Studio Call: Photographer Lea Golda Holterman Has a Split Lens

Dividing her attention between secular and Orthodox, Israel and abroad, this artist treats her studio like a psychologist's clinic.

Ellie Armon Azoulay
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Ellie Armon Azoulay

Lea Golda Holterman divides her time between her apartment in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Kiryat Mattersdorf in Jerusalem, her parents’ home in Haifa and an apartment in Berlin - just as she divides her time between the religious and the secular, and between the desire to define her identity and her attraction to the unfamiliar. She has no regular studio, and prefers to photograph her subjects in their natural surroundings.

The encounter with Holterman, 36, takes place in Haifa’s downtown area, in the Turkish market – a small pedestrian mall in the old commercial center. The attractive area that was built in the late 1920s stood neglected for years, but, at the initiative of the municipality, it is presently undergoing a face-lift that includes renovation and restoration.

Holterman received a temporary studio for three months from the municipality. “It’s a kind of closing of a circle,” explains the Haifa-born artist.

Her studio is located on the ground floor of a building that formerly housed a printing press, and it is presently serving as an exhibition space for an exhibition entitled “Photoanalysis.” The show complements a street exhibition of her photos, which are scattered around downtown, near the studio. Before opening the exhibition in her studio, Holterman took advantage of the space for various encounters, but did not photograph a single frame there: “I treat the studio like a psychologists’ clinic. I speak to people, they tell me things. You wouldn’t believe how much you can learn from a person who is willing to open up a bit.” There isn’t enough time to describe the characters who frequent the area, she adds.

Holterman’s photos both play with and are nourished by the tension between documentary elements and fictional, staged effects. “There are people whom I simply meet and they create the image ? in other words, it is constructed from their life: Someone invites me into his home, we spend an entire day together while he engages in various activities, and then I ask if I can recreate a moment of which he was totally unaware.”

There are other examples, like one of her best-known photographs, featuring an ultra-Orthodox boy with an elegant white collar: “I worked on it for a long time,” Holterman explains. “I really believe in creating an image. In its power. Until I complete it in my mind, I don’t even think about where or whom I’ll photograph.” That process, she notes, takes place in her sketchbooks.

Holterman has not lived in Haifa since she began her army service, but speaks warmly of the city: “It’s a type of provincial town with totally modern elements. A successful combination, in my opinion. It’s a calm, authentic place. Not in the sense that in another place there are liars, but that there are very private people here who assemble their lives from various things, and make less of an effort to be something else.”

Holterman teaches at the Tel-Hai Academic College in the north, and therefore usually spends weekends at her mother’s home in Haifa. Jerusalem is another story. She has lived there and drawn inspiration from various parts of it during different periods in her life.

During her studies there, at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, she enjoyed what the secular world had to offer, but during the past two years she has been living in Kiryat Mattersdorf in the north of the city.

Holterman: “It’s a huge difference. To enter Haredi society is like going to a cafe in Vienna, where there are codes that are totally unwritten and yet absolutely clear. Codes of dress, speech, behavior, etc. In Haifa there’s freedom, you can put up a studio anywhere in the street.”

How has she been received? “They accepted me immediately. The moment I arrived, half the neighborhood was downstairs. My dog became the children’s petting corner.”

While the heart-to-heart encounter with the neighbors and the community that lives there happened immediately, taking a camera and getting them to sit in front of her seemed impossible. “There was a lot of resistance and suspicion,” she recalls. “It’s a sort of social standard: You don’t have your picture taken. Yet slowly but surely, it’s happening.”

Several times Holterman has rented an apartment in Bnei Brak in order to photograph subjects; she erected a carefully chosen backdrop and meticulously planned each frame she shot. “The project, called ‘Orthodox Eros,’ was planned for over two years and photographed in two weeks,” she says, laughing.

In Jerusalem she has an apartment, not a studio. “I bring the studio into people’s homes,” she says.

Holterman does not accept the claim that Jerusalem is a “tough” city or that the atmosphere there is fraught. “I know that it’s customary to say that, but I don’t feel it in the same way. I do believe it’s a city that demands constant tension from those who live there; I’ve lived there for almost 10 years and I can say that it’s a demanding place. At the same time, I claim that people in Jerusalem are calmer and very strongly connected to their place.”

Along with the commercial work for newspapers and magazines that she has done throughout the years (Haaretz, Vogue and others), Holterman has photographed in the most socially remote and backward places, from the old Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, to the daring nightlife of Berlin, to Haredi society both in Israel and abroad ? a society to which she has devoted herself even more in recent years.

“I travel to Berlin because I’m incapable of being here for a long time. I feel that I have to travel abroad in order to get perspective, and that to find my place as a Jewish woman I have to go to the Diaspora. I have also created a social milieu there for myself that I enjoy very much. I don’t have it in Israel, nor will I have such a thing in here.”

Although Holterman declares that she will never live outside Israel, she confesses that the country and society are hard to take. “Everything here is a patchwork, there’s no vision for the country. I’m not saying that Zionism wasn’t a justified vision; it was. In its time there couldn’t have been any other alternative, but there could be another alternative that isn’t racist Zionism.”

Despite her political and social criticism, Holterman is steadily strengthening her ties with the realm of Jewish thought, in terms of her lifestyle and her decision to live in Jewish society, after a long process that began when she was about 12. “You’re asking me toward the end of my decision, but it was a process that took years. If it were possible to sue the Education Ministry and Hollywood, I would do so and receive compensation for distress, deception and a distortion of the world of values.”

“Untitled” (2012) Credit: Lea Golda Holterman
Lea Golda Holterman. “I bring the studio into people’s homes.”Credit: Uri Gershuni
“Untitled” (2012) Credit: Lea Golda Holterman