NEIL FOLBERG: Photographer

A Jerusalem gallery owner has built an international reputation in his field of art.

Passing Shadow at Summer Solstice, 2017 (From the series, ‘Taking Measure’) (photo credit: COURTESY NEIL FOLBERG)
Passing Shadow at Summer Solstice, 2017 (From the series, ‘Taking Measure’)
THESE DAYS, it seems that anyone with a smartphone or a similar cellular device is capable of snapping a photograph. What is it, then, that sets apart a top-class professional photographer? There must be something that makes his or her work stand out from the sea of selfies.
Neil Folberg is one such professional.
When we met in his gallery in downtown Jerusalem, he had just opened his latest exhibit, “Taking Measure.” Like earlier works of his, the exhibit features a collection of magnificent photographs, which have also been published in a limited edition book.
This particular collection records his journey to Iceland, where he captured its unique landscape and unusual lighting, given its proximity to the North Pole. The images reflect the extreme care with which he handles his subjects. There are no accidents in his work; everything is carefully considered before he clicks a subject into being. Despite this meticulous preparation, the final works have an air of spontaneity.
What makes your photographs different from the ordinary man-in-the-street photographer?
“That was one of the issues addressed by the gallery owner in Palm Beach, Holden Luntz [where the other half of his exhibition is currently on display],” says Folberg. “He pointed out that six billion photographs are posted on Facebook and elsewhere every day. I don’t know if this is correct, but it is a massive number. An ordinary photograph flies past our senses and is forgotten. To prove his point, Luntz asked his audience what photograph they had seen in the past 24 hours that stuck with them? Someone answered a picture of their grandchildren, which is to say that nothing sticks with us unless it is very personal.
“What is special about any photograph is that it embodies something that is enriching and memorable, above and beyond our normal experience,” continues Folberg.
“This requires some effort for the photographer.
The more effort you make, the more imagination that you bring to a work of art, the more it’s going to stay with you. I think that’s what makes the images memorable.
They work on a level that is emotional, intellectual and visual. The images that stick with us are those that have some meaning on all these levels.
“The other part of the answer is that a photograph must have beauty,” he explains.
“You’ll find that every genuine work of art has a finish that suits the content. It is beyond what people normally experience in their daily lives. People often come into the gallery and say, ‘Are these photographs? They look like paintings!’ What they mean is that they are finished and impressive, like a painting in a museum.
“But it’s not enough to take photographs that are simply beautiful and attractive; they also have to have meaning and a presence that speaks to an audience over a period of time, so that in a year or a few years down the line, you might find something new and different in it. That’s something I experience with the photographs that I hang on my wall.”
FOLBERG'S OWN beginnings as a photographer were fortuitous. “I was about 14 or 15 when I joined a photography class near where we lived in Saint Louis, Missouri,” he recalls. “We had very good teachers and through them I became exposed to the work of the internationally renowned Ansel Adams. I wrote to him and asked if I could study with him. He had his workshop in the Yosemite National Park in one of the only private residences in the park – it was there before the park was formed. Through his photography work he defined the park.
So I asked to study with him.
“What I didn’t know at the time was that he had been a fairly precocious teenager and didn’t fit into any established framework.
When he received my letter, it registered with him. He decided that he would take me on and that’s how I ended up in his Yosemite workshop.
“I think he invented the photographic workshop. At 16, I was the youngest person there. I was with him and his family all the time. We became very close and I’ve continued being close to the family even today.
“I took his lessons very seriously. The students were a bunch of amateur photographers who wanted to improve their skills.
They were serious, but I was more serious because I had that fire that came from being young.”
Do you see photography as art?
“That’s a question that was sort of resolved in the latter half of the 19th century.
Today, it’s certainly recognized as art everywhere.
We recognize many things as art that use semi-mechanical processes, like print-making. So my answer is a definite yes.”
Susan Sontag, in a well-known essay on photography, makes a distinction between an immediate shot and one that is posed, “spontaneity versus an arranged picture.”
Do you find that there are things you want to photograph immediately?
“When I start out, I have an idea and a context,” he says. “I can ‘see’ the image in advance. I set out with a direction and then I explore it. I push it to the limit. I try to take it as far as I can go and experiment with it. There is always an element of surprise where you experiment and discover something new. But the experiments are controlled experiments. The direction is determined in advance. To give an example of the scientist: He may want to show proof of his theory, but he has to prove that it’s true or not. What he does has to be an honest experiment.
“So my photographs are honest experiments,” he explains. “I see what seems to work and what doesn’t – that can always surprise you. But you can only make those images if you’ve prepared yourself in advance.
To put it in more mystical terms: If someone has a revelation, it can either change their life or they simply don’t know what to do with it. It is a unique experience that they’ll remember, but it won’t have any effect on them. I try to work with an idea I have formed through to the end.”
Folberg’s education did not stop with Adams. In 1967, he enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley – but not in photography. “I was thinking of studying science; I was interested in scientific research,” recalls Folberg.
“When I was there, I changed my mind. I wanted to be an artist, a photographer. Fortunately at that time, a very important photographer, William Garnett, became head of the school of architecture and design. I went to talk to him and we worked out an unusual framework whereby I could pursue my studies with him and with Ansel within the framework of the university and receive a degree.
