Metrotainment: Shooting from both hips

Digi Dekel uses a unique photographic technique to portray the dichotomy of his life as he straddles the spirit of his birthplace, Romania, and Israel, where he has lived since the age of six.

Digi Dekel 521 (photo credit: Barry Davis)
Digi Dekel 521
(photo credit: Barry Davis)
Digi Dekel has all the prerequisite qualities and circumstances of the archetypal artist. Art, by definition, entails a constant quest for previously unexplored areas, which, naturally, generates tension that gestates for a while and then hopefully produces the desired artistic offspring. Dekel, a 53-year-old photographer, has been torn between two worlds, by circumstances and by choice, since the age of six when his family made aliya from Romania and settled in the Basel area of Tel Aviv.
Dekel’s ability – or inability – to accommodate that divide is conveyed in his latest exhibition, Part 1 of The Distance Trilogy, curated by Tali Tamir, which opened at the Gal-On Art Space on Tel Aviv’s Yehuda Halevi Street last week. Musical entertainment was provided at the opening by jazz saxophonist Eyal Netzer, and Dekel will talk about his work on Friday, at the gallery, at 12:30 p.m.
Like many immigrants, Dekel experienced the pangs of adjusting to a completely different set of cultural rules and social mores, until he eventually began to feel at home in the city.
Then, at the age of 18, he headed for the Arava to establish Kibbutz Samar as part of a Hashomer Hatza’ir IDF Nahal group. He has been at Samar ever since and works in the kibbutz’s large palm-tree grove, which produces organic dates for export.
When he is not tending to the delicate and highly demanding business of cultivating palm trees in the desert heat, Dekel spends time in his Samar studio producing monochromatic prints that at once feed off his immediate physical and social surroundings while embracing highly contrasting energies, figures and techniques.
He developed an interest in photography as a teenager but didn’t have any long-term plans for his hobby. “I took pictures at events, like anyone who documents certain moments,” he says. “I used a simple pocket camera, with 6x6 film, with only 12 frames.
That’s the film format I still use today.”
After a while, people began to take note of some added visual value.
“Friends and members of the family started telling me they saw something special in my photographs,” Dekel recalls. “I didn’t really set out to produce anything out of the ordinary.”
But the ball had been set in motion.
Dekel started upgrading his cameras of choice and in 1987 he began working for the now defunct Hadashot and Al Hamishmar newspapers as their southern region photographer. After accumulating some valuable field experience, he took his developing craft a step further and enrolled in a formal photography course at the Ramat Hasharon Academy. The following year he disseminated some of his hands-on and academic knowledge to students at Ma’aleh Shaharut High School in the Arava.
Dekel is both a romantic and a pragmatist, not a bad combination of attributes for an artist to have. “We came here, to the Arava, as kids with all sorts of ideals, like establishing a more just society,” he says, “which is fine when you are a kid.”
That may sound like the definitive application of the Zionist ideal of making the desert bloom, but Dekel is quick to point out that there was nothing coercive in the Nahal group’s intent. “We came here to be partners of the desert, not to banish anything. Anyway, you can’t very well dictate anything in 42 degrees of heat. The Arava is not desolate.
There are acacia trees that have been here 400 or 600 years, long before I came here. I have not uprooted a single acacia tree to make way for our palm trees.”
Then again, down in the cool confines of his bomb-shelter studio, Dekel manages to leave his personal imprint on the standard photographic format. His works fly in the face of the traditional photographic format as he manipulates and complements non-digital camera shots as an integral part of the printing process. In fact, his modus operandi is more akin to painting as he injects elements to the emerging print to produce a one-off work of art.
The result is a fascinating mix of standard figurative documentation and transformation as recorded reality and the creative process unfold.
His current approach to his art is also a sort of backlash against his personal take on life and against the standard professional line. “I encountered exaggerated perfectionism from myself – to try to achieve the sharpest and most polished image possible. By that I mean the approach to printing images. My style always follows the darkness to light route. I always saw the photographs as dark images and I gradually exposed them, adding light to them, until I achieved some artistic statement.”
After a while, he felt he’d exhausted that avenue of attack and started searching for a new means of expression.
“I wanted to walk the tightrope of photographic dialogue. On the one hand I produced negatives from which I made prints, but I wanted to inject my own state of mind to the process. I trod the thin line between photography and what I call ‘the active print.’ We all change as we grow older and mature, and the work we produce should reflect those changes.”
Many of those changes have been unveiled to the public in Dekel’s oneman shows and group exhibitions over the last two decades. His works have been exhibited in Tel Aviv, Beersheba, Beit Gabriel by Lake Kinneret, New York and, last summer, Berlin. He also produced a highly evocative photograph for the Israeli avant garde jazz release “Cries of Disillusion” in 2001.
The CD cover shot was taken near Kibbutz Samar, and one of the most prominent and defining aspects of Dekel’s work and life is his unstinting attempt to marry and channel the contrasting elements of his life. In 2008, he went a step further and brought that disparate mix of facets home by holding an exhibition in the generous garage space of the kibbutz.
Displaying artistic prints in a Tel Aviv gallery is one thing, but doing that for members of a kibbutz, far away from urban cultural and daily life energies, is another thing entirely.
Dekel begs to differ. “My work addresses daily life in a community through the most universal language there is. That’s why people get the message in Germany or anywhere else my work is exhibited.”
Then again, there is the aspect of straddling very different cultural and social spheres. “People have said that the poetic content and authenticity of my photographs could only be achieved by someone who does not live in a community, that they could only be produced by someone passing through. I do live in a community, but I constantly ponder what home means. Does that mean the place where you were born, or where you have been living for over 30 years? It’s an open question that challenges me and helps me create.”
The Distance Trilogy exhibition runs at the Gal-On Art Space, 79-81 Yehuda Halevi Street, Tel Aviv, until March 17.

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