Image Maker

Beginning in the 1920s, his photos helped shape the world's perception of the Zionist enterprise. But Shmuel Joseph Schweig is equally renowned as Israel's first artistic photographer of landscape and archaeology. A new exhibition at Tel Hai documents his work.

Gedula Ogen's father was not your usual dad. Dozens of guests mingled on weekends in their large Jerusalem home, with its lush garden. Anyone passing by the gate could not help but notice the shiny brass sign: Shmuel Joseph Schweig, Master Photographer. Ogen, 81, a ceramics artist, is Schweig's daughter. The family always lived in large houses, and in each of them her father kept a big studio with a darkroom and spacious closets for his equipment. Considered pedantic and slow, he devoted hours to developing his photographs: He usually managed to print one a day. He was also technically astute, having studied optics and camera construction. He told his daughter that an artist who does not have full control of his technique cannot realize visual ideas. His son, Chanoch Ido, remembers that when he was about five his father bought a large tele lens and built a long sleeve out of wood (to connect the camera and the lens ) in order to photograph the moon and get an image the size of a coin, not a speck of dust.

Schweig is considered one of the most important of those who fashioned the image of Palestine, beginning in the 1920s, and he is identified with the Zionist enterprise and the nation-building project of the Jewish people. However, he saw himself above all as an artistic photographer; indeed, he is considered the first local art photographer of landscape and archaeology. He also worked in color.

Gedula Ogen recalls the house her parents rented from the Nashashibi family in the center of Jerusalem, on a street running parallel to Ethiopia Street (now B'nai Brith Street ). Schweig's studio was in the basement, which had a stone floor. Someone from the Nashashibi family - members of the Palestinian aristocracy - came around once a month to collect the rent. Her brother remembers him, dressed in a suit and wearing brown and white shoes.

Schweig cooked in the garden and sometimes put on a show. "Father was well-versed in Yiddish culture and literature," Ogen relates. "He was something of an entertainer and with his booming, clear voice and perfect pitch he told jokes of [poet and playwright] Itzik Manger. On Saturdays, the yard filled up with guests and everyone cooked, father too. Two Bukharan families came regularly, and also members of father's extensive family. We had a water cistern in the yard, and Bracha Tzfira [a singer, 1911-1990] used to wash her huge mane of hair in it and did voice exercises while waiting for her hair to dry."

Yaakov Orland wrote the lyrics for "Etz Harimon" (The Pomegranate Tree ) in their yard. "Rivkaleh, one of the Bukharan girls, hummed a Bukharan folksong and Orland was taken by it and wrote words. [The music for the song in its popular version was composed in 1944 by Yedidya Admon.] Shoshana Damari was discovered in our yard," Ogen continues. Next door was the acting studio of the director Moshe Bronzaft [Gorali]. He adapted the children's play 'Queen of Sheba' and the rehearsals were held in the yard, because my mother did the choreography. Damari, the future singer, who was then 14-15, played the Queen of Sheba. She sat under this olive tree and rehearsed the part."

Palms in the wind

An exhibition of Schweig's work, "Shmuel Joseph Schweig: Photography as Material," opened on May 22 at the Open Museum of Photography in the Tel Hai Industrial Park in Upper Galilee and will run until the end of October (curator: Naama Haikin ). It is devoted to Schweig's photographic heritage; all the items on display are on loan from the collections of his two children. Schweig was the subject of a solo exhibition nearly 40 years ago, in 1971, at the Israel Museum, and a second exhibition, held in 1985, a year after his death, also at the museum, consisted of a selection of photographs that he himself chose and printed.

His daughter writes in the catalog :"My father taught me how to identify works that have a distinctive character and connect with them, even works without narrative or social drama, which do not involve any dramatic lighting or poses, like a row of palms in the wind, a group of agaves, or the Judean mountains illuminated by a gentle, grayish matte light. Such photographs tackle dramatic landscapes or human social dramas in a clear, precise manner. Sometimes a grayish photograph works beautifully, clearly and unequivocally."

Her brother, Chanoch, an amateur photographer who is a member of Kibbutz Yehiam, started taking pictures when he was 14 using a small Graf camera his father bought him. "I would show him the pictures of the guys from the youth movement and he would say, 'What's with the pictures of rear ends?' I did the laboratory work myself in his laboratory in the house," he recalls.

Schweig had a sense of humor and liked to rattle off stories in Yiddish that made a funny point. "But when it came to photography, he did not have an ounce of humor," Ido says. "There were clear instructions about holding a picture by the edges, and if you forgot, you got a slap on the hand. Eating next to the photographs was not allowed and you could not bring pictures into the area of the dining room. My sister and I were not allowed to have a copy pencil in the house because it might stain the photographs. One time I put a magnet and a few pins in an old box of film and he put his hand in and was pricked. His hand flew out and I got a slap."

Joseph Schweig was born in Tarnopol (Ternopil ), in Galicia, on Purim 1902, the third of four children of Gedalia Sommerstein and Ethel Schweig. The marriage was performed by a rabbi, but the couple did not register at the town hall, so when six-year-old Joseph lost his father, he retained his mother's name. He was drawn to photography in his youth and worked as an apprentice to a photographer in Tarnopol. His older brother was the first to immigrate to Palestine, followed by the rest of the family.

Schweig, who was then 19, stopped in Vienna on the way and studied for a year and a half under Prof. Josef Eder, in one of the first courses given in technical-scientific photography. Eder ran a college for the study of photography and graphics in which Schweig acquired his know-how in illustration, book production and binding. It was there that he bought his first camera.

He arrived in Palestine hungry for a new life, his daughter says, and it was love at first sight for the land and its landscapes. The family settled in Haifa, and the children helped make ends meet. Schweig worked at various manual jobs, such as tarring roofs, but he also took pictures. In 1925, for example, he accompanied Baron Rothschild when he toured the country, and took his portrait.

"My father had connections in Haifa with the family of the grandfather of Ezer Weizman," Ido says, referring to the former Israeli president. "He worked freelance in those years and photographed at Nesher [outside Haifa] and at Mikveh Yisrael [the iconic agricultural school outside Tel Aviv]. But his older brother, who was working on the building of the Rafah road, came down with tuberculosis, and my father cared for him until his death. That was such a brutal trauma that father decided to move to Jerusalem, where he met mother."

Tziva (Zviya ) nee Dickstein, who immigrated to Palestine with her parents and her five siblings from Russia in 1922, was a dancer and later taught rhythmic gymnastics. Until her last day, at the age of 90, her son relates, she received pupils in her studio at home. She hid the true year of her birth, 1900, along with the fact that this made her two years older than her husband . She and Schweig were married in April 1928. Gedula was born in 1929 and Chanoch three years later.

In Jerusalem, Schweig signed a contract with the Jewish National Fund. In an article in the exhibition catalog, Dr. Ruth Oren, the show's scientific adviser, notes that in 1925 the publicity departments of the JNF and Keren Hayesod (the Foundation Fund ) decided to employ a permanent photographer to take pictures around the country. For the next eight years, Schweig maintained working relations with the two organizations and sold his photographs to both of them. In some cases, an official from one of the organizations accompanied him in his photographic work.

Letter from King George

Schweig was a man of principle. He declined to use industrial materials to develop his photographs, instead preparing the chemical mixtures himself in order to achieve full control over the process. Until the 1950s, he insisted on using glass negatives, which were not susceptible to vagaries of the weather. He photographed in natural light only, using reflectors and shunning the flash.

From the start of the 1930s, Schweig devoted himself to artistic photography. Naama Haikin, the curator, writes in her article in the catalog that Schweig drew a clear distinction between his artistic work and his