Magber Or Kochavim (Amplifying Starlight), also features guitarist-vocalist Aviv Guedj, cofounder of now defunct rock group Algier, Evyatar Banai, Yermi Kaplan, Monica Sex, Corinne Allal and Efrat Gosh. All, except the latter 38 year old singer songwriter, were highly active members of the 1990s rock scene here.

The moniker for the program, Lalena explains, has both military and artistic connotations. “When I was in the army we used something called a magber or kochavim (starlight amplifier), which enables you to see things at night. I took that and ran with it. I think that’s my job [as a rock photographer]. They (musicians) are the stars and I just add to the illumination.” Neat.

Lalena’s body of work includes numerous album cover pictures and, over the years, he gained a reputation among rockers of the day as the snapper to turn to in that area of the music marketing business. He says he has always instinctively appreciated the ability of a well-crafted image to help convey a musician’s appeal to the consumer populace. 

“As a kid, I felt how music bewitched me and, as I had a very limited record shopping budget, I had to choose my purchases based on the album covers. I had a very deep connection with covers. I tried to decipher the sounds [on the record] based on the covers.”

That, in a nutshell, is the essence of Lalena’s line of artistic thought that guided him through the umpteen projects he undertook with key members of the music industry.

He also had an umbilical cord relationship with music from the word go. When I asked him about his earliest musical experience I was astounded by his recollection. “My older brother placed a record – Led Zeppelin 2 – on the turntable. I was 5 and, in fact, I left my own body. I had an out-of-body experience (OBE). I looked down on the scene from above.” That must have been a helluva trip. “It was a wonder that I couldn’t talk about it to anyone for at least 20 years.”

The epiphanous memory release moment was sparked by a repeat performance, of sorts. “I went to meet [singer songwriter] Amir Lev – he’s also playing on my tribute evening. I met him at a rehearsal room. They were playing, and then they took a break and we sat around for a while. I know a couple of chords on guitar and I asked the musicians if it was OK to play something while they were on a break. The guitar was hooked up, sound effects. It was great. And the producer came back, and the drummer and I suddenly, again, left my body and I saw the whole situation from above.”

That logistical viewpoint was later corroborated by an unsettling discovery. “I looked down on myself and I saw I was starting to go bald,” he laughs. “I saw a little circle of my skull. I had now idea about that. When I went home I took a couple of mirrors and checked out the top of my head and I saw that I really was losing my hair.”

There were more OBE junctures. “I later bought a piano and I’d play and play, and I sometimes had the same experience. I was in a sort of trance. I was outside physical life. I was in the realms of the spirit.”

The music-photography connection really took off for Lalena in the late 1980s when he relocated to New York, and hooked up with Japanese-born artist Mike Nogami, who had made a name for himself as a music photographer in Tokyo in the late sixties. It was a confluence that was a life changer for Lalena and, it could be argued, was to be a game changer for the 1990s Israeli rock community. “They talk about painters addressing a blank canvas. Mike showed me that the photographer starts out with a blank piece of [photographic] paper. He taught me that everything that is put onto that white paper has to have context. There has to be some movement. Otherwise it has no place there.”

That, Lalena posits, was an extension of Nogami’s natural philosophical habitat. “The nucleus of Japanese minimalism is that everything has to have a reason for existing, for there to be a reason for placing it on the paper. I really took that on board – trying to say a lot with a little. A single nuance can change how you feel or think about a picture.”

That valuable lesson in visual perception, and the representation of ideas and underlying content, informed the way Lalena approached his album cover work after returning to Israel. 

“For the cover of Amir Lev’s debut album I photographed him as a silhouette with a guitar, but I deconstructed one key element. I wanted to generate a problem, like a missing tooth, or a mistake. Only discerning people will note that.”

That stroke of equilibrium dissonance and genius has resonated far beyond the record’s initial timeline. 

“Someone talked about that recently,” says Lalena. “When you play around with nuances, someone will observe that, and then you’ll know you’ve had your say.”

Judging by his expansive portfolio, spread across Magber Or Kochavim layout, Lalena has certainly left his imprint on the Israeli rock scene. The lineup for the evening’s entertainment is also a mark of how much the rockers value his work too.

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