Sagittarius 2001 / Neil Folbers Sagittarius 2001 / Neil Folbers
“I started learning photography at age 16, and then studied at the university until I was about 22. I did some very serious work there – work that I am still proud of. When I finished, I knew that was what I wanted to do. I wasn’t distracted; I didn’t get dragged into commercial photography.
“At the time, there was no established market for art photographers – certainly not for unknown ones. I had to make a niche for myself. Any artist without fire is not going to last. It was a crazy time.
Everything was in turmoil. The era had a very optimistic spirit and there was a very creative atmosphere, especially in California. Everything was up for grabs.
But I couldn’t be distracted. I got a grant from the university to go off to Macedonia and Yugoslavia to take photographs with an academic side to it. I researched before I started to take any photos. That’s the way I’ve always worked. I research it thoroughly from the bottom up. Before I take photographs, I have knowledge of the subject that I’m working on. The academic background did me some good, though strictly speaking not applicable to art.”
“I’m interested in the environment, like Ansel and Garnett,” he says. “Garnett took the first photographs from the air. He did it from a small plane. He used to fly with his knees, and his arm would be outside the plane taking pictures! He was very grounded in the landscape. In 1979, I also photographed in the desert.”
Although landscape is a subject he keeps returning to, Folberg has expanded his range of interests. “When I did landscapes, I would look for what was absolutely unique about a particular place. I asked what made it unlike any other place in the world. That influenced the work that I did for the Aperture Foundation, when they commissioned me to photograph historical synagogues all over the world. It was basically an architectural project, so why they asked someone who was primarily known as a landscape photographer I don’t know. But they thought I could do it,” he says.
“The project took four years. I had to use skills I had never used before. I had to learn how to deal with interior spaces and lighting, which I had never done before.
But I brought to it the same idea – what makes this place absolutely unique. To really know it, I had to study the history of each place,” he recalls.
“I had a lot of assistance from the Cen- ter of Jewish Art at the Hebrew University and Prof. Bezalel Narkiss and his associates.
I was careful to photograph in a way that reflected not only a personal approach but also one that was representative. I consulted with academics in order to make sure that I was doing things that had value.
Afterward, there was a traveling exhibition organized by Aperture. The book that came out of it won a Jewish Book Award.”
How did you set about this monumental task, which covered every place in which Jews had been?
“We quickly eliminated everything that was fairly modern,” explains Folberg.
“We felt we couldn’t deal with the abundance.
So we set a date at 1917, right around World War I. Within that framework, I set about my research and tried to isolate places and work within the budget, which was big but not huge. I had to pay for someone to do the lighting. I had travel expenses, living expenses and so on.
“I went only to places where I could get to three or four synagogues in one area.
For example, in the Caribbean where there are the oldest synagogues in North America, there were several synagogues within a fairly short distance of each other. A similar situation adhered in Eastern Europe. I would like to have gone to Australia and South America, but my budget had limitations.
Then there were places in the US, specifically ‘prairie synagogues,’ that today nobody knows about. They still exist, and from time to time they are used. We tried to get to these synagogues, especially in the American South, but I couldn’t cover every place. However, one result of my book was that it spun a whole series of other books detailing out-of-the-way synagogues, their history and customs, by people interested in their own region.”
It was not only synagogues that took him off the beaten path.
“I don’t really do portraits, but I was commissioned to do a series on the French Impressionists. I realized that I had to start doing portraits. I looked a lot at the paintings of Manet. I decided that he was the best teacher for portraiture,” says Folberg.
“The project was the brainchild of Lin Arison. She was interested in the interaction between this group of artists, how they pushed against each other but also supported each other. That’s the story of the text. She and her late husband, Ted, were always interested in supporting art education. She said that this was a group of artists that was an organic whole. I became absorbed in the love story between Berthe Morisot, also a painter, and Edward Manet. Morisot ended up marrying Manet’s brother, Eugene. Manet was already married but he was in love with her, which you can see by looking at the paintings he did of her.
“When I finished that project I decided that portraiture was not something to which I wanted to return.”
In his latest project, “Taking Measure,” Folberg “arranged” all the photographs, even though they are all landscapes. Unlike earlier works, these photographs include a human figure – in this case the photographer himself.
“The two most important projects for me are two bodies of work: ‘Celestial Nights’ and ‘Taking Measure,’ which is a continuation of the first,” says Folberg. “In both, I am dealing with the relationship to things that are beyond us. ‘Celestial Nights’ is concerned with the horizon between the earth and the heavens and ‘Taking Measure’ is a continuation of that. It looks at the measure of where we are, what we are experiencing and what we can imagine. Its subject is the limits of experience and the beginning of imagination. These are the most personal projects for me.”
In addition to his own work, Folberg promotes other photographers.
“At this gallery, I represent a lot of different artists. This was my studio gallery, but often, most of the gallery is filled with other people’s work. I have an international reputation; my work is in major museums all over the world. I have galleries that represent me all over the world, and occasionally I’m invited to give a lecture in one of them. But other photographers are also important to me,” he says.
“By now, we have a customer base from all over the world. Some come frequently to Israel, some of them have never been.
They come from the US, Iceland, Germany, and, of course, from Israel.
“When I started out, there were maybe three galleries for photographs in the US – and they certainly weren’t interested in someone just starting out like me. But now, there are thousands of them. I’m a member of an international photography group of about 150 members. I am the only commercial photography gallery in Israel.… The market for photography has become an art investment area.”