Numerous photo exhibits are planned for Tel Aviv's centennial. One of the first to open is the solo show of French photographer Jean-Baptiste Avril-Bodenheimer at the Heder Gallery. It features black-and-white photos of the city. They are relatively small works, and all of them are well done. The question is what do they say about Tel Aviv and how are they different, if they are essentially different, from the photos in a guidebook or in an album and from so many other photos?
Does the use of black-and-white here have significance, or is it just a simplistic attempt to create an "artsy" look? Is the complete absence of people in the works also not some kind of guarantee for that kind of look?
It is also possible to consider this exhibit, like many opening soon, as the building stones of a myth that reinforces itself. The creation of the Tel Aviv myth, as part of the settlement myth, is worthy of a separate discussion. Tel Aviv marketed itself, decades before marketing became a fixture of every institution's operations, as a city that sprang from the sands, almost miraculously. Over the last two decades, the city has experienced a revival: After years of suffering from urban neglect, it went through renewal and growth. It sparks a certain interest in the rest of the world, too, ever since UNESCO in 2003 declared areas of the "White City" a World Heritage Site. It is interesting to consider the way in which photography contributed to the building of this myth and perhaps also to the Tel Aviv's flourishing in reality.
The exhibit, "White City: International Style Architecture in Israel," curated by Dr. Michael Levine at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1984, consisted mostly of photos of the city's buildings in their glory and most of them were professional architecture pictures. This exhibit, and a large conference in the city in the early 1990s, accelerated the recognition, rehabilitation and renewal of buildings in the International style and also in the eclectic style.
Avril-Bodenheimer's photography on display here is not professional architectural photography. It has abundant measures of "atmosphere" as a substance, as a component in the captivating nature of the sights, which it sometimes seems was enough for the artist. Avril-Bodenheimer, who was born in 1965, started photographing professionally when he was 22, after completing his studies in philosophy and psychology. He photographed wars in Southeast Asia and Bosnia and since the 1990s, he has been working for the United Nations; in this capacity he has taken photos, among others, in Kazakhstan, Niger, East Timor, Lebanon and Bangladesh. Since 2002, he has been photographing architecture for architects in France, Israel and Luxembourg.
The photos of Tel Aviv were taken in the early morning hours, when there were still no people out and about. Then, the artist writes in the catalog, "the light is created, revelations occur, in the silence of the place, the past is born anew." And yet, looking at the photos does not reveal a rebirth of the past, but rather the creation of a kind of instant nostalgia. The photos of Tel Aviv's southern neighborhoods soften and blur the ugliness and neglect. The electric cable pylons and the black wires stretching between the houses are photographed in a way that brings to mind the perception of the beauty of technology and progress from the early 20th century, and not the misery, the sense of exposed nerves that these sites prompt in reality, where they are further evidence of the neglect of certain areas.
The ambivalence prompted by these works is noticeable, for example, in a photo of one of the Templer houses of Sarona that was moved (in an important architectural rescue project), photographed with three towers standing behind it representing the new skyline. In the foreground of the photo, is the house whose doorways are sealed, either because it is about to be razed or refurbished, which option is unclear. The towers appear to be a threatening presence, the house seems to be shouting silently, using the same terms whose cliches are clear. And so, more than being poetic, the photo is transformed into an illustration of the changes in the city and also of the sense many have about it.
The perception of photography as attempting to express collective feelings, and to be the embodiment of consensus, is perhaps the most troublesome thing in Avril-Bodenheimer's photography. In the preface to the catalog, he writes: "I just want to share. To share a perspective free of judgment, free of a position, free in every respect." In effect, he presents photography that confirms and beatifies the reality.
Jean-Baptiste Avril-Bodenheimer, "Silent City." The Heder Gallery, 11 Gottlieb Street, Tel Aviv; opening hours, Monday-Thursday 1-7 P.M.; Friday, 11 A.M.- 2 P.M.; Saturday, 11 A.M.-1 P.M., through January 17, 2009.