A cracked pomegranate sits in the road, its brilliant seeds shining like bloodied teeth. Three oil drums, one with a tire balanced atop it, join random items in a still life of what looks like a homemade roadblock. A long, continuous wall snakes through a tilted, black and white landscape. Patterns in the earth, shot in grainy black and white, suggest a joyous dancer with elongated legs.
These compelling images – captured by Wendy Ewald, Martin Kollar, Josef Koudelka and Jungjin Lee – are part of the exhibition This Place: Israel Through Photography’s Lens, which is on display at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach through January 17.
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The exhibition includes photographs of people, of course. Gilles Peress focused his camera on residents of Palestinian Jerusalem and caught a girl who seems to be levitating – until you notice that she’s reclining on wires strung across a small courtyard. Rosalind Fox Solomon captured African pilgrims visiting holy sites.
Frédéric Brenner persuaded a Hasidic Jewish family to pose during their Shabbat dinner, the members representing, in his words, “the most emblematic residue of diaspora in the heart of the Middle East.” Yet it’s his enigmatic shot of the façade of Jerusalem’s Palace Hotel during a massive renovation that, he says, is the key to his photographic essay. It’s also the type of photograph that distinguishes This Place from the popular A Day in the Life book series, which sets out to capture the life of a nation in pictures taken on a single day.
“A Day in the Life is really my anti-Bible,” says Brenner, who conceived the idea for This Place. “[The exhibit] couldn’t be more opposite. We don’t offer any answers. We invite people to look within.
“It’s really an essay about the human condition. We are holding a mirror to Israel and Israel is holding a mirror to the world,” he explains, noting that the country is the birthplace of three major religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – that have been in conflict for ages.
Brenner grew up in France and spent 25 years traveling the world to record the Jewish diaspora. Israel attracted him, as both “place and metaphor.” He recruited for the project renowned photographers – not photojournalists, but people he describes as artists.
The reason: He wanted to get away from simplistic, journalistic treatments of Israel: “for, against; victims, perpetrators.” His goal was not to ignore the politics of the place but to go beyond them. And, because he saw Israel as a place of “radical otherness,” it made perfect sense to him “to invite others to question this otherness.” The 12 photographers who participated represent eight nationalities.
“The range of vision is incredibly broad,” says Tim Wride, the William and Sarah Ross Soter Curator of Photography at the Norton. “Literally, it’s a who’s who of who is doing great photographic work in the world at this moment… And they each have their own vision. They each approach the subject from their own quirky, informed, uninformed, creative, completely idiosyncratic point of view.”
Only two of the photographers had visited Israel before the start of the project. They all made repeated visits over the course of four years.
“The project is not just another photography project,” says Brenner. “I wanted to create an incubator for a conversation to start.”
It will probably begin with the individual photographs, most of which carry only rudimentary captions; some, none at all. Brenner’s arresting photograph of traffic stopped on a Tel Aviv highway, people standing outside their cars, makes no mention of the fact that they are observing a moment of silence during Holocaust Remembrance Day.
A caption, Brenner believes, can be used as a crutch by viewers; it undoubtedly takes their attention away from the photograph. Mystery gives birth to questions, and questions lead to conversations.