Gray matters: In new exhibit, an Israeli photography confronts memory

A review of Simcha Shirman's "Island of Flies 13 x 18" at the Ashdod Art Museum.

SIMCHA SHIRMAN, whose work is currently on display in the ‘Island of Flies 13 x 18’ exhibition, is considered one of Israel’s most influential photographers (photo credit: SIMCHA SHIRMAN)
SIMCHA SHIRMAN, whose work is currently on display in the ‘Island of Flies 13 x 18’ exhibition, is considered one of Israel’s most influential photographers
(photo credit: SIMCHA SHIRMAN)
Memory can be a fickle faculty. Often we recall events in a certain way, a subjective way, but were we to lay our hands on a time machine and whiz back to when the events actually took place, we might find we had taken liberties with reality.
Then again there is documentation, such as photographs, which can capture things just as they were. Yes, the photographer can be selective in perspective, and choose to shoot something in a way that presents a limited, and possibly misleading representation of the actual story, but that does not appear to be a basic factor in Simcha Shirman’s latest offering.
In the “Island of Flies 13 x 18” exhibition, currently in progress at the Ashdod Art Museum, veteran shutter snapper Shirman takes us back a few years, and shares with us a bunch of important, formative or plain old aesthetic slots in his personal timeline.
The title of the exhibition (deftly curated by Yael Katz Ben-Shalom) refers to Shirman’s childhood haunt, which lies just off the coast of Acre, his hometown from infancy.
The numerical second part of the moniker references the dimensions, in centimeters, of the white cardboard backdrop of the 9 cm x 13 cm prints of which there are an abundance dotted across the show, which takes up three full floors of the museum.
Shirman is one of the doyens of the local photography community. A keen swimmer, at 70 years old Shirman cuts a trim and sprightly figure and is clearly still enthused with his art, and constantly on the lookout for new frontiers. That also applies to the venue of his latest showing.
“This is a wonderful museum, with great, dedicated staff,” he enthuses. “And it’s a thrill to exhibit my work in the periphery.”
That was clearly not meant in a disparaging, backhanded-compliment way.
“I have exhibited in all the major galleries in Israel, and all over the world, and I am very happy to be in Ashdod now.”
A revered educator of many years’ standing, Shirman is considered one of the most influential photographers in the country.
His oeuvre meditates on such cardinal concepts as time, life experience, place and identity. Born in a German monastery to Holocaust survivor parents, he came to the newly born State of Israel at the age of 18 months. His family settled in Acre and he spent many a happy hour by the sea.
“Acre is the place where my personality took shape,” says Shirman.
That also involved an odd rite of passage, some of which took place at the titular location.
“We used to swim out to the Island of Flies, and we underwent all sorts of tests of our bravery,” he recalls. 
Shirman and his pals would spend hours out on the diminutive outcrop, with its remains of Crusader era fortifications, having a wild time with all manner of daring stunts, which included diving into rock-strewn stretches of water. They also answered calls of nature on the island.
“Hence the name,” Shirman notes with a chuckle. “The flies were attracted by our deposits.”
In truth, Shirman’s artistic hinterland covers expansive tracts of the craft which, in turn, feeds off all kinds of states of the human experience.
“If you look at the corpus of my work you see I look at life, but also at death, concentration camps and nature. There is this constant reference to the cycles of life. And there is the spirit and physicality.”
Shirman also tends to revisit places he has photographed before. By its very nature, that repetitive time-lapse process entails approaching the subject matter from contrasting standpoints, possibly from different stages of life, and the visual end result varies accordingly. But he doesn’t always roam far.
“I took pictures of this field next to my home in Acre for 40 years,” he notes.
Shirman tells his story, and courageously offers us an intimate glimpse of his psyche and emotional heartbeat. But this is a fragmented narrative, a setup that resonates neatly with the physical format of the exhibition, which ebbs and flows between the vignettes across Shirman’s lifetime.
Some of the photographs appear to be a mite on the inconsequential side. What, for example, could be even remotely interesting about a vacant bus stop? Or an incongruous pairing of a roadside palm tree and garbage can? Cemeteries are also a recurring theme and there are even pictures of medical publications. But, somehow, it all seems to fit into some thematic continuum.
Shirman does his fair share of flitting between different junctures of his life, and there are intriguing antithetical juxtapositions.
Take, for example, the pairing of Casualties of a Cluster Bomb Shrapnel, taken while Shirman served as an officer during the First Lebanon War, and the simply titled Lebanon ’82, which exudes a definitive sense of tranquility.
That meandering storyline is largely a product of Katz Ben-Shalom’s take on his oeuvre.
“I opened up my archive to her, she dived into it and examined it, and I allowed her to investigate it.”
That resulted in quite a shakeup, and offered the artist a new perspective on his accumulated body of work. “She challenged the natural order of my things, and she devised the exhibition out of that overhaul.”
It must take some guts to allow someone to dive headlong into your painstakingly crafted creations, and give them free rein to extract what they want, and reshuffle the pack as they see fit. True to his contrary ethos, Shirman regards deconstruction as an avenue to reconstruction.
“This gave me the opportunity to return to my identity, as an artist and as a person,” he states. “And it also opened up new avenues of thought.”
The archival spirit is maintained in the exhibition, and there is a palpable two-way channel of communication between the display and the artist’s personal pictorial repository. Following Shirman’s evolving narrative is a riveting experience which provokes thought and elicits emotion in equal amounts. The artist is clearly a deep thinker, but also wears his heart on his sleeve. He has taught at the majority of the country’s leading arts educational institutions, and furthered his own skills with undergraduate studies at the School of Visual Arts in New York, followed by a master’s degree at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
He offers us the bare truth, but also treads the thin line between fantasy and reality, easily zigzagging between the two. It is not by chance that Shirman is noted for treatment of gray shades. In her generous catalogue introduction Katz Ben-Shalom notes that Shirman’s grays are known for their “polyphonic tonality and their ability to seep into the paper or float above it.”
That ephemeral quality is present through the exhibition. We can try to grasp Shirman’s underlying message, or even his personal and artistic credo, although a looser take on his work seems to be the better way to go.
“Island of Flies 13 x 18” closes on May 12.