Jerusalem, the Six Day War and more

‘The Six Day War is just one of many things that occurred that year’

A soldier at the Western Wall during the Six Day War (photo credit: MICHA BAR-AM)
A soldier at the Western Wall during the Six Day War
(photo credit: MICHA BAR-AM)
There are artists who feel the need to constantly put themselves out there. Irrespective of the merits of their work, they make sure they maintain a high public profile and are willing to do practically anything to get their column inches or online splash. And there are the likes of Micha Bar-Am.
Bar-Am tends to the more unassuming side of publicity-seeking endeavor, but his oeuvre speaks for itself. Now 87, he has accumulated an enormous cornucopia of work over the last six-plus decades, including creating what is viewed as something akin to a definitive photographic coverage of the Yom Kippur War. The latter was last marked with an expansive layout of images at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 2013, on the 40th anniversary of the war.
The latest Bar-Am offering opened at the Israel Museum recently and goes by the temporally self-explanatory title of “1967.” That, of course, refers to the fact that half a century has elapsed since the Six Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem, but while there are plenty of official events going on right now marking that momentous event, Bar- Am’s show does not focus specifically on those fateful six days. As the name suggests, the exhibition is about the full 12 months.
“The Six Day War is just one of many things that occurred that year,” Bar- Am states. “This is about the whole year.” The celebrated photographer says he suggested the museum call the exhibition “Logbook.” “That’s really what this is about,” he explains, standing up to go and get the original hardback ledger he uses to keep tabs on his work. The ink entries, which start in November 1965, are written in highly legible and strong handwriting and were made, it transpires, by Bar-Am’s wife, Orna, who clearly keeps a firm hand on her husband’s professional tiller.
“Micha’s idea for the exhibition has been gestating for a long time,” she explains. “I counted the number of jobs he did [during the course of 1967] – a job can be a single photograph, or a whole series. I counted around 200 for the year. That means he didn’t spent much time at home,” she notes with a laugh.
And while many of us may identify 1967 with the, thankfully, brief regional hostilities that took place in early June of that year, the Bar-Ams have a diverse bunch of memories from half a century ago, one of which takes pride of place in the exhibition – curated by Noam Gal – and in the family annals. One particularly stirring shot shows Orna in a delivery room giving birth to her firstborn son, Barak, who naturally turned 50 this year.
While these days capturing such an emotive event may be par for the smartphone era, back then in this country fathers-to-be were generally not allowed into the maternity ward, let alone get a snap of the delivery. “That was the first birth to be photographed in Israel, and they almost fired the nurses because of that,” says Orna. “No, it was the first birth that was photographed and publicized,” Bar-Am fine tunes.
Bar-Am has never been a by-the-book documenter. Thus far, his oeuvre incorporates in excess of half a million photos, which exude a pervading sense of humanity and an ability to think outside the box and find some unique, surprising angle. Take, for example, a shot of a kadi looking on while IDF soldiers gather to celebrate by the Western Wall very shortly after the Old City was taken. Most photographers, presumably, would have homed in on the victors sharing a moment of ecstatic joy and being able to access the towering perimeter of the Temple Mount compound for the first time in a generation. But, throughout his long career, Bar-Am has always displayed a rare gift for noticing the left-field stuff.
It has also brought him some fascinating, and sometimes risky, assignments – but he has augmented his technical abilities and quick thinking with courage or, you might say, disregard for his own safety. During the Yom Kippur War there were a couple of occasions when he was saved from losing an eye or having his head blown off, when his sturdy camera deflected bullets.
His dazzling professional output brought him the 2000 Israel Prize for Visual Arts, with the jurors noting “his lifelong recording of the social and cultural scene in Israel, and its ongoing conflicts, with a critical eye and an indelible style.”
The said strife was not just of a regional confrontation nature. The early part of 1967 caught Bar-Am taking pictures of the socioeconomic ravages that unemployment wrought on Israelis of various ethnic backgrounds, located in towns and communities around the country. He also took some powerfully evocative shots of the neighborhoods that straddled the pre-Six Day War armistice line in and around Jerusalem, and between Israel and Jordan. The latter, of course, have never been the same.
The exhibition is part of a larger project that will soon spawn a book containing more than 400 images; “1967” will be featuring around a third of that. “By the end of the year Barak began to walk,” says Orna with undisguised maternal joy, showing a contact-sized print of a nine-month-old making upright progress with the help of stroller. It certainly makes for a neat and touching chronological bookend for the exhibition. “The exhibition is not just about Jerusalem,” Bar-Am explains, “but Jerusalem is the highlight, together with Barak’s birth.”
In addition to his professional expertise and being blessed with a nimble eye, Bar-Am’s easy going temperament has allowed him to slip into a fly-on-the-wall operational mode in all sorts of delicate circumstances. That, for example, enabled him to be unobtrusively around when a decision was made, in the tense buildup to the Six Day War, to take the Defense Ministry portfolio away from prime minister Levi Eshkol and entrust it to Moshe Dayan.
Another shot shows then chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin lighting up a cigarette for an American reporter who came to interview him. It is more than a little reminiscent of a later, more famous, picture – not taken by Bar-Am – of Rabin and King Hussein of Jordan enjoying a smoke together in Aqaba, around the time the bilateral peace treaty was signed in 1994.
Bar-Am is clearly not a headline seeker. There is nothing even remotely paparazzi-oriented about his work. The person who took the 1967 pictures applied a sensitive finger to the shutter release button. For Bar-Am, it is just about capturing the moment. “I am not exactly wild about the term ‘documentation’ but I document what I see around me,” he states simply.
“That includes family and topics which you could call ‘chronicles of the past,’ but I am sensitive to the time and to the events taking place.” He might have added that he always had a keen nose for a story that need to be told visually, and he would go to great lengths to make sure he was in the right place at the right time.
When the Six Day War erupted, he headed south to the Sinai Peninsula together with Cornell Capa. The latter was a Jewish, Hungarian-born American photographer, the younger brother of iconic war photographer Robert Capa, who came to Israel to cover the war. “We were down south when we heard there was something happening in Jerusalem, that they were going to enter the Old City, so I asked Cornell if he wanted to turn round and head back north,” Bar- Am recalls.
Capa who, like Bar-Am, was a member of the feted Magnum photojournalism agency – which his brother and Polish-born Jewish photographer David Seymour helped to found – agreed. The two hotfooted to Jerusalem and were around to document some of the fighting as IDF paratroopers made their way to the Western Wall.
It is safe to say that our collective national memory bank would be all the poorer without Bar-Am’s sterling work over the last six and a half decades. But the internationally celebrated shutter clicker does not get carried away with all the kudos. “I was aware that I was taking photographs of historic events, but I don’t really want to talk about that, because I am not sure how much people today want to remember things,” he notes soberly. “I felt the urge and need to follow events as they unfolded by doing what I know to do best, and that is photography. That’s all.”
Bar-Am may be obdurately levelheaded, but his work speaks for itself, and for him. The 1967 exhibit closes on October 28.