Farag Photo, then and now

Sami Farag was the first photographer in Israel to woo celebrities, touch up pictures for matchmakers and succeed in developing film overnight.

Sami Farag shows prime minister Yitzhak Rabin a portrait of Israeli and American soldiers. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Sami Farag shows prime minister Yitzhak Rabin a portrait of Israeli and American soldiers.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Sami Farag, the king of photography, welcomes me into his studio in Moshav Neveh Yarak near Kfar Saba. He’s 77 years old, but with his hair pulled back into a ponytail, he looks and behaves more like a child of seven.
His son, Sivan, initiated the visit to the Israeli version of Rome’s Cinecitta Studios, where the elder Farag spent time a few years ago during the filming of one of his movies. After a tour of the studio, Farag opens up with stories about how he has managed to survive the digital revolution and keep his business afloat; he even manages to smile when having his picture taken.
In a world where photo empires such as Kodak and Fuji are crashing and burning as they fail to adapt to this new technological world that changes every millisecond, the fact that Farag Photo has survived is nothing less than a miracle.
The story of the Farag brothers could be the backdrop for a Hollywood movie – following the script of a family with a dream, determined to succeed against all odds.
ORIGINALLY FROM Iraq, all 10 Farag brothers and sisters made a career in photography.
Two of them, Sami and Perry, began their career while they were still living in Baghdad, at a store owned by their uncle Nuri Habib. Later, Habib went on to write and direct B’Ein Moledet (in 1956) – the first Israeli film to be shot in color – starring Shoshana Damari and Shaike Ophir.
The brothers opened a stall across the street from the Great Synagogue of Baghdad and would take passport pictures of Jews in preparation for making aliya. In 1952, they too moved to Israel and found themselves living in the Amishav transit camp near Petah Tikva.
They didn’t waste any time, and started taking pictures of children as they ran in and out of the tents.
The Farag brothers opened their first photo shop in Petah Tikva in 1955. The competition was not overly excited by the new immigrants from Iraq, and began spreading rumors that the Farag brothers had opened their studio in order to attract young, pretty girls.
Nevertheless, the studio quickly gained a reputation for being the best in town.
The Farag brothers turned their display window into a form of news magazine that covered citywide events. It featured photographs from Saturday afternoon soccer games – these were days when Hapoel Petah Tikva were still considered the champions – as well as stills from celebrity weddings.
Their storefront was akin to a modern-day gossip column in the Petah Tikva weekly papers; the prints they hung served as a precursor to the movie theater. In those days, there was no TV in Israel, so people relied on Geva Studios and Farag Photo to keep up with local events.
Of course, they also took pictures of children at bar mitzvas and other festivities, and slowly this became Farag’s specialty. Many children looked through the lens of Farag’s camera – including future IDF bigwigs Gabi Ashkenazi, Eitan Ben-Eliyahu and Dan Halutz. Even future Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef had his picture taken by Farag, when he was appointed chief rabbi of an Israeli city early in his career.
“My specialty was taking pictures of children,” says Farag, beginning to reveal the secrets of his success. “In order for photographs of children to come out well, first you have to understand them.
For someone like me, who always thought and felt like a kid, this was easy. I took pictures of kids who went on to become major-generals in the IDF and even former chiefs of staff.”
In the early 1960s, Farag was sent to a training course in Leverkusen, Germany, where he learned the secrets of developing black and white, as well as color, photographs. “I used my connections to get there – I didn’t have a cent to my name,” Farag recalls. “Many of the other participants had come from the Gulf states and were mostly interested in having a good time. I, on the other hand, had come to learn and forge connections.
“After three months, I returned home to Israel with a tremendous amount of knowledge in the field of photography – and my first Agfa camera.”
The Farags’ competitors were not so happy with the rivalry, putting up a tough fight; the brothers had to continuously reinvent themselves time and again.
They became instantly popular when they began offering film developing within 24 hours, instead of the normal four to five days. Time felt different in those days, and was not measured in money as it is today; the waiting period for a phone line, for example, was years. To have a line installed within a week, one needed connections with someone like Moshe Dayan.
“Israelis have no patience,” Farag tells me.
“When we came up with the idea of providing service within 24 hours, which reduced the waiting time considerably, we realized we’d need staff on-hand to work around the clock in order to get everything done. We began implementing new techniques and luckily, we were successful. The competition went crazy.”
Farag says customers couldn’t understand how the photo shop was able to complete such a quick turnaround. At the moment the brothers first figured out how to cut down on wait time for film, they were able to change “overnight” to “a few hours” – which eventually reached “within an hour.”
From that moment on, the “Farag method” became a sort of catchphrase, describing something that could be accomplished extremely quickly.
Politicians used this term in Knesset debates, and the renowned comedy trio Hagashash Hahiver even used it in one of their skits and in their famous movie, Givat Halfon.
THE FARAG brothers’ fertile minds kept developing gimmick after gimmick.
They were the first in Israel to start taking pictures of celebrities. When they held an open house to celebrate the grand opening of their first photo studio on Tel Aviv’s Ben-Yehuda Street, “first lady of Israeli theater” Hanna Rovina was invited as the guest of honor.
In 1967, when the industry was still young, the Farag brothers would bring the subjects of their photo sessions to the studio in a fancy horsedrawn carriage, as if they were British royalty.
They were also the first to stray from the square photo album and begin producing round albums.
The brothers also became the first Jewish shop to experiment with retouching. “My sisters, Katrin and Rozi, were the first people to retouch photographs in order to make the final product more aesthetic-looking. They would make the changes on the negatives in order to hide people’s flaws.”
They started out changing the look of a nose or the angle of the glasses. “We got the idea when haredi customers from Bnei Brak would come to us in preparation for finding matches for marriage.
The matchmakers would tell us, ‘Take off the pimples, make the eyebrows look nicer,’ etc.”
“The shadchanim were happy because more boys and girls agreed to meet,” Farag says. “The problem arose when the couples would finally meet in person and realize the real live person was not as good-looking as the touch-ups had made them out to be. But our photoshop method became a hit anyway, and our competitors could not understand why the religious Jews from Bnei Brak passed them all by and came straight to our door.”
The Farag studio soon started investing in wardrobes for their clients. “This was most common among Arab clients,” Farag says. “We would dress them up in suits and ties; to make an extra-special impression, we would put a fancy Parker pen cap in the pocket of the jacket – we didn’t use the actual pen because we were afraid they’d steal it. And indeed, one day, we realized a client had walked off while he was still wearing the suit jacket.”
In 1973, the brothers moved up a level when they purchased the Armon David Theater on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street, just at the corner of Arlosoroff, turning it into the largest photo lab in the Middle East. Perry and Sami Farag ran the studio and their siblings Meir, Moti and Ezra joined them soon afterwards.
Sisters Katrin and Rozi continued to offer their touch-up services.
In the early 1980s, however, there was a dispute among the siblings and they all decided to set out on their own. Perry continued working out of the first floor of the Ben-Yehuda Street studio, but Sami returned to Petah Tikva; a few days ago, he inaugurated his new studio in Neveh Yarak, now run by his son Sivan and daughter-in-law Anat.
Sivan is one of Sami’s three children; he served as a photographer in the IDF Spokesman’s Office. His first daughter, Sima, graduated from the Kiryat Ono College of Photography; his second daughter, Sali, is a cosmetician. Anat, Sivan’s wife, runs the business.
Each child is involved in photography in one way or another.
“Until just a few years ago,” Farag recounts, “there were 350 photo shops in Israel. Now most of them have closed. We used to take pictures at around 30 weddings a day on average. But this has all changed now; the market has crashed.
“Not even I believed this would ever happen,” he says sadly.
SO WHERE did all the giant companies go wrong? How did none of them have any foresight? “They were too complacent and did not plan for the future. It’s like the difference between how Sivan and I look through the lens of a camera: I see what exists now, whereas he sees what will be tomorrow.”
Farag explains that the big manufacturers didn’t understand how the digital and cellular industries would take control of photography, making their products obsolete.
“They thought maybe they would lose up to 15 percent of the market, no more,” says Farag. “In actuality, they’ve already lost 90% of the market. Stores used to purchase $250,000 worth of equipment each year, up until about six years ago. But stores stopped purchasing this equipment, so the manufacturers were forced to close their doors. Today, you can take incredibly high-quality pictures with the Instagram app, so why would anyone want a sophisticated and expensive camera?” How has Farag Photo managed to survive? “First of all, we began targeting the business market and didn’t rely solely on the private sector. Sivan focuses on business events and collaborations with companies; he prepares specialized albums and is invited to many press conferences.
“Following the social justice protests a couple of years ago, the photography industry suffered a huge blow and many businesspeople are keeping a lower profile; they don’t hold as many flashy events as they used to. We’re currently working with El Al, Partner Communications Company, Cellcom, Teva, Bank Hapoalim, Citibank, the Dan Hotel chain and the Tel Aviv Museum.”
So what’s new in the private sector? Do people still want portraits done like they used to? “The market is slowly returning to itself; that’s why we decided to open the studio in Neveh Yarak.
The grandmothers who want pictures of their grandchildren are starting to come back; sometimes we even get extended families with 20 children who want their picture taken together. Retro and vintage photos [where the photograph comes out in black and white and everyone dresses up in clothes from a century ago] are very popular now.”
“We’ve also begun working in new areas, such as taking people’s old photo albums that are falling apart and replacing them with a quality, new product.
We just signed a cooperation agreement with the Spanish company Angelo, which we worked with 30 years ago.”
But these days, people can achieve all of these elements with Instagram. What else do they need? “There’s always room to do a little something more; new techniques give us added value. We don’t just print on paper – we also print on glass, metal, plexiglass and wood – anything the client wants.
We have software that enables us to combine the original photograph with a drawing or other added imagery. Some portrait artists integrate drawings into their photographs for clients. Thankfully, we’ve been able to keep coming up with new ideas.”
How do you create new products for business customers? “In recent years, companies have been making more and more budget cuts, but we’ve been able to fill a void and provide total design services for them. The CEO of El Al, for example, could call us and request an album for a festive occasion, and within 48 hours he’ll receive the finished product.
“We provide the highest quality of service, from top to bottom. A manager at Teva even requested that we come hang the photograph in his office we had produced for him, and so we did.”
The next move for Farag Photo is the opening of their new studio in February. “We’re going to have an exhibition featuring photographs of the studio throughout the years, so that everyone can see how we’ve evolved over time and entered the digital, cellular age.
“Everyone is invited!” 
Translated by Hannah Hochner.