Putting a face to it

Photographing some of Israel's most famous and entertaining faces.

Ilan Besor: Turning culture into an enduring brand. (photo credit: INGRID FELDMAN)
Ilan Besor: Turning culture into an enduring brand.
(photo credit: INGRID FELDMAN)
There’s nothing like empathy to get your subject on your side, and then get the most out of their personality and fuse it into your work. Any photographer will tell you that.
Flipping the pages of Ilan Besor’s new book, Ilan Besor Photographs Israeli Culture, you get the sense that the artist goes beyond empathy. In addition to the strikingly presented portraits there are a couple of textual excerpts – a brief one by the photographer and a slightly longer contribution from preeminent radio pop and rock-music show presenter Yoav Kutner.
In his slot, Kutner notes that Besor “does what he does out of love. He loves art. He loves theater. He loves music. And, most of all, he loves his subjects.”
That comes across in every one of the 62 works in the book. Some, such as the pictures of stellar singers Shlomo Artzi, Nurit Galron and Aviv Geffen, are instantly recognizable; but there are some more surprising offerings in the book, too.
This is Besor’s second publication, following the 2002 release of Familiar Faces. Some of the subjects – such as Yossi Banai, Geffen and Shalom Hanoch – are returnees, and anyone who follows the Israeli entertainment business or the cultural sections of the media will recognize the subjects.
Some might argue that compiling a glossy hardback is really not necessary. After all, most of us get to see the portraits elsewhere in the media and, sometimes, on album covers. The latter includes pictures of Galron, David Broza, Ahuva Ozeri and Arik Sinai. So, why spend the time, effort and shekels on putting out a book?
“The simple, snooty, answer to that is that, simply, because I have the means,” says Besor. “I have the photographic raw material.”
There is another elemental motive. “I believe it is important to ensure the presence of this culture, as I see and understand it, and to turn it into an enduring brand, to make sure it exists in homes and stores, in the environment.”
This involves a physical presence. “We’re not talking about computer files stored God knows where,” stresses Besor, adding a more personal note. “And, maybe, I want to leave something behind me.”
Presumably, taking pictures of celebrities requires a different approach compared with, say, taking a picture of an up-and-comer who has yet to make it to the public consciousness. Besor says fame doesn’t come into it when he gets down to it.
“It doesn’t matter to me if I am taking a picture of someone famous. I try to get intimate with my subjects. It’s a one-on-one situation,” he explains.
That single-minded approach has visual end-product implications. “That’s the reason why my backgrounds are normally plain,” Besor explains, “they leave the focus firmly on the person. There aren’t any cars driving past, or cats prancing around. None of that stuff.”
That’s not entirely accurate. One of the “busier” works in the book features veteran pop-rock artist Ariel Zilber in an unexpected pose. Some 40 years ago, Zilber was a member of the seminal Israeli rock band Tamouz. Around 12 years ago he became religious and today is often just as well known for his far right-wing political observations as for his music.
Seminal Israeli rock band-entertainment troupe Kaveret. (ILAN BESOR)Seminal Israeli rock band-entertainment troupe Kaveret. (ILAN BESOR)
Zilber now looks like the epitome of haredi Judaism, complete with flowing beard and trilby. So, finding Zilber – albeit in his regular religious garb, but trendy with red sports shoes – riding a bicycle while blowing a trumpet in the eye of a maelstrom of blurred nighttime urban lights is more than a little unexpected.
“The Zilber picture is different,” Besor admits. “This was at a time, after Ariel became religious and became extreme in his political views, when he brought out a record with music that was similar to the stuff he was doing just after Tamouz. It is very much Tel Aviv-style music. Ariel now lives somewhere in the Jordan Valley, so for this record [Mishehu, which came out last year] we did something that brings out the Tel Aviv urban ambiance.”
It is, says Besor, generally a matter of going with the individual flow. “I like to show the person as they are. I don’t like pyrotechnics or to direct things, and to coerce people into doing this or that. I am on their side.”
There are some exceptions to the non-intervention rule. “They are settings which suit the concept of an album cover, for example,” he says. The David Broza shot of the troubadour walking down the center of a desert road, guitar in hand, conveys the crafted case in point.
“David made an album of songs that were very southern, very desert-like, very much about open expanses. That’s why we took the photo in the desert, near Mitzpe Ramon,” he explains.
One striking feature of the book is the way Besor proffers beautiful women. While Miri Aloni, who, as attractive as she remains, to put it delicately, is a little past her first youthful flush, is pictured in a relaxed pose, looking over her shoulder in a slightly quizzical manner, the 1992 shot of Achinoam Nini shows the then 23-year-old singer bare shouldered, and possibly even bare-chested. The portrait of actress Limor Goldstein is similarly immodest, and the lighting serves to enhance her bountiful chest.
Besor does not reject the idea of a gender-approach discrepancy outright. “I am certain that, in a subconscious way, I relate to male and female subjects differently. I am certain that the interaction with men is different, compared with relating to men. I am sure that erotica comes into it more when I am taking pictures of women.”
Besor denies objectifying Nini, for example. “I see that as conveying a sense of freedom and liberation,” he suggests. “Achinoam Nini is one of the most talented singers ever to come out of this country.”
Besor says he did not take any flak for his erotic prints. “I got more reactions to the photo I took of Gidi Gov than of the various women,” he observes. The Gov picture is, indeed, possibly the most memorable of the whole tome. Taken a couple of years ago, it shows the then 65-year-old singer-TV presenter with his trademark deadpan facial expression, with just a hint of a smile, but with his shirt unbuttoned, with one nipple showing.
“That is a very revealing picture. It is direct and womanly,” Besor observes, adding that his subjects’ poses often come from the sitters themselves. “Gidi suggested opening his shirt, not me. Personally, that reminded me of having a garment torn when we are in mourning.”
It is also about doing whatever comes naturally. “I think, here, Gidi is exposing himself in an emotional way. He is saying: Here I am, this is me, this is my soul and this is how I feel right now.”
Other star subjects in Ilan Besor Photographs Israeli Culture include Shalom Hanoch – including an intimate camaraderie shot with Artzi – a fun series of portraits of late iconic actor, comedian and chansonnier Yossi Banai, which opens the book, and a delightful oxymoronic pairing of veteran singer-comedian Danny Sanderson and TV personality Guri Alfi. Kutner, fittingly, closes the pictorial shebang with a nine-frame slot of the DJ in typically mischievous poses.
Besor says the bracketing was not intentional. “I didn’t think about that. I closed the book with Kutner, because he wrote the foreword for the book, and he is an extremely important personality with regard to all aspects of the history of music in Israel.”
Kutner’s piece, Besor’s own words and the photo captions are all in English and Hebrew. There may also have been a nostalgia-driven motive for the publication. “I opened the book with Yossi Banai because he was such a tremendous personality,” says the 65-year-old photographer. “It is so sad that the ranks of people of such stature are dwindling.”
To purchase Ilan Besor Photographs Israeli Culture: ilan@ilanbesor.com