In their eyes

An unprecedented look at Israel and the West Bank as rendered by 12 renowned photographers.

Route 60, Beit Jala, Bethlehem area, 2011 (photo credit: JOSEPH KOUDELKA)
Route 60, Beit Jala, Bethlehem area, 2011
(photo credit: JOSEPH KOUDELKA)
The culmination of a four-year artistic collaboration that brought together 12 of the world’s leading photographers to visually realize Israel and the West Bank is currently on view at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art until September 6.
The “This Place” exhibition was originally conceived by photographer Frederic Brenner in 2006, after documenting and photographing Diaspora Jews in over 40 countries for 25 years. During this time, he became haunted and frustrated with the idea of exile and home, which led him to focus his attention on Israel.
He found that this place is defined by radical otherness, by people who define themselves as who they aren’t. It became imperative for him to confront what was haunting him by creating this ambitious project; to resolve this issue, he needed “others” to look at this place of “radical otherness.”
It took him about two years to materialize the project and recruit all 11 photographers – Wendy Ewald, Martin Kollar, Josef Koudelka, Jungjin Lee, Gilles Peress, Fazal Sheikh, Stephen Shore, Rosalind Solomon, Thomas Struth, Jeff Wall and Nick Waplington – to join him.
According to Brenner, “The focus of the project was to look at the three major religious narratives in an attempt to look beyond politics, to shift the perspective of the place and the question, to shift the field of consciousness and to hopefully shift the current conversation taking place.”
The endeavor began in 2009 and continued until 2013, when the 12 photographers took up residence in Israel and spent roughly six months traveling back and forth, researching and gathering images for their individual works. The result was thousands of photographic images, a traveling exhibition and 13 published books, one from each photographer, plus an anthology of the exhibition contents – which were curated by the internationally acclaimed Charlotte Cotton, former head of the photography department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
“This Place embodies the idea of photography as itself a multifaceted notion – these incredible bodies of photographic work will be the prompt for discussions, the visual vehicles for sharing ideas and knowledge, as well as the material experience of the personal journeys undertaken by the commissioned artists,” Cotton said.
The title is deceptively simple, yet with these two words it encompasses the vastness of meanings and feelings “this place” has conjured up for centuries. It also signals to the audience that it’s almost impossible to describe “this place” in more specific or broader terms without including or omitting a certain group or idea; evoking a broad tapestry of starkly different reactions and visual interpretations as presented by these 12 artists.
The visually striking and poignant images from Brenner’s series, “An Archeology of Fear and Desire,” is a moving preamble to the entire exhibition. With a selected body of work from the book he published by the same name, he brings the viewer into his project with his first image, The Palace Hotel. As noted: “The image of the Palace Hotel plays the role of an epigraph, the role of the determinant in a hieroglyphic suite, and is the key to reading all the other images.”
Brenner’s works delve deeply into the identity this land imprints on the subjects he photographs, and constantly make the viewer aware of this radical otherness that he identifies so strongly with Israel. He succeeds in creating a perfect balance between representing the people in his images and their relationship with their surroundings, while maintaining a constant atmosphere of longing and belonging.
Czech documentary photographer Koudelka doesn’t like to create things that personally relate to him, but when he saw the security barrier, he could “identify with it completely” – and was moved to create his body of work, “Wall.”
Black-and-white panoramic images of the barrier captured on a medium-format film camera are encased in a long gray display case under glass in the middle of the exhibition space, which the audience must look down toward to view. These images portray the wall without details of politics and logistics; instead, Koudelka’s work presents it on a more personal and emotional level.
There are no people in these images, but the effects of the people are present – as the photographer uses the security barrier as a character. The way the work is presented as well as the panoramic format serves as a metaphor of how he perceived the wall: an unusually long and obtrusive structure. These dreamlike forms evoke a feeling of hopeless beauty that resonates when viewing them through the glass.
“I’ve tried to show how contemporary man influences the landscape, but I’d never seen anything similar to this. I could not find a subject more powerful than the wall that mutilates the Holy Land,” he explained, revealing a political bent. “You know I grew up in Czechoslovakia, behind a wall [the Iron Curtain]... I know what a wall is about,” Brenner said.
David Ben-Gurion’s invocation to make the desert bloom was the inspiration for American photographer Sheikh’s work. “Desert Bloom,” a series of 48 aerial photographs taken in and around the Negev, examines not only the moment these pictures were taken but also the physical story and traces of a past that lies beneath the surface.
Sheikh approached this project as “a kind of open-ended questioning of what the invocation to make the desert bloom actually had done to the land in the intervening years.” He thought it was important to “see the forest from the trees” and experience the earth from above.
Instead of initially researching the locations he planned to photograph, he chose to fly above it and be open to what the land was; in so doing, flying over the Negev made him more receptive to other visual cues. Afterwards, he went back to the images and began to research the history and stories of the photographs he had shot.
The result is a wall installation of a grid of his photographs that perfectly captures the vastness of the desert. Not just a series of pictures, the work is also a visual archive of a certain place in transition – reminding us that these images are just one part of an ongoing story.
Following the Tel Aviv show, the next stop will be the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida.