Zionist activity in pre-state Palestine as never seen before

Monochrome prints capturing the Zionist activity taking place in pre-state Palestine were produced and enlarged from the glass negatives stored in the KKL-JNF archives.

The Gan Shmuel beehive, 1958. (photo credit: ZOLTAN KLUGER)
The Gan Shmuel beehive, 1958.
(photo credit: ZOLTAN KLUGER)
In addition to adding more than a touch of green to our vistas over the years and developing agriculture in this naturally largely arid part of the world, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) has taken great pains to document its pioneering activities.
The proof of that pudding is on display at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv, in the “Seeing Through” photographic exhibition curated by Oded Balilty. The show’s title refers to the origin of the evocative monochrome prints, which were produced and enlarged from some of the approximately 3,000 glass negatives stored in the KKLJNF archives.
The two dozen or so photographs on view predominantly date from the 1920s to 1940s, with the earliest taken in 1912 and the latest in 1958. They were snapped by some of the iconic professionals of the day, many of whom the Yishuv authorities “imported” from Eastern and Central Europe specifically to capture the Zionist activity taking place in pre-state Palestine. These professionals included Shmuel Joseph Schweig, who came from Ternopil – then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire – and Ukrainian-born Yackov (Jacob) Ben-Dov, along with Hungarian-born Zoltan Kluger, Abraham Malevsky and Zvi Oron.
“Seeing Through” is the brainchild of KKL-JNF photo archive director Pnina Livni, who happened upon the glass negatives one day when she was setting the archival store in order.
“I was rummaging through the archive shelves when I found the old glass panes,” she recalls. “I knew they were there, but you know how it is – you don’t do anything about these things for so long, until one day, it happens.”
For Livni, it was love at first sight, and she was intent on sharing the invaluable treasure trove with the world.
“I took the glass negatives out of the boxes and I looked at them in the light.
I was just blown away by their beauty,” she says, adding that for her, they were a tonic in a world of digital information overload.
“I really can’t abide all these images taken on cellphones and the like,” she declares. “It really is too much to absorb.
Seeing the glass negatives transported me to a calmer place, and to the clear waters of [grassroots] photography.”
Of course, setting up the exhibition wasn’t just a matter of rousing the old negatives from their repose and transferring them into print; there were some delicate logistics to tackle first. For instance, quite a few of the plates were shattered and had to be painstakingly reassembled. One of them faces viewers at the entrance to the exhibition hall: a large reproduction titled View of Poriya, showing the Lower Galilean landscape as photographed by Malevsky in 1940.
“We had to work very hard to put this together,” says Livni.
While the print, like all the others in the show, was reproduced on a smooth Perspex surface, all the original cracks and gaps are clearly visible in the enlargement.
“We did not want to obscure the cracks,” states Livni. “We definitely wanted to show the broken and the incomplete alongside the complete, unbroken works. You know, these days, it is all about ‘beauty’ and presenting ‘perfection’ to the world. We did not want to hide the imperfections of these works. I think it is also part of their charm.”
Indeed, it is hard not to be charmed by the outsized prints in the exhibition.
There is a postmodern saying that “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be,” but a look at the cluster of ramshackle yet looming single-story structures that signaled the origins of Poriya in Malevsky’s expansive 1940 snap, or the evocative shot of classic Jewish laborers that Schweig took in the Zevulun Valley in 1929 – ideologically captioned A Moment of Rest While Draining the Swamps – is almost enough to make one break into a rousing rendition of “Hatikva.”
Yes, many – if not all – of the photographs were staged, designed to get potential donors in the United States and Europe to take their checkbooks out and contribute to the evolving Zionist cause, but the pictures hit the spot. It is hard to avoid smiling when faced with seven tiny tots standing in an innocent row in front of a woman – presumably a kindergarten teacher – in Schweig’s 1934 photo Children in Metulla, or to remain unmoved by the same photographer’s Children in a Circle, Jezreel Valley from 1935. Behind the motley bunch of kids stand about 10 simple dwellings, and the picture radiates Zionist frontier spirit.
Schweig was clearly fully on board for the PR ride. His 1934 shot of a keffiyeh- clad, rifle-toting horseman showing American donor Harry Levin the vast open spaces of the Jordan Valley is pure KKL-JNF poster material, as is the similarly staged Citrus Grove in Gan Raveh, taken in 1935.
The earliest work on display is Ben- Dov’s 1912 shot of a large gathering of people who had made their way through the Jerusalem Hills to Herzl’s cedar tree near Motza, to mark the fourth anniversary of the Zionist visionary’s death. There is an almost biblical feel to the work, which is accentuated by the jagged crack that zigzags through the center of the barren landscape.
There are also some delightful portraits in the lineup. In Malevsky’s A Pioneer, from 1930, the subject suitably gazes toward the horizon, while Schweig’s 1926 frame Kfar Hassidim Settler portrays a “salt of the earth” character complete with spade and hoe slung over one shoulder. Schweig’s arresting 1926 snap of a shepherd at Tel Yosef, who for some reason is carrying his dog, is one of the more dramatic items in the exhibition, and it’s hard not to fall in love with the young peak-capped guard and his bulldog in the 1946 photo Guard and His Trusty Dog in the Fields of Kibbutz Gezer. The slightly fuzzy shape of the barbed-wire fence in the background of the latter picture only serves to enhance the overriding sense of unadulterated Zionist fervor.
Balilty says that as curator, “I faced the task of choosing the photographs [that] would best represent the style and the period, out of thousands of glass plates found in the [KKL-JNF] archives.
The photographs are magnificent. They are well arranged and treated, and all deserve to be on display. But I was particularly attracted to a small box labeled: ‘Broken, cannot be screened.’” The curator was not about to let the neglected gems lie dormant for much longer. “I decided to bring the lost photographs back to life and display them in this exhibition for the first time.”
It turned out to be a magical trip for Balilty, an odyssey into unexplored areas.
“Indeed, something captivating happened,” he notes. “Putting the broken glass pieces together created a new photograph, a composition which fate – rather than the photographers – determined.
A hundred years after they were frozen in time, the broken glass plates acquired new meaning. It appears to me that, from the distance of time, the missing parts contribute special tension and atmosphere to the photographs, perhaps even more than the perfect ones.”
“Seeing Through” will run until October 15 2015. For more information: (03) 64105244 or www.eretzmuseum.org.il