Some Things Seen in Israel:
Photographs by Burt Allen Solomon
On view April 14 – July 28, 2013, and marking the 65th anniversary of the State of Israel
Burt Allen Solomon and Susan Chevlowe, Director, Derfner Judaica Museum
Susan Chevlowe: When one thinks of how Israel has been represented in photographs, many images come to mind – heroic soldiers and sabras, workers on the land and in industry, desert shepherds and urban youth culture, religious and secular life. Photojournalists like Robert Capa (1913-1954)– whose images were first published between 1948-1951 – and others have created iconic pictures that chronicle the history of modern Israel. How familiar were you with his or other popular images of Israel before your first visit in the summer of 1968 and do you think such images shaped your expectations?
Burt Allen Solomon: Back then, I had no particular expectations and wasn’t even sure that I wanted to go to Israel for my first trip overseas. At that time, I wasn’t familiar with Capa’s work though I had a copy of Photography Annual 1965, which included four of his images – one of which was taken in Israel. I probably did not have social or political expectations either, other than a generally idealistic concept of the kibbutz and pride and thankfulness that Israel had won the Six Day War the year before. Of course, I loved The Family of Man, the 1955 book documenting the influential Museum of Modern Art exhibition, as well as my father’s US Camera Annual 1947, though that had just two Palestine photos. Even now, having looked at thousands of photographs, my work is basically what I see. I look at what is in my view and some things interest me (subject matter, light, composition). If I have my camera with me and at the ready, I take a photograph. My first trip to Israel was exciting. Everything was new and “exotic,” and there were lots of photographic subjects all the time. By the way, two of my favorite books of photographs of Israel are Israel, The Reality: People, Places, Events in Memorable Photographs, based on an exhibition at The Jewish Museum, New York, in 1969, organized by Robert Capa’s brother, Cornell Capa, and Micha Bar-Am, and Jerusalem: City of Mankind, also by Cornell Capa, from 1974. Among many other photography books that have struck me is The Concerned Photographer, which Cornell Capa also edited. Along with other wonderful photographers that book included work by Robert Capa, though only one from Israel.
SC: Since you began taking pictures in Israel, what have been the biggest changes that you’ve noticed?
BAS: To a 24-year-old New Yorker, the country seemed very excited about the outcome of the Six Day War. Israelis were at last able to travel freely throughout the West Bank, with the eastern border finally more than 15 kilometers east of the Mediterranean Sea at Netanya. Since then, each time I have been to Israel, I have become more aware of the process of modernization, particularly visually. With each visit, I again have a feeling of being in a place that is at once familiar and strange. For instance, in 1974, I photographed a damaged mosque in southern Tel Aviv with high-rise construction going up in the distance behind it (Tel Aviv, 1974.8). Then, in 1982, my wife and I and our daughters stayed in the very hotel that was built there. Later, in 2009, I found and photographed the mosque again, fully renovated and in use. From today’s perspective, life in Israel in 1968 and 1974 seemed more basic and simpler than it is now. Cafés were simple affairs (“Luki Bar” [Tel Aviv], 1974.4). I find the decline of what seemed “exotic” to be sad, but I recognize that Israel is not a place meant to be a photographic dream.
Rather, it is a lived reality where development means the ability to thrive in a competitive, dangerous world. Since my earliest trip, when Israelis felt free and comfortable traveling around the West Bank, I have found an increasing reluctance to do so. In 1974, the year after the Yom Kippur War, I traveled from Jerusalem to Be’er Sheva, but we made sure not to stop in or around Hebron. And in 1982, we were able to drive in the West Bank along the Jordan River barrier from Jerusalem to Jericho and up north towards Tsefat, but we were warned not to stop for anything anywhere along the way.
SC: Do you think that your photographs are objective? Do you feel that photographs can be objective?
BAS: I suppose that in some sense the photos are “objective,” in that they are basically accurate depictions of what is before my camera lens when I release the shutter. With only rare exceptions, I have not gone out with a preconception of a photograph or group of photographs to take. None of the images included in this exhibition are posed or manipulated, though I have made choices in the darkroom, such as cropping, burning in and dodging, reversing the negative from right to left and printing a photo as a negative to achieve a visual effect (Silwan, 2004). In each case, in a clearly subjective process, I have framed the subject by choosing what to photograph and the moment to release the shutter, excluding the surroundings outside of the frame (sometimes doing this twice, the second time in the darkroom, when I print the image). So the final result is a relatively “objective” portrayal.
