Tel Aviv longing

Though he spends most of his time in Paris, photographer Nellu Cohn can't live without the White City.

Tel Aviv longing (photo credit: Nellu Cohn)
Tel Aviv longing
(photo credit: Nellu Cohn)
If the Tel Aviv municipality ever creates an ambassador-at-large position, it need not look further than Nellu Cohn to take up the post. At first glance, Cohn seems to be everything that Tel Aviv is not – a man not given to showy ostentatiousness. Admittedly un-photogenic, Cohn is unpretentious, mild-mannered, soft-spoken, and imbued with a cockeyed optimism. However, his soft outer shell belies the decades-long romance that he has nurtured for Israel’s bustling cultural and financial hub.
“I can live outside of Israel, but I can’t live without Israel,” says Cohn. “Israel is always with me wherever I am. And I just love Tel Aviv.”
It is a love so profound that he saw fit to devote extensive manpower and time to producing the third of his photography books about the White City. Tel Aviv Live is a 300-page collection of photos of the city’s popular artistic and cultural institutions as captured through the lens of an unabashed Tel Avivophile who himself is steeped in the arts.
“I love photography,” says the middleaged, Romanian-born Parisian. “When I came to Tel Aviv for the first time, I wanted to buy a photography book about the city but I couldn’t find anything that I liked. That’s what motivated me to do my own work here.”
He emphatically affirms his belief that Tel Aviv is a truly international city that can rightfully boast of a cultural scene as rich as those found in Amsterdam, London, Paris and other world centers. As if to drive home the point, Tel Aviv Live offers stunning visuals and still shots of the finest local galleries, theaters, operas, jazz and rock clubs, cinemas, sports halls, museums, public parks, gourmet restaurants and academic institutions.
“I don’t claim that everything is beautiful in Tel Aviv, but I prefer to look only at the beautiful things because to me they represent Tel Aviv as it really is,” says Cohen. “It’s a beautiful city, just like New York and Paris. In New York, I get a good feeling when I’m there, but in Tel Aviv, I get a good feeling and I get the sense of home.”
Cohn is a jack of many trades. As a young boy, he became proficient at playing the violin and the piano. After his family fled Communist-run Romania for France in the late 1970s, he enrolled at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem, where he studied composition and conducting. He received further training in production and music at the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique in Paris. Currently, Cohn lecturers at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University – Paris 3, and he also hosts a talk show on Radio J Paris, where he serves as program manager. His rich resumé and the refined cultural tastes that he acquired over the course of the 30 years in which he has lived in the French capital make it easier for him to view Tel Aviv through a prism that may appear foreign to native-born Israelis.
“I frequent museums in Paris,” he says. “I’ve been there for 30 years, but I feel like a tourist, and I say that in a positive sense. There’s so much to see. Here, though, it’s something internal. It’s hard for people who live here to grasp this, but it’s a matter of feeling. I can understand people getting bothered hearing that from someone who doesn’t live here. That’s why I initially thought twice before saying that. But it’s like when you fall in love with a person. You don’t really care what they think. You just have the urge to say, ‘I love you.’ And I love this place.”
“When I talk with my friends here,” he says, “obviously there’s a mentality that I don’t really understand. There are things that people do and say [that are different than what I’m accustomed to]. But usually when I go out, I don’t have the sense that I’m in New York. I feel good whenever I’m in New York, but it’s not the same.”
COHN’S YEARS-LONG, painstaking project was a collaborative effort that incorporated interviews and individual portraits of the biggest names in the Israeli literati and cultural scene who have achieved international status through their work. There’s a horizontal photo montage of Zubin Mehta, the Indian-born conductor and the director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which stretches across two pages. There’s a searing set of images showing the Batsheva Dance Company in rehearsals, dancers clad in tights tiptoeing in rhythm with nothing but a moon-colored spotlight trained on them as they emerge from the pitchblack backdrop.
There are personal profiles and portraits of the city’s artistic and literary luminaries, like renowned sculptor Menashe Kadishman, and a five-page tribute to sculptor Dani Karavan, the Israel Prize winner and creator of magical works that are on display at Edith Wolfson Park’s White Square as well as the colorful Culture Square at the entrance to the Habimah Theater complex in the center of town. Dorit Levinstein, the sculptor and painter whose art is scheduled to be displayed at exhibitions in Paris sometime within the next two years, is also featured along with her handiworks.
“I photographed them, spent hours with them,” Cohn recalls. “I interviewed them. They were happy to cooperate and they were generous with their time. I was allowed into their homes.”
The book also includes portraits of author Etgar Keret, singer and recording star Avraham Tal, the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team in action against Real Madrid, actress and model Moran Atias and acclaimed film director Joseph Cedar. There is also a question-andanswer session with commercial realestate magnate David Azrieli, a preface contributed by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and a short piece by David Broza, one of Israel’s most successful recording artists, in which he hails Mayumana, the musical dance troupe with which he has collaborated in the past.
Cohn also asked one of France’s most popular food critics, Gilles Pudlowski, to write a review of some of the city’s swankier restaurants and cafes, including Dallal (“the wonder-child of the moment”), Andrea’s bakery (“[owner] Andrea Leitersdorf’s little miracle”), and Messa (“You will definitely fall in love with the very sexy Messa”).
One shot is particularly emblematic of the no-frills attitude that Cohn, a man who appreciates fine art but also has a soft spot for the informal gruffness that is characteristic of Israelis, finds endearing – a young girl who looks like she just wandered off the beach into a show at the Israeli Opera.
“Only in Tel Aviv could you have an opera like this,” he says. “You see that it’s modern, and you see the orchestra. In Paris, you couldn’t have an opera like that. In a Paris opera, you can’t allow a young girl in casual dress and flip-flops carrying balloons into the audience. That’s Tel Aviv. The people are cool but the art and the presentation are serious and they are done at the highest level possible. You can see this here.”
COHN SET about his project wanting to capture shots that came alive. To do so, he asked for and received behind-thescenes access to some of the city’s grandest theater and operatic productions, including the Israeli Opera’s staging of Tosca and the classic Germanlanguage play Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny as well as the Cameri Theater’s rendition of Cabaret.
“I didn’t want the pictures to be like those seen in a newspaper,” says Cohn, who also took a number of birds’-eye shots of the topography of the entire city from a helicopter. “I wanted them to be graphic [in a colorful sense].”
“I didn’t study photography, but I learned a great deal about art history, so every picture to me is important,” he says. “When I look at a photograph, I see a painting, and that’s what was important for me to get across. I work on every picture as if it were a painting, and I do my best to make it into a painting. If I don’t do that, it’s not really interesting to me.”
The message that Cohn seeks to convey with Tel Aviv Live boils down to a very basic concept: Tel Aviv is on the cultural map and is there to stay. He says that Europeans have come to accept this reality and they are recognizing the unique contributions emanating from this hub on the coast of the Mediterranean.
“Tel Aviv doesn’t need to be like Europe,” he says. “If an Israeli painter or a pianist or a designer from Tel Aviv goes abroad, people immediately think that they are talented. If you come from Israel and play contrabass, people automatically think that you are good since you’re an Israeli artist. You can’t go to a film festival in Cannes, Venice, or Berlin without an Israeli movie being screened there. They want Israeli films screened there because they know how good the cinema is here. In every library you go to in Europe, there is a special section designated for Israeli literature. There is no Portuguese literature aside from [works by the late poet Jose] Saramago. But when you go to a library in Paris, you can find sections on German literature, American literature, Eastern European literature and Israeli literature. Everyone wants Israeli culture.”
“In the early years of its statehood, Israel wanted to be like Europe,” Cohn says. “Now, it doesn’t need to be like Europe. It has Tel Aviv. People come here knowing that they can see things that just aren’t available in Europe.”
A wide-eyed Zionist like Cohn derives the greatest amount of satisfaction from what he says is a sea-change in European attitudes toward Israel thanks to its immense contribution in cinema, which can only bode well for the Jewish state’s future.
“In the West, anti-Israel films and movies would historically garner critical acclaim, if not commercial success,” he says. “What is nice is that in recent years, we have just had quality movies that were neither positive nor negative, but were pure art. After seeing how good films like Beaufort and Lebanon were, people abroad realize that this is a cultural hub.”
Tel Aviv Live, which is intended for an English and French readership, has proven to be the ideal platform for Cohn to give expression to a combination of heartfelt, ideological zeal and a boyish enthusiasm for the fine arts.
“I love doing this; it’s great fun,” he says. “Everybody [in the book] saw the photos because I wanted the subjects to feel good about them and be satisfied with them. Obviously they are very pleased to be included in the book, but it was more important for them to be satisfied with the photograph. They’re like actors in a film.”