He'll Always Have Paris

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
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Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

"A lot of time has passed since then," he says with a sigh, holding up a photograph of Edith Piaf. "She was one of the greatest of all time, a magnificent singer, simply larger than life. Like everyone, I couldn't get too close to her - she wanted distance. By then she was already sick. In fact, I was at one of her last shows, when she collapsed on the stage. But I didn't photograph the fall, because they immediately closed the curtain. She didn't like being photographed, especially up close, because her drug problems were already visible."

Many others besides Piaf - including Jacques Brel, Michel Piccoli, Marlene Dietrich, Georges Brassens, Marcel Marceau - fill Leon Azoulay's gallery of photographs, taken for the LIPP agency in the 1950s. Now, at age 84, in his modest Holon apartment, he reveals his rare, forgotten collection of photos for the first time, as thrilled as a teenager by the memories.

"There was a story every time, every day," he says longingly. "From 1951 to 1961 I photographed all the French actors in theater and cinema, as well as the singers. In my photographs I looked mainly for the face. That was the most important element for me, because through the face you see the person."

On a hot Levantine afternoon, he is catapulted back to a France just shaking off the trauma of World War II and embarking on an astonishing cultural renaissance, which would fill Paris' stages with unforgettable performing artists. He returns to the chanson performers and the New W ave actors, all the while removing negatives from faded, dusty envelopes bundled with rubber bands. "I don't want to get them dirty," he says, holding them carefully up to the light.

His caution is understandable. "What I have here is only a small sample. I used to keep a negative or two for myself from all my photo shoots, and I put them in an envelope. When I immigrated to Israel in 1962, I had 200 rolls of film in a carton. Everything was organized. Unfortunately, the container with all my equipment was left in Haifa port for six months, in the sun and rain. When I found the crate with all the film, it was full of water. I tried to save the material, but it was hopeless. Luckily I had wrapped some of the things in plastic bags, and that is what survived."

Paparazzi shots of Brigitte Bardot, for example, did not make it. "When she was getting divorced I accompanied her to court. It was completely packed and I remember people trying to force their way in," Azoulay says with a smile. "The whole police force was there. I followed her everywhere. One day we found her in a village on the Riviera, after she started seeing some American. We waited for her - another photographer and I - below her window and called her name. She opened the window and spat at us angrily. But that wasn't the end of it. Afterward her boyfriend came out with a shotgun. We had no choice but to hide behind a tree and take a photo every once in a while. But I have nothing left from her."

Patient comedian

"In this period, the desire to live awoke in France," notes the Jerusalem-based writer and sociologist Claude Sitbon. "Everything picked up in the 1950s and 1960s. After a six-year war, after half of France was occupied by the Nazis, suddenly something was set loose. There was an astonishing efflorescence everywhere - in poetry, in literature, in the cinema and in the theater. It was a moment when France's new culture heroes were born, and they went on to influence the whole world. The press played a central role. You have to remember that they didn't have television yet and the press was at the height of its power. In my opinion, the beauty of this period lay in the fact that the emerging star culture possessed great depth and a message. The singers and actors had a very significant role, like the intellectuals. For example, they made references to the war in Algeria and were salient opponents of colonialism."

Azoulay's images reflect a vibrant world in black and white. "How lovely, Jacques Brel," he says, holding up another negative to the light. "This photo shows him small on the stage. We were not given the opportunity to shoot him up close, so I did what I could. He didn't want to be photographed - he arrived, sang and left quickly. And here is Marlene Dietrich. Who in the world doesn't know who she is? She was a tremendous actress; her legs were insured for millions," he says, unfurling a photo of Dietrich in glittering garb, surrounded by dancers and wearing a black hat. "It's said that she had the most beautiful legs in the world. Just look at this picture. That woman was a legend, there is no other word for it."

Glancing at his wife Clara, who sits silently by his side, he says, "Looking at these pictures sends me back there. I managed a team of three photographers. I had a chart to divide the work between all the theaters, which called me every day to tell me the rehearsal times. There was the Champs-Elysees Theater, the Comedie-Francaise, the Renaissance and the Sarah Bernhardt. I was always going to cocktail parties, hobnobbing with the greats. The Paris Opera had performances with 500 actors, horses and ships. Working at the opera was incredibly tiring. I sat in the upper tier and every time I clicked the shutter they got angry at me."

Azoulay's specialty was theaters. "That was my field. I photographed only at rehearsals. You had to know how to talk to the actors, to get into their good graces. I had all kinds of methods, such as giving them cigarettes. I couldn't do my work if the actors didn't cooperate, but they were very respectful of the photographers and were happy to go along with us. They understood it was for their benefit; they needed the publicity. Only rarely did I encounter actors who didn't like being photographed, who didn't want to see a stranger in front of them. Georges Brassens, whom our Yossi Banai loved very much and whose songs he translated and sang, did not like photographers. He didn't give anyone time to take his picture."

Who was cooperative?

"The comic actor Louis de Funes was something else. He had great patience. He even hosted me twice at his home to take photos. He was very open, always smiling and rattling off jokes. He was the same in life as he was on screen. Also the Israeli singer Rika Zarai. I remember when she came to Paris from Jerusalem with nothing. The first time she appeared at the Olympia, where all the who's who go, it was a surprise, as an opening act for someone. She had long hair and was fat and badly dressed. You could see she was from Israel. I remember she was happy when I took her picture. Afterward she learned how to dress."

Tank-sized camera

Azoulay came to Paris almost by chance. He was born in Marrakech, Morocco. His father owned a building materials store, his mother was a housewife.