SC: You have intentionally chosen not to title your works. What is the significance of that choice?
BAS: My view is that photographs should first stand on their own. Only rarely have I given names to pictures. “Televiziah! Televiziah!” (Tsefat, 1974) is what the kids in the group called out in excitement when they saw me, apparently confusing my still camera with a television camera. I named Luki Bar (Tel Aviv, 1974.4) as a convenient reference; and I titled a photo of new, multi-story luxury housing on the site of the old Tel Aviv Opera House, ironically, after Herzl’s book, Altneuland (Tel Aviv, 2009.3).
SC: Most photographs in this exhibition were taken in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv– cities that have come to symbolize such contrasts as religious vs. secular, old world vs. modern, Eastern vs. Western culture. Did you see these contrasts in your images?
BAS: Generally, Jerusalem is the more traditional city with greater elements of religious and Arab life, and Tel Aviv is the more worldly, but that distinction is certainly not entirely accurate. Both cities are varied, and even Jerusalem has its modern neighborhoods. For many years, I described Tel Aviv as the most charmless city that I loved, though more recently, it has gained in charm. I have certainly been conscious of the contrast of the “old” and the “new” throughout the country, ever since my first visit, when my older cousin, Shlomo Shpiegel, and I walked the streets of Netanya, which he had helped to found. He pointed out to me what was yashan (old) and what was hadash (new). At least subconsciously, I was aware of the hadash and the yashan whenever I aimed my camera to shoot.
About the Photographer
Burt Allen Solomon began photographing in Israel in the summer of 1968 – arriving days after an El Al hijacking. With rare exceptions, his images have only place names, encouraging audiences to look and not to be directed toward a particular point of view. His subjects range from the Tel Aviv skyline along the Mediterranean coast to ancient towns across the Green Line– Israel’s pre-1967 border. This selection of 42 black-and-white photographs captures the ongoing shifts in Israeli culture, fixing what is seen in gestures, lights, shadows and contrasts.
Solomon was born in 1944 and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. For more than 50 years, he has taken photographs in a documentary, “street photography” style. Taking, developing and printing photographs since he graduated from high school, he started out on his father’s World-War-II-vintage Kodak Medalist II camera, with its large “medium format” (2 1/4 x 3 1/4) negative size, and has been behind many cameras since then. Among the photography books that have influenced him, Solomon has noted the acclaimed The Family of Man (1955) and US Camera Annual 1947, as well as visits to the Kodak gallery in Grand Central Terminal. His father, a commercial printer by day and hobbyist photographer, introduced him to the darkroom in a corner of their garage in Brooklyn. Solomon lives in South Orange, New Jersey and is a practicing attorney in New York City. His work has been exhibited previously at Vladeck Hall Gallery at the Amalgamated Houses in the Bronx and at the Framing Mill, Maplewood, NJ.
Header: Burt Allen Solomon, Tel Aviv, 2009, gelatin silver print, 7 3⁄4 x 9 3⁄4 inches (2009.1)
This text appeared in the brochure printed in conjunction with the exhibition Some Things Seen in Israel: Photographs by Burt Allen Solomon on view in the Derfner Judaica Museum, April 14 – July 28, 2013, and marking the 65th anniversary of the State of Israel.
About the Hebrew Home at Riverdale
As a member of the American Alliance of Museums, the Hebrew Home at Riverdale by RiverSpring Health is committed to publicly exhibiting its art collection throughout its 32-acre campus, including the Derfner Judaica Museum and a sculpture garden overlooking the Hudson River and Palisades. The Derfner Judaica Museum + The Art Collection provides educational and cultural programming for residents of the Hebrew Home, their families and the general public from throughout New York City, its surrounding suburbs and visitors from elsewhere. RiverSpring Health is a nonprofit, non-sectarian geriatric organization serving more than 18,000 older adults in greater New York through its resources and community service programs. Museum hours: Sunday–Thursday, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Art Collection and grounds open daily, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
Hebrew Home at Riverdale
5901 Palisade Avenue
Riverdale, New York 10471
This exhibition is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.