A great deal more than meets the eye

Meet Shalom Shpilman, founder of SIP – which he says is set to become the leading photography institute in the entire world.

Shpilman collection_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Shpilman collection_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Fully 126 years after the production of the first automobile with an internal combustion engine, no one today is asking, “What is a car?” One hundred and eight years after the Wright brothers gave their “flying machine” its first successful test flight, no one is asking anything as basic as “What is an airplane?”
Thus at this late date – more than 170 years after the invention of photography – one would not expect anyone to be asking a question like “What is a photograph?”
That question, however, is precisely what a new research institute was established last year to ask, as well as to address such issues as why photography is significant, how it has changed our perceptions of reality, and what the outer limits of its uses and possibilities are.
The Shpilman Institute for Photography – or “The SIP,” as it is coming to be known – was launched in Tel Aviv to answer a question most people thought was obvious, and quickly began to demonstrate that there is a lot more to photography than meets the eye.
THE SIP describes itself as a research institute that aspires to facilitate, promote and initiate research, as well as to trigger debate and creative work in the field of photography and video. Its mission statement pledges to “further our knowledge of photography’s expressions, applications, and the ideologies and mechanisms that surround its practices.”
The institute is the creation and organizational alter ego of Shalom Shpilman, 63, former chairman and co-founder of the Redstone Global Real Estate Group, former chairman and founder of TBIH Financial Services Group, former CEO of the Season Holdings venture capital company, former president and co-founder of Yissum Holdings, and current patron of the arts.
Shpilman comes across as powerful, dynamic and successful – blessed with enormous and apparently inexhaustible reservoirs of personal energy and self-esteem.
As he introduces himself, it is evident that he has been interviewed many times in the past. “I’m 63, born in Israel, served in the Israeli army for a long time, during all the wars. I ended up being a major. I studied in the Technion, first degree industrial engineering, second degree operations research. Since 1973 until 2006, for 33 years I was in business. By 2006, reaching the age of 58, I decided that by the age of 60 I’m going to retire.
“SO DURING those two years, I planned my exit from all of my businesses. I quit and I prepared the second half of my life, which is 180 degrees different from the first half, going now into culture, art, social service, and I decided to devote both my financial and my intellectual resources to these arenas. And to create an additional layer of meaning in my life.”
That “additional layer” of meaning has become quite deep. Aside from SIP, Shpilman says that he sits on the board of directors of two other foundations. One, called Yahad Bagalil, is devoted to helping handicapped people with a residential training and rehabilitation program at Kibbutz Mahanayim. The other is the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble.
Shpilman says, “We bring these soloists together for around 30 to 40 projects a year. These are young people – very young people – from all over the country, and even some residing outside Israel who we are bringing back to the country. I don’t want to say it, but experts say that it’s one of the best chamber ensemble orchestras in the world.”)
But photography has clearly become Shpilman’s raison d’etre. “How I came to photography is quite important,” he declares. “Everyone knows that I am an autodidact, and that one of my characteristics is a great curiosity about things, the desire to explore things.
“So I came across a Hungarian photographer who was one of the founders of the genre called “new vision in photography,” or Bauhaus, named Lázslo Moholí-Nagy, who wrote in 1926 that the illiterate of the future will be someone who cannot read a photograph. I went into reading more about photography. I came across the French philosopher Roland Barthes, whose last essay, “Camera Lucida” [1980], dealt with photography. He wrote on the first page of the first chapter that he wanted to satisfy his ontological desire, at all cost, to know what photography is.
“And then I got more involved in reading about photography, and I decided that we are living in a visual cultural environment. Every minute you have pictures talking to you, whether it’s art, or photojournalism or advertising or whatever.
“Photography is in big use today. The accessibility to produce photographs, to disseminate photographs – it’s very easy today. So we have to understand what photography is, and how it’s shaping our world, its influence, its significance, how to extract meaning from photography, and so on.”
Inspired by his reading, Shpilman made his first shot across photography’s bow by establishing a scholarship for Israeli students studying photography in academia. Now in its fourth year, the Shpilman Prize for Excellence in Photography awards three students annually with a full year grant for further study.
“And then I said, ‘Okay, that’s not enough. We should broaden this activity.’ So then I established in conjunction with the Israel Museum in Jerusalem an international prize for excellence in photography. This was in 2010. The prize is around $40,000 and will be biennial, every second year,” Shpilman says.
Still not satisfied, he went all out and created the Shpilman Institute for Photography in order, he says, “to initiate and promote research on photography, and to create a system of dissemination of information about photography all over.”