"From the age of six I attended an Alliance [Jewish network] school, where we spoke French," he relates. "We lived very well in Morocco, dad had plenty of money. I remember he had a phone, number 27, which was operated by a crank. Not many homes had phones then, only the post office outside the neighborhood. In 1945 the whole family immigrated to Israel for Zionist reasons. I stayed in Marrakech; I was the eldest of nine siblings and I stayed behind to look after the house and the business. The family lived for a short time in Hadera but could not establish itself economically. Dad got work selling fish. He went through all the savings from Morocco fast, so after a year he decided to go back with the whole family."

Azoulay was captivated by photography from an early age. On holidays he went to Casablanca, where his uncle, who had fled France during the war, had a modern photography shop.

"That was where I started to learn about photography, all the tricks. I worked in the laboratory and the studio. He taught me the importance of lighting, how crucial it is to illuminate your subjects. All in all, I learned very quickly. He had a camera the size of a tank, something huge, which stood on one leg and on rollers. I printed pictures, dried them and then retouched them, which is the most important work in the studio. I made women of 60 look 30. In the big photography shops of Paris at that time, the people who worked in retouching were considered artists and made the most money. Everything done today with computers I did with a special pencil I devised, which smoothed over the wrinkles. It was a completely different period. Nowadays photographers only know how to click; I know photography from start to finish. It's something completely different." In July 1946, after his family's return to Marrakech, he left Morocco for good. "Shortly after we were married, my wife Clara and I decided to move to France," he says. "There was no one reason that made us leave. We thought things were progressing there and we wanted to develop ourselves, like everyone. I really got ahead fast there - what I did in Paris I never could have done in Morocco. My first job was with a Jewish-Russian photographer named Boris who shot family and individual portraits. We lived in an apartment we received from my cousin in the Fourth District, next to the Rue de Rivoli leading to the Champs-Elysees. I worked for Boris for two to three weeks. I remember he wanted me to work on Yom Kippur but I wouldn't do it. He said, 'Why not work on Yom Kippur? I am a Jew, too. The Germans taught me what Judaism is. I don't observe Yom Kippur.'"

A few days later, Azoulay read in the paper that the LIPP photography agency was looking for a photographer, and decided to try his luck. "They worked only with theaters," he notes. "The agency was owned by three Jews, the Lipnitzky family. Immediately after I got the job they gave me a Rolleiflex camera and told me to go to the opera. I adjusted my photography to the scale of the production. For some productions I took 150 photos, and for others even 600. In the evening I took the film to be developed, and immediately afterward a motorcycle messenger distributed the photos to news agencies and newspapers. Our photos were very well received in the press. Papers published three or four photos of every production. It was full-time work, day and night." Documenting reality Azoulay's unusual story remained unknown, even in his family. "As a girl I didn't know granddad was a photographer," says his granddaughter, Ilit Azoulay, who is doing a master's degree in photography at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. "Just before my army service, when I started to take an interest in photography, he told me he had been a paparazzo in France. He told me how he used to chase actors in the summer. The truth is that until a few days ago I didn't know granddad was a theater photographer. Years ago I asked him if he had a camera to give me, but he said I had to prove myself first. The first camera he gave me was a Russian one made of cast iron. He didn't give me his Rolleiflex until five years later."

His photographic work was "very functional," she adds. "He did not venture into art. He had no interest in showing his work in galleries - photography was a profession for him. He was interested in practical things. The quality of the photograph was important to him, he was very sensitive to light and shadow. I remember he was dismissive of many of our family photos because they had flat lighting. When I look at the photographs he took, I see his ability to create communication and document something human. I am not good at that; I don't shoot portraits. The first time I showed him my photographs, which were unfocused, the way I liked it, he really let me have it. He said sharpness was the most important thing in photography, because the role of a photograph is to document reality as sharply as possible." Azoulay decided to immigrate to Israel because he was a "crazy Zionist," as he puts it. "I had a villa in Paris, a good job, but nevertheless I came here. I don't regret it now, even though before the Six-Day War I thought of leaving and going back to France. Like my father left. I already had a buyer for the apartment, but I fought at the Suez Canal during the war and I knew that after that experience I would stay in Israel. I stayed even though I didn't think about being a great success here."

Azoulay tried to get into photography in Israel. "But it was tiring," he says. "You didn't have the scale here that I was familiar with. What was there? Two theater companies - Habima and the Cameri. So I tried a different direction. I went to the newspaper Davar, and someone there sent me to the Journalists' Association in Tel Aviv to get a journalist's card so I could work. I got the card but not the work. Afterward I worked for two years with a French paper, Journal Israel, which was distributed in Israel. I mostly photographed the harsh life at the transit camps [for new immigrants]. Then the paper shut down - we couldn't get funding, because the paper was right wing and was critical of the institutions of Mapai [the ruling party in Israel]. Between one thing and another I also took photographs for a nightclub in Jaffa and sold photos to people." Finally, Azoulay had to abandon his artistic career. He got a job with the appliance manufacturer Tadiran. "When I saw that things weren't working out, I went to Tadiran. They gave me a test, I passed and I stayed with them until I retired. Over the years I gave my cameras to my granddaughter Ilit. I wanted to honor her and I gave her all of them. It makes me happy she is a photographer, that she loves it. I also loved it very much. When I saw my photographs published in the paper I felt true happiness. You have to love photography. In France it was my life. When I came to Israel I knew that what I had in Paris I would never have here."