Images of Jerusalem past

An exhibition at the Tower of David Museum provides a fascinating glimpse into how Jerusalem’s photographers captured the city at the turn of the 20th century.

Chalil Rissas: Arab fighters on the walls of the Tower of David (photo credit: THE CENTRAL ZIONIST ARCHIVES JERUSALEM)
Chalil Rissas: Arab fighters on the walls of the Tower of David
IN 1859, a young boy named Garabed Krikorian traveled from his native Turkey to study for the priesthood in the Armenian theological college in Jerusalem. While there, he fell in love with a nurse working in the local Talitha Kumi orphanage.
Forced to leave the seminary, he set himself up as a photographer – a skill he had learned from Jerusalem’s photography workshop founded by Yessayi Garabedian, who was also the patriarch of the Armenian church. In 1885, Krikorian opened the first commercial photography studio on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road.
The Armenian Church’s loss was the local photographers’ gain. Not only did Krikorian record major events, such as the visit of the German kaiser in 1898 (he added to his publicity the fact that he was the “Photographer of the Prussian Royal Court”), but he also taught many of the city’s major photographers-to-be.
One of these students, Lebanese-born Khalil Ra’ad, opened a studio opposite that of his teacher, thus setting off an intense rivalry that only subsided when Krikorian’s son married Ra’ad’s niece, who gained the sobriquet “Bride of Peace” as a result.
From his studio, Ra’ad photographed members of the city’s three major religious communities with equal ease.
These are just two of the many stories that emerge from “The Camera Man: Women and Men Photograph Jerusalem 1900-1950,” an exhibition at the Tower of David Museum of Jerusalem History, which traces how the city’s photographers captured the image of the city in all its various tones and facets.
Concentrating on the half century from 1900 to 1950, the curator of the exhibition, Dr. Shimon Lev, explains his motivation for this particular period: “I decided to skip the earliest period, which tended to display Jerusalem as a picturesque, ‘Oriental’ site.
“Most of the 300 photographers who were active then were from abroad. I wanted to focus on local photographers who were familiar with the local scene and ordinary people.”
Another consideration was the historic changes that were taking place at this time.
The period saw the shift from the end of the Ottoman Empire through the First War World and the emergence of the British Mandate, the growth of the Zionist Movement, the Arab Revolt, and the establishment of the State of Israel. All this had a profound affect on the people living in the area, and on the photographers recording the events of the time.
The exhibition manages to balance the public and private aspects of the city during this tumultuous period.
A number of the photographs show significant events, such as the battles that raged between the various sides in the dispute over who ultimately owned Jerusalem. A good number of the photographs show the new buildings in a city undergoing a renaissance, while many others are portraits of individuals, some famous, but the majority of whom are not.
There is a group photograph of the members of the American Colony Hotel from 1920 ‒ the hotel happens to have had the largest collective of photographers working for them, and organized the first major archive for the work they carried out. This picture, like many of the early photographs, is posed.
Indeed, one of the issues of the time was how to take a photograph without the subjects moving. In the first shot, the face of one of the participants in the picnic is blurred. She obviously moved! By contrast, a picture taken in 1949 shows soldiers throwing snowballs at each other. It seems far more spontaneous and less “frozen” than the posed picnic photograph, despite the obvious cold environment of the shot. What is particularly arresting about the playful snowball fight is that the main character in the center of the picture is none other than former defense minister Moshe Dayan, before he lost his eye to a Vichy French bullet while on a mission with British forces in Syria.
JERUSALEM HAD been the focus of attention by photographers since the art was invented in the first half of the 19th century. The reasons are in some ways obvious: Its history touches the main monotheistic religions in the world, and it lives in the collective consciousness of millions, if not billions, of people, most of whom have never visited the City of God. So the introduction of photography was the perfect tool to show the city around the world.
Initially, the main subjects tended to be the holy and historic sites – the Temple Mount, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Dome of the Rock and the Aksa Mosque. Even when the local inhabitants were photographed, they tended to be portrayed as romantic Orientals, complete with ancient “Biblical” garb. Gradually, however, this gave way to a more realistic portrayal of the city and the emergence of local photographers.
One of the early local photographers of note was Elia Kahvedjian, by birth an Armenian Christian who was secreted out of his native land to avoid the massacre of his people by the Turks. Sold as a slave, the young boy soon found himself in the American-aided orphanage in Nazareth, where he became apprenticed to a teacher of photography.
In 1935, he opened the first photography shop in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. The shop, Elia Photo Service, served both Jews and Arabs, and still does so; his grandson offers his grandfather’s photographs alongside all the other services of the shop.
This transmission of the profession from founder to son and grandson was not untypical.
Tsaddok Bassan was one of the earliest Jerusalem-born Jews to take up photography.
The scion of a well-known Jerusalem family, followers of the Vilna Gaon, Bassan specialized in taking photographs of rabbis, yeshivot, soup kitchens and orphanages ‒ the type of subjects not favored by the more establishment Jewish photographers who were more interested in the burgeoning Zionist presence.
“Although Bassan is rightfully known for his work, I believe he deserves an exhibition of his own,” says Lev.
“Many of his contemporaries concentrated their efforts in Tel Aviv – the first Jewish, Zionist city – and the agriculture settlements. They looked on Jerusalem as a symbol of the Old Yishuv. Bassan was taking photographs of what today would be called the haredi community. His photographs are characterized by the meticulous way he posed his subjects and the use of natural light, which infused his classical compositions.”
IN THIS early period, Arabs and Jews frequented each other’s studios, especially when having portraits made. Similarly, some Jews became official photographers during the Mandate period. Zvi Orishkes (Oron) was so attached to the British that he was denied employment by the Jewish press and institutions. Nevertheless, he captured the Mandate period with a series of unique works.
The period is also significant because of the development of photographic techniques, from glass plates to silver prints to celluloid film. Each technique gave added freedom and flexibility to the photographers.
In the 1930s, for example, the German Jews came to Palestine with the “New Vision,” typified by clean lines and sometimes almost surrealistic compositions, such as those of Alfred Bernheim, whose work seems to have been influenced by the cinema. Another German refugee, Tim Gidal, introduced the Leica small camera to local photography. His work is characterized by its spontaneity and its hint at a story behind each picture.
The Arab community, according to Lev, were slower at realizing the potential of photography for purposes of propaganda. But after the Arab riots of 1936, they became more proficient in using the medium.
Ali Zaarour (1902-1972) was probably the first Muslim-Arab photographer to work in the city. He shot in a very journalistic style, which includes the Arab view of the 1948 war. He was King Abdallah of Jordan’s personal photographer, even recording the king’s assassination.
Similarly, Chalil Rissas, the Christian- Arab son of another photographer, also recorded the wars from an Arab point of view. He would resort to posed photographs when the need arose, as in his shot of Arab fighters on the walls of the Old City in 1948.
There are also a number of independent women photographers. Among these are Aliza Holtz and Rivka Karp, both of whom specialized in portraits, and Lou Landauer, who also taught at the Bezalel School of Art but was unsuccessful in her attempt to set up a photography department there because of a lack of funds and equipment.
Like many of the other photographers in this exhibition, she was forced to throw away most of her glass plates, leaving us with only a few of her works.
These are just a few examples of the local photographers and their work in the exhibition that will last until the end of the year.
In addition to the official exhibition, the organizers added a screen at the entrance where people have sent in their own photographs, which are then displayed, complete with titles. Members of the public are invited to send in relevant material, since the screening is always being changed.
This is all part of the project to turn the Tower of David Museum into the Museum of Jerusalem. As the director and head curator of the museum, Eilat Lieber, explains: “We plan to expand the museum physically, which will enable us to increase the number of activities we can organize. Obviously next year we shall have programs celebrating 50 years since the unification of the city in 1967. We shall have more study days focusing on such topics as Herzl and Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion and Jerusalem, and so on.”
Leiber says she wanted to use the expanded space for more live concerts, as is already done with the annual Sacred Music Festival.
“The goal will be to show the meaning of the city today, and of connecting Jerusalemites to their own history. This is especially true of its recent past. We want to give a sense of the great variety of people living in the capital.”
The present exhibition brings the Museum of the History of Jerusalem (its official title) up to date by focusing on its recent past. In the rest of the massive building, one can view the long and rich history of the capital.
Some 300,000 people visit the museum in a good year (this last year, or at least since October, not being one of them), thus providing the museum with 80 percent of its budget.
“We had to have an archive to be recognized as a museum,” Lieber observes. “But now we have decided to run a series of exhibitions, based not only on our archive but also that of the army, of the Jerusalem Municipality, the Jewish Agency, and other archives in the city, as well as private citizens who donate collections to us.
“The next exhibition will focus on the Mandate period, and then one is planned on the period 1950 to 2000, and so on.”
It seems the “camera’s narrow aperture” (to use a phrase by the poet U.Z. Greenberg) is going to be working overtime in Jerusalem for some time to come.