Snapping Israel

Since 1940, the Tzalmania Pri Or on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv has been home to over a million photographs shot by the late Rudi Weissenstein.

rudi weissenstein independence 224 (photo credit: rudi weissenstein)
rudi weissenstein independence 224
(photo credit: rudi weissenstein)
W hile Rudi Weissenstein's work may not be of a patently heroic nature - although he certainly endured some interesting conditions in his time - it is fair to say that without his landmark photographs our national collective memory would be far poorer. The Czech-born, Vienna-trained Weissenstein arrived in Palestine in 1936 with two cameras, the equivalent of 10 pounds in cash and precious little else. The day after getting off the ship at Jaffa, he was out and about taking snapshots. Over the next five-plus decades Weissenstein captured some of the definitive moments of the incipient State of Israel, including the moment the country came into being and milestones of our recent past. Weissenstein died in 1992 but the photography store he opened in 1940 on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv, opposite the now demolished Mograbi Cinema, is still with us, although it is now under threat. Today the Tzalmania Pri Or is run by his grandson Ben and 95-year-old widow Miriam, but there are plans to knock down the entire block near the corner of Ben-Yehuda Street. "They have offered us somewhere in Ramat Gan," says Miriam, "but how you can move something like this? This is history here. This is its rightful place." It would not be hyperbolic to call the Tzalmania Pri Or a national institution. The store is home to over a million negatives, taken between 1936 and 1992, including a large number of old glass plate negatives, taken at locations all over the country from Kiryat Shmona to Eilat. Entering Tzalmania Pri Or, one is struck by an immediate sense of history. For a start, the store front has always sported several large monochrome portraits of some of our national leaders. On any given day, a visitor can see the impressive, and often imposing, countenances of the likes of Shimon Peres, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin or iconic former Tel Aviv Mayor Shlomo "Chich" Lahat. But it is the interior where the real treasures lie. Miriam pulls out album after album of her late husband's black and white photographs that chronicle long gone buildings, people, landscapes and everyday scenes, as well important ceremonies. Weissenstein's portfolio includes the official opening of the Tel Aviv Port in 1938, David Ben-Gurion declaring the creation of the State of Israel in the old Tel Aviv Museum, and the very first Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) concert in December 1936 with Arturo Toscanini on the podium. The latter occasion was a particular professional triumph for the recent arrival from Czechoslovakia and one which, naturally, Miriam is happy to relate. "Besides Rudi, there was a well-known photographer called Lazar Dunner who was at the inaugural concert to take pictures, too. In the middle of the concert Dunner took a picture of Toscanini with a flash, whereupon Toscanini threw down his baton and walked off the stage." What Weissenstein knew, and Dunner didn't, was that Toscanini had an eye complaint and couldn't stand having flash photographs taken of him. "Rudi didn't use a flash, even though that may have affected the quality of the pictures he took," Miriam continues. In any event, Toscanini was eventually coaxed back to the podium, Dunner was banned from taking pictures of the IPO for two years and Weissenstein was appointed the IPO's official photographer, a position he held for 40 years. "Rudi wasn't pushy and didn't have a paparazzi mentality at all," Miriam notes. "He was polite and well-educated, but he also got the photos he wanted." This often meant Miriam chauffeuring her husband around the country while he caught the angles and light conditions he craved. "We went around the Negev, up North, you name it. I did a lot of driving back then." Miriam's sidekick role began as soon as Weissenstein arrived in Palestine. "He was walking along a street in Tel Aviv with his sister when he saw me, and he told her: 'She's the one for me.'" In fact, the two were already acquainted. Weissenstein studied photography and the arts in Vienna at the same time I was there, studying dance. We moved in the same circles there. Those were wonderful days of opera and music and dances." After his Vienna stint, Weissenstein returned to his native Prague with the idea of furthering his photographic endeavors, but his father had other ideas. His family wanted him to run a hotel they were going to build for him in Switzerland. But he only wanted to be a photographer. He got a job with a local newspaper and was impressed with its photography archives. That sowed the seed for the Pri Or repository. "That's when Rudi decided he wanted to come to Palestine to take pictures here and build up his own archives," Miriam explains. "There was never any doubt in his mind that he was going to do that. The day after we met in Tel Aviv, we drove up to the Galilee, and started to establish the archives." While the immensity of Weissenstein's oeuvre is almost overwhelming, and indicates an uncompromisingly single-minded approach, the photographer also had a finely honed whimsical side to him. On May 14, 1948, he was the official photographer of the ceremony at which the State of Israel was officially proclaimed, and there were only a handful of other photographers allowed in to the event. Meanwhile, scores of unlucky fellow professionals crowded around outside the Tel Aviv Museum waiting for Ben-Gurion and the other members of the provisional new Israeli government to emerge after the ceremony. "Rudi took a picture of the other photographers outside," says Miriam with a smile. "He couldn't resist getting a snap of them." In fact, had it not been for Miriam's efforts most of us would be completely ignorant of Weissenstein's work. "He didn't want to publish any books with his photographs, and he didn't want to put on any exhibitions," Miriam recalls. "He said the book stores were full of photography books and no one was buying them, and no one was interested in photography exhibitions." That was probably the only area in which he got it wrong. A book, Rudi Weissenstein: Israel, Early Photographs, came out last year, and an English version is due to be published in the near future. Six years ago a highly successful exhibition of Weissenstein's Tel Aviv pictures was held at the Reading Power Station in north Tel Aviv. "After my husband died I had a dream of putting on an exhibition. Over 150,000 people came," says Miriam, "and we have had exhibitions in London and Germany, too." Miriam is rightfully proud of her husband's work but is concerned she might be forced to relocate. "[Tel Aviv Mayor Ron]" Huldai came to the exhibition at the Reading Power Station and gave me a kiss. And now he wants to kick me out! I don't like that idea at all. I'm sure Rudi would have wanted us to stay here, too. This is our home. Everybody knows the Tzalmania Pri Or."