Reuven Milon exhibit shows a Jerusalem spanning 7 decades

Now a hale and hearty nonagenarian, he has been snapping away around his hometown for over seven decades, documenting some of the street level life this ancient city has accommodated and endured.

THE INNOCENCE of yesteryear Jerusalem comes through in Betar Jerusalem fans enjoying a free view of their team’s games at the old YMCA ground. (photo credit: REUVEN MILON)
THE INNOCENCE of yesteryear Jerusalem comes through in Betar Jerusalem fans enjoying a free view of their team’s games at the old YMCA ground.
(photo credit: REUVEN MILON)
Reuven Milon likes to keep apace with technological developments. His Beit Hakerem apartment is strewn with all sorts of gadgets and paraphernalia which enable him to capture the moment, the angle and the frame he desires.
But when he started out on his photographic road it was a very different world, in all senses. There was no Internet, no home computers and no one had even dreamed of non-film – aka digital – cameras. And the Brits stilled ruled the roost here, or at least tried to keep things in order in a manner that suited the geopolitical interests of the British Empire.
Milon was born in Jerusalem in 1928. Now a hale and hearty nonagenarian, he has been snapping away around his hometown for over seven decades, documenting some of the street level life this ancient city has accommodated, and endured, over the years.  Some of his work is currently on display, largely from the early 1950 through to the late 1970s, for the viewing enjoyment of Jerusalemites and visitors, at the International Convention Center.
“I started taking pictures in 1949,” he recalls. A quick calculation reveals that he was already 21 by the time he began snapping. So, there was no childhood fascination with photography? “Maybe there was,” he laughs. “There’s a picture me, as a young boy, holding a camera, but I don’t really remember it.”
Milon was never one of the A-lister photographer gang, the likes of now 90-year-old Israel Prize laureate Micha Bar-Am, who became known the country’s war photographer, or Rudi Weisenstein who died in 1992 at the age of 82 and chronicled numerous landmark events in the country’s evolving history, including in pre-state Palestine.
But, judging by the layout of the ICC exhibit, curated by Eran Litvin, Milon knew his way around Jerusalem. You also get a sense of a photographer prowling his home patch. He clearly knows the streets, backstreets and neighborhoods of the city, and offers some intimate angles on everyday life here across the decades.
Despite the multitude of files, boxes and apparatus clumped around his home, Milon is meticulously organized.
“Here, look,” he says, proffering a booklet. “I have all these journals in which I logged photos I took. Here’s one from 1949-1950. Here’s something from April 24, 1950. It says: ‘a trip to Tzefat, The Hula Valley. I took a picture of Shaul sliding.’ Shaul was a friend of mine, who is no longer alive, who studied with me at Bezalel. I recorded everything.”
That passion for documentation, pictorially, still burns strong. Way past retirement age, Milon is excited by all sorts of photographic projects he has in the pipeline. He shows me a diminutive 3D camera, which, he says, takes amazing pictures from great distances.
“It has a 100 x zoom. I can be in Ramat Rahel and take pictures of the Yad Sarah building [near Shaarei Zedek Hospital). I can take pictures of Ramat Rahel from Yad Sarah too,” he laughs.
Milon and his various cameras have borne witness to so much, so many changes, that have swept through this ancient city. He has a keen eye for the prosaic, for the minutiae of everyday life which most of us don’t consciously note. The show at the ICC includes a charming snap of a milkman – a chap called Zinger –lugging crates of bottles from his hand operated cart, cigarette at a jaunty angle. The print exudes a sense of the moment, of early morning on a still deserted sleepy downtown Jerusalem thoroughfare, the dawn mist gradually dissipating up the hill.
There are candid camera shots in the ICC layout, and Milon clearly sees the quizzical, comic side of everyday life. ‘Children Beneath Laundry, January 26 1953’ is a delightful picture that conveys a homey, almost rustic, feel of a residential backstreet, sheets, shirts, towels and underwear slowly drying in the wintry sun. Milon says he caught an interesting juxtaposition. “Look! There are three children, and look here,” he smiles pointing at the triad of outsized underpants at the top end of the frame.
Milon’s archive of around 64,000 negatives has been scanned for posterity by Harvard Library. The collection takes in all kinds of angles, walks of life, themes and ambiences. His Jerusalem work chronicles the everyday doings of ordinary Jerusalemites and offers a glimpse of life here 60 or 70 years ago, when traffic was sparse and things moved at a gentler pace. There seemed to be more time in the pre-high tech age when, for example, you could take your pen to an “Expert Fountain Pen Repairer,” as the unimposing small sign hanging over a streetside stall on Jaffa Road attests. Milon’s shot of the aforesaid “action” shows the customer waiting patiently on the sidewalk as his writing instrument is duly attended to.  He has no cell phone to distract him, no pressing appointment to make.
And it’s not just the people who lived and work here who caught Milon’s eye and camera lens. He also has an interest in architecture, and there are several snaps of Jerusalem buildings in the lineup. A nocturnal picture of Jaffa Road, the slow exposure giving the streetlamp light a softly sacred aura, while a picture of ‘The Windows Building’ betrays Milon’s penchant for texture and composition, and the non-human side of the city.
MILON IS a self-taught photographer. Although he did attend Bezalel School of Art, he studied jewelry and decorative metalwork.  He didn’t quite manage to complete his degree the first time round as the War of Independence broke out and, as a member of the Haganah, he quickly found himself in the thick of things. He was taken captive by the Jordanians, as was his brother who served in the same company, en route to Gush Etzion, and only returned to the new state of Israel nine months later.
“There was almost no means of communication, so our parents didn’t know where we were, or if we were dead or alive,” he recalls. “Their hair turned white.”
Thankfully, both siblings eventually returned home in one physical piece, and Milon was able to finish his degree.
He began working in metalwork until, one sunny day in downtown Jerusalem, he bumped into an old army buddy called Emmanuel Rabinovitch. The erstwhile brothers in arms caught up on what they’d been doing, and what they were up to. Rabinovitch told Milon he was setting up the Hydraulics Service of the Ministry of Agriculture, and that involved establishing a water meter manufacturing unit.
“He knew that I’d studied at Bezalel and was good with my hands, so he asked me to come to work with him,” Milon recalls.
One thing duly led to another. Rabinovitch was not only a hydraulics wiz he was also a dab hand at camera repair, and photography in general. The two spent much of their working time traveling up and down the country – “from the Dan to Eilat”, as Milon puts it – taking water measurements. Rabinovitch took pictures, for work purposes, at the various locations and also of interesting stuff along the way.
“He showed me how to use the camera, I remember it was an Exatka [German brand], and I started taking pictures myself – anything and everything,” Milon laughs. “I asked Emmanuel to buy me a camera. I wanted a 6 x6 large format camera.”
Rabinovitch had connections, and the desired appliance was acquired from a journalist called Fred Chesnik.
“It was a Ciroflex camera. It was the American equivalent of the [high end German] Rolleiflex. I still have that camera. I actually sold it to someone, but I bought it back,” he chuckles.
By now Milon was well into things, although he still didn’t how to develop. “I’d drop my films off at Photo Freund [on King George Street], and I’d ask for contacts too.”
Circumstances eventually got him to become more independent.
“One day I took a picture of an old Moroccan woman. She was an olah hadashah and she had a wrinkled face. I asked the photography shop to enlarge the pictures. When I got it back I saw the picture wasn’t sharp. I thought I have to learn to develop and print myself.”
He got a few tips about the whole process from Rabinovitch, bought the requisite equipment and set up a dark room in his parents’ bathroom.
“That was it for me. I wasn’t yet really a good photographer but at least I had control over how my pictures came out.”
He started prowling the highways and alleyways Jerusalem with his trusty Ciroflex from the word and, true to his inquisitive bent, learned on the job.
“I took pictures on the street, of real everyday life,” he says, adding that he adopted a laissez faire approach from the outset. “Anything is photographable. It only depends on how you frame it, what sort of composition you create. That’s the import thing.”
He gradually honed his craft and, in 1967, he began earning a crust as a photographer for the Israel Museum.
It is safe to say that Milon captured a Jerusalem few us under the age of 80 knew existed. The current exhibition, which also spawned a book Milon called Hakol Tzilumim – Everything is Photographs, is a modest tribute to Milon’s ongoing chronicling of his hometown. The show is not exactly front and center, stashed away in the nether regions of the ICC. But at least it’s something.
One looks forward to seeing a more voluminous showing of his monochromic gems on a more central stage sometime.
The exhibition can be viewed Sun.-Thu. 9 a.m.-4 p.m., and on Fridays 9 a.m.-12 noon. Visits have to be prearranged by calling (02) 655-8508.