Israel 1/80 at f/9, ISO 100
In 2006 Frédéric Brenner *(1) launched This Place, a photographic project involving 12, internationally renowned photographers to document a single small place – Isreal. It has been compared with the Mission Heliographique which set out to record France in 1851 and it is undoubtably one of the most ambitious documentaries ever undertaken by still photographers. For four years between 2009 and 2012 this group of photographers, mostly operated independently of each other, compiled very personal accounts of this troubled land. Brenner’s own book, An Archeology of Fear and Desire *(2) has been published by MACK and extracts can be found in several places including his own website at FredericBrenner.com *(1)
In an interview with the NY Times *(7) Brenner explains that he was partly motivated by the binary way in which Israel is portrayed, “for and against, victim and perpetrator” and that this had led to a lack of complexity when describing the place. The tone for This Place is best summarised by another Frédéric Brenner quotation from the New York Times article *(7):
“I did not bring people here to see the land of milk and honey. I brought them here to see the land that devours its inhabitants.”
As well as Brenner the photographers include Josef Koudelka, Jungjin Lee, Stephen Shore, Rosalind Solomon, Thomas Struth, Fazal Sheikh, Wendy Ewald, Nick Waplington, Martin Kollar, Gilles Peress, and Jeff Wall.
Charlotte Cotton is the curator of the This Place Exhibition opening in Prague and touring to Israel and the USA but unfortunately not to the UK. Speaking of the exhibition she says “Each artist has created a profound and personal narration of Israel and the West Bank, that, collectively, act as a series of guides, leading the viewer into a deeper identification with the complexities and conflicts of the Holy Land.” *(3) and this summarises my reaction to From Galilee to Negev *(9), I do feel I have been led towards a deeper understanding.
From Galilee to the Negev
I am from a generation of Englishmen that was taught Bible stories alongside history and geography as entirely factual subjects. Looking back it is obvious that we were taught history by people born during the days of Empire, we used atlases that still showed great swaths of the world coloured pink and Bible stories were so intertwined with the rest of our early education that, for many years, I though a “green hill outside a city wall” was where they were, then, building Guildford Cathedral.
Many of us have therefore grown up with a seemingly intimate knowledge of a tiny and confusing country clinging to the edge of the African continent to such an extent that many children would more readily recognise the tribal names of the Philistines or the Samaritans than the Caledones or the Atrebates. My father finished the last war in Palestine and told stories of a frightening but beautiful place and I have spent a lot of time in Tel Aviv working alongside and negotiating with Israelis, yet I have no real sense of the place because when we look at Israel and the West Bank it is through a screen of attention-grabbing pictures of conflict and confrontation, of argument and stubbornness, of failed negotiations and broken promises since the 1940s until the six day war and right up to, literally, the present day, today. Occasionally something reveals itself behind the screen but, even then, it is often too distorted and out of focus for us to grasp its meaning.
Stephen Shore sets out, and to an extent manages, to push a corner of that screen aside and reveal a glimpse, nothing more, of this ancient land and its modern people. In an interview with ASX:TV *(4) he says that he is trying to “come to terms with what is essential about a place that’s visually accessible” but that he recognised that this was a more charged subject matter than he was used to. The challenge that Shore had was to avoid making a political statement but, in practice, this is one of the most politicised places on the planet and Shore’s idiosyncratic style of recording the banal was always going to result in photographs that are charged with politics. Steve Sabella *(5), one of the essayists, speaks to this point when he says that his reading of the photographs may not necessarily originate from the image itself but what it might trigger him to think about. The political message we choose to take from his pictures will vary depending, as ever, on our background, education, faith (or lack of it), age, politics and all the other contextual baggage the viewer always brings to a photograph but, regardless of how they interpret the images many people will feel changed by this book.
Shore’s photographs are punctuated by essays from various writers and artists who have each selected a single image to discuss and these essays are often the key to understanding parts of the series. Shore tells us that a lot of the photographs, if not all of them, have a sub-text but without the essays few viewers would find more than a handful of the sub-texts and even then many of the hidden meanings remain hidden. There is more clarity in the overall structural theme which starts by putting Israel into the context of its ancient history before introducing the vast and untamed wilderness of the land, closing in to show man’s impact on the landscape, moving closer still to see the ugly urbanisation and then on to investigating ordinary people and the trivia of their ordinary lives. Because the book is ultimately a travelogue that spans the length and breath of this sliver of a country this sequence is generally repeated as Shore investigates each of the four main regions.