He emphasizes that the institute is geared not only for Israel, but for the entire world.
“It will not be a physical place,” he says. “The Internet is our place, our office, our house. Founded in 2010, when I officially retired, the SIP is a very young institute.”
It may be young, but it has certainly hit the ground running. Shpilman and his staff have already launched several series of high-end boutique activities.
The first of these are called SIP Encounters, in which experts in the field of photography and the public are brought together for open discussions and question-and-answer sessions. Another series already under way is SIP Reviews, which involve selecting a dominant or very influential practitioner in the field of photography and creating an evening around him or her.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the first of these, held last August, was dedicated to the work of Moholí- Nagy, Shpilman’s first major influence in photography.
Another new series, called SIP Talks, is currently being launched, with the institute sponsoring a symposium at Jeu de Paume in Paris on expanding the uses and possibilities of photographic archives.
SIP has also begun to support photography exhibitions, like the current “Pleated Blinds” group exhibition now showing until February 2 at the Petah Tikva Museum of Art. The works of 12 photographers are intended to examine the identity, status and state of the photographic medium in contemporary art.
All of the photos on display, both representational and abstract, seem to be trying to break through their frames and obliterate the boundary between what is going on in the picture and what is happening outside it.
But what Shpilman describes as SIP’s “flagship activity” are two current calls for research papers in photography, which are to begin an annual process of invitations and financial support for research. The first of these “SIP Calls” is a call for general research in photography, the other is a call for research on “philosophy and photography.” In both cases, SIP is offering funding to “writers, theorists and researchers from various disciplines (be they academic faculty, independent scholars, graduate students, artists or research-oriented curators) doing research that will advance the methodologies, theories and practices by which we can better comprehend the world of photography and the world perceived through photography.”
Candidates from all over the world are invited to submit proposals for research on one or more themes or topics listed on the SIP web site. The deadline for both SIP Calls for 2011 is March 1.
ASKED WHERE the money for all of these activities is coming from, Shpilman replies, “From myself. I put a million dollars into the Israel Museum, to create the endowment for the international prize. The other activities, the costs are also high. It’s quite a nice budget. I’m not applying to anyone.”
Why not?
“We have time. I want first to prove that my concept is working, to establish the SIP as one of the most important institutions in the world dealing with research in photography and dissemination of information. Our activities will be ongoing, ongoing, ongoing – in New York, Beijing, Sao Paolo, in Cologne, London, wherever. All to enhance the idea of photography, to create, think, broaden , enhance, educate. That’s what this institute is about.”
Shpilman says that he is also planning to establish a museum of photography within the next five years.
On top of all of this, the indefatigable Shpilman is working on a doctorate at the University of London.
“The title of my dissertation is ‘Trying to Create a New Modality for the Beholder, or How to Extract Meaning from Photography,’” he says. “Shorthand, it means that when you look at a photograph, sometimes – as Roland Barthes says – it pricks you, it attacks you, it’s causing something to happen inside you.
“And the question is why, and how. And how it affects your personal understanding of yourself, and your understanding vis-a-vis the outside world.
“Heidegger said – and I’m sorry to be quoting Heidegger – but Heidegger says that the only thing that is able to reveal the truth is art. The question is, what starts the process? Is it you, or the photograph?
“I think it’s the photograph. You are bringing all your experience, all your background, all your fantasies, desires, all your childhood experiences, your education – you’re bringing all this to the photograph. But the encounter is starting there, with the photograph.”
So, then, what is photography? Shpilman’s answer to this question is surprising.
“There is no one ‘photography,’ but rather ‘photographies,’” he says. “You have first of all the varieties: art photography, advertising photography, journalistic photography, medical photography, and so on. You have different kinds of practice as well: still photography, moving pictures, videos, experimental cinema. And then you have different uses and purposes.
So “don’t ask ‘what is photography?’ There are many different photographies, each one to be defined, understood and internally categorized on its own.”
We ask Shpilman what he thinks will happen to photography in a world of cell phones and other handheld devices that take pictures – the ubiquitous lens in everyone’s hands, shooting images that millions can immediately see.
“Nobody knows yet,” he answers. “It’s a major change. We are now facing the same kind of situation as when photography was invented.”
Our final question turns out to be easier. Asked what he thinks SIP will be in another 10 years, Shpilman begins his answer before we have finished the question:
“The leading institute in the world. It will have a guiding influence on research and education in photography throughout the entire world.”
For further information about the Shpilman Institute for Photography, current activities and calls for research proposals, visit http://www.thesip.org.