Passing down a visual legacy

Ben Peter moves his grandparents’ famous PhotoHouse back home

Photos from the Photohouse (photo credit: Courtesy)
Photos from the Photohouse
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It was the most significant photograph that one of Israel’s most famous photographers didn’t take. On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion officially read out the Declaration of Independence in the Tel Aviv Museum (today called Independence Hall). The event was kept a secret until the last moment.
Rudi Weissenstein, by then already well known for his photos of the Yishuv since the late 1930s, was designated the official photographer of the event and the only still photographer allowed to enter the hall. Weissenstein managed to take what would become iconic photographs of the ceremony, which ended in the playing of Israel’s new anthem, Hatikvah. As the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra began playing, Weissenstein – overcome by emotion – put down his camera, cried and sang along with the rest of the crowd. Thus there’s no photograph of the crowd singing Hatikvah.
Czech-born Weissenstein, who died in 1992, captured the birth and growth of the Jewish state, documenting everyday life of the founding years.  All the leading politicians and celebrities had their photos taken by Weissenstein, together with tens of thousands of ordinary citizens of the new state. Before he died, Weissenstein had produced more than a million images, creating probably the largest private collection of photos of early Israel.
Weissenstein and his wife, Miriam, first opened their photography shop in 1936 on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv, named HaTzalmania (PhotoHouse) in Hebrew. Since there were several other shops with the same name, he came up with the name Pri-Or which means “fruit of the light.” (In the 1950s, the now famous Israeli citrus company named its company Pri-Or. Weissenstein complained, apparently to no avail.) After the establishment of the state, Weissenstein continued to photograph events that were part of Israel’s unique atmosphere: May Day demonstrations, the immigrant transit camps, the government’s food rationing policy, the steel workers’ strike, Knesset elections, demonstrations, the inauguration of the train station in Tel Aviv, the opening of the first supermarket, Philharmonic Orchestra concerts and even early fashion shows.
Following his death in 1992, his widow, Miriam Weissenstein, took over the running of the storied shop which sold prints of Rudi’s works and customers’ photos, catering to tourists and history buffs looking for Israeli nostalgia.
Miriam died in 2011 at the age of 98, just after the store had been evicted by the city while their historic Bauhaus building was being replaced with a luxury housing complex. The shop moved to what was meant to be a temporary location (on Tchernichovsky Street), but that was more than 10 years ago.
Restoring and maintaining Rudi’s life’s work is the Weissensteins’ grandson Ben Peter, 43, who is now supervising the costly relocation back to the original 1936 site. Even in its “temporary” location, one experiences an alternate reality when entering the shop, with the iconic historic photos covering the walls; banks of pull-out wooden card catalogues hold negatives.
The new building is nearing completion, but like many small businesses in the country, PhotoHouse since March lost all its income due to the coronavirus, leaving it without funds to renovate and reopen. In August, Peter succeeded in raising NIS 300,000 (about $88,000) through an energetic crowdfunding campaign so he can complete the necessary renovations. He plans to reopen in the near future.
“After all these years the PhotoHouse is coming back home,” says Peter. “My grandparents, who devoted their entire lives to photography, won’t get to see this historic moment, but I believe it’s my responsibility to carry on this nostalgic and visual experience. We’ll open a studio that will be a gallery, a lecture hall, as well as shooting photos and promoting young artists, though it will be very intimate.” Although there are seven Weissenstein grandchildren, Ben Peter was the only one who became intimately involved with The PhotoHouse, A multi-award winning 2011 documentary film, Life in Stills, depicts the moving relationship between the then 96-year-old domineering, sharp-tongued Miriam and her sweet-tempered, energetic young grandson. Together they managed the struggle to keep the studio and Rudi’s legacy alive when it was threatened with demolition. Little by little the film shows how, despite Miriam’s sometimes cranky resistance, Peter manages to infuse new life into the photo shop and adapt it to the changing world.
Midway through the film the family tragedy that ultimately brought Ben Peter and his grandmother so closely together is revealed. In 2003, Ben’s father, Ami Peter, murdered his wife, Michal, Weissenstein’s beloved daughter and Ben’s mother, and then committed suicide.
“My mother was very connected to my grandmother and the business, especially after my grandfather died,” Peter tells The Jerusalem Report. “She helped her create an exhibition for Tel Aviv’s 100th birthday, publish a book, write letters, at a time when it was assumed that no one from the family would be interested in continuing. When my mother died I was 26 I found myself visiting my grandmother in the shop, and then taking an interest in what she was doing. So I think my passage to this work was through the connection I had with my grandmother and the connection we both had with my mom,” he adds.
A scene in the documentary shows Miriam’s apartment following a burglary during which the entire apartment had been turned upside down. Ben, Miriam and her caretaker are frantically searching for the negatives of the photos of the Declaration of Independence. The viewer immediately wonders how on earth such valuable, rare negatives were being kept in someone’s apartment. (The negatives were eventually found and are now stored in a safe.) Some of the funds raised in the recent campaign will now go to the long and expensive process of digitalizing the one million negatives of the historic collection, most of which have not yet been scanned. “Obviously negatives have to be stored in proper conditions, because they deteriorate,” explains Peter. “If we had endless amount of money we would put them in climate controlled rooms of course, but that’s still a dream.” Rudi Weissenstein’s name is perhaps less known outside of Israel than that of the late photojournalist David Rubinger, who worked for Time magazine and The Jerusalem Post. It was Rubinger who discovered and saved from decay the photos of Israel’s unknown photojournalist Paul Goodman, who also documented the early days of the state. Rubinger donated many of his photographs to Israel’s National Photo Collection and the Goodman archive is largely stored at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv.
Ben Peter says he understands why there are some reservations about the historically important Weissenstein photo collection being held and maintained in private hands. Over the years there have been offers to purchase the collection, and even a request by Tel Aviv University that the archive be donated.
Before his grandmother’s death Peter promised her he would take care of the collection and dedicate his life to it; the weight of all this history has fallen on his shoulders.
“I think it’s important that the PhotoHouse exists even though it’s private, that something on a national level be held properly and protected by the family of the person who created them. I have an emotional connection not only because of the historical importance,” Peter says. “It’s more than that. In the future we will be more like a gallery, a live place, intimate and unofficial, very accessible, with the postcards and prints and books, so that people will know the stories and enjoy them. If we get a young crowd here that will be a success for me.” There’s a quotation (in German) from Goethe’s Faust engraved on Rudi Weissenstein’s gravestone, which was cited in retrospective exhibitions around the world: “You fortunate eyes, all you’ve seen there, let it be as it may, yet it was so fair.”
“My grandfather was fond of quoting this,” explains Peter. “He was speaking to the next generation about the things he loved and believed in. It was referring to his profession, the beauty he saw and his passion as a photographer.”
It is a passion that Peter shares as he does all he can to preserve and promote his grandparents’ photographic legacy. 
The documentary film Life in Stills is still available with English subtitles on Prime Video and the PhotoHouse website,