Archeology plays such a leading role in this book that I intend to base much much of this essay on how Shore deals with and uses that subject. The first set of plates, which set the scene for the whole collection, reminded me of the Walter Benjamin question “Will not the caption become the most important part of the photograph?”. Shore has included part of a set of his photographs from 1994 of a dig at Ashqelon, a site close to the coast, just north of Gaza and south of Tel Aviv. They are simple photos, recordings of pottery, walls, trenches and a well but, for each, he has included a caption taken from the notes written on the back of each photograph by the professor supervising the dig. These captions lead us from the Canaanite Kings to Nebuchadnezzar, from the remains of monumental buildings to water supplies, from simple household utensils to the destruction of ancient city walls. We are pulled back to 1994 to be reminded that this single place, a spot on the map, has been settled and fought over for at least four thousand years. It is representative of a land that has seen occupation by the Canaanites, Philistines, Babylonians, Amorites, Assyrians, Persians, Israelites, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Mamlukes, Ottomans, Palestinians, British and Israelis and probably many others. The photographs are a metaphor for the substance of the book, monumental places and monumental events have ordinary people living ordinary lives inside.
Archeology is re-introduced to the plot with a photograph of an unusual poster found in an Ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood of Jerusalem. The poster shows archeologists at work but labels them as “grave robbers” and orthodox jews protesting and the reaction of the police who are labeled as “butchers”. The sub-text, and the use of archaeology as a subject of both text and images, is that this science that,by excavating ancient Israelite settlements, was used as part of the justification for the creation of the state has become an example of the deep divides that exist within the Jewish population. The Ultra-Orthodox community believe in physical reincarnation, hence the protests captured on the poster, and as their political power is in the ascendency archeology is being increasingly marginalised and important sites vandalised. A metaphor within a metaphor perhaps but the one science that can offer an unambiguous picture of history, uncoloured by religious myth or the histories written by the victors is being suppressed.
One of the more powerful photographs in the book is of a small, ugly and complex house in an Arab village. As a house it is only remarkable for its muddled architecture and apparantly unplanned development but as a piece of living archaeology it is a history book describing two hundred years of modifications that have been made to an old, stone, Arab house by successive generations of inhabitants. We cannot know whether it is the same family that have added and generally not quite finished each phase of development or whether people have come and gone on this site but which ever is the case, this humble home for ordinary people, was probably first built during the days of the Ottoman Empire and as the great events of history have swirled around it successive occupants have added a bit here and adapted a bit there, sometimes following the latest fashions and sometimes just being practical. Analog television came, better aerials arrived, satellite took over and better, bigger dishes became available but all these generations of equipment for watching the news and soaps and sport have been left up there on the roof, a museum exhibit of broadcasting. Shore says that “life there includes the conflict but it is far more than the conflict” and this little house shows how wave after wave of ordinary people have just got on with their lives by adding another bedroom or putting in a new window or getting a better signal to watch the football.
Everywhere is shaped by its history, the British Isles has a few communities that feel driven to fight yesterday’s wars but Galilee to Negrev describes a place that is not just shaped but shackled by the multiple histories of different groups. One group’s big history is another group’s minor event and each group is so self absorbed in the distress of their own history that they forget the recent history of their feuding neighbour. There is a set of four aerial photographs of ruins, archaeological sites would be the obvious thought, taken to the South West of Tel Aviv. It seems unlikely that Shore knew what he was photographing from the low flying helicopter he was travelling in and it appears that the Isreali Government, who were hosting the trip, had forgotten what a select group of foreign dignitaries and journalists were being flown over. Eyal Weizman, another of Shore’s essayists choses one of these photos not just to write about but to investigate. He explains his path of research and concludes that these ruins are not Greek or Roman but the remains of a Palestinian village forcibly cleared by the Israelis when they took possession of this land in the late 1940s.
Perhaps Shore has focussed on archeology as emblematic of a region steeped in ancient history as a way of reminding the viewer that nothing lasts for ever but that the successive occupants of this land have left their mark and are even now leaving their mark. In the valley of Zin he presents eleven small images of found objects, pieces of modern debris that might last long enough in the dessert to be excavated in another age and this style of presentation sets the tone for the last sections of the book with a close-up investigation of Shivta, the ruined Nabatean city in the Negev. also presented as a series of small prints. Many are of ordinary everyday things, a mill stone, perhaps used to make olive oil, a rain gutter, storage pits and door frames but this develops into pieces of more monumental architecture and the book feels as if it has turned full circle to show that ordinary people lived here as part of great civilisations but now they are lost and scattered like the stones of their buildings.
This book is vast, over 200 plates, and is a slow book. It has taken me several evenings to work my way thought it, going back and forth as new pieces of information become available allowing a better understanding of an earlier image.
The essays make compelling reading and I was steadily drawn into the narrative. However, this level of engagement with Shore’s subject was a pleasant surprise. I had ordered Galilee to Negev because it was Shore’s latest major publication and because it was about 40 years on from Uncommon Places which I reviewed some months ago. I was intrigued to find out how much his style has changed and whether he saw the world differently after all this time. This is undoubtably an old man’s topic, young people are (quite rightly) interested in now, not then and certainly nothing bores the young more quickly that a comparison between now and then.
The continuity in Shore’s style is quite remarkable, most of the landscapes are still taken with an 8 x10 camera although he says he fell in love with the digital camera he used for the shots of daily life. The overall presentation of the books are very similar and it would be possible to swap a few of the plates between the publications without them appearing too out of place. There is still the occasional meal with humous replacing pancakes but note the regional flavour of these meals, the landscapes are mostly quite clearly Israel or middle America but he still offers pale skies and angles that exaggerate the scale of open spaces. He still introduces the viewer to the people he meets along the way and the street scenes in Galilee to Negev are composed in the same style as Uncommon Places.
We know that, between Uncommon Places and Galilee Stephen Shore has experimented with digital books, new technologies and different ways of presenting his images so it is interesting that he has returned to his best known and most iconic style when asked to join this project. I interpret this as an indication of the level of respect that he had for the concept and the importance he placed on obtaining the most compelling result possible. This was not a place for experimentation so he dusted off his 8 x 10 and brought that peculiar Stephen Shore eye to a tormented but very special place.
(9) Shore, Stephen. (2014) From Galilee to Negev. New York: Phaidon.
(2) Brenner, Frédéric. (2014) An Archeology of Fear and Desire. Mack Books – http://www.mackbooks.co.uk/books/1024-An-Archeology-of-Fear-and-Desire.html
BJB On-Line – Stephen Shore’s New Book – http://www.bjp-online.com/2014/05/stephen-shores-new-book/
(1) Brenner, Frédéric. Frédéric Brenner Official Web-Site – http://www.fredericbrenner.com/archeology-of-fear-and-desire/2xv80i99p9auggl3mchke43r82w3le
Brenner, Frédéric. Frédéric Brenner Facebook Page – https://www.facebook.com/fredericbrennerphotographer/timeline
New York Times – Lens Blog – Josef Koudelka: Formed by the World – http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/19/josef-koudelka-formed-by-the-world/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0
The Times of Israel – Portraits of a Many Layered Country – http://www.timesofisrael.com/portraits-of-a-many-layered-country/
(3) Time Lightbox. Picturing the Holy Land: 12 Photographers Chart a Region’s Complexities. – http://lightbox.time.com/2014/04/16/west-bank-israel-photos/#1
(4) ASX:TV. Stephen Shore in Conversation (2014) – http://www.americansuburbx.com/2014/05/asx-tv-stephen-shore-in-conversation-2014.html
(5) Sabella, Steve. Steve Sabella Official Website – http://stevesabella.com
(6) Goldsmiths University of London – Eyal Weizman – http://www.gold.ac.uk/visual-cultures/w-eizman/
(7) New York Times – Top Photographers Try Looking at Israel From New Angles – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/15/world/middleeast/photography-project-seeks-new-angles-on-israel.html?_r=2&
(8) Photo-Eye Blog – Interview: Stephen Shore on a New York Minute and From Galilee to the Negev – http://blog.photoeye.com/2014/03/interview-stephen-shore-on-new-york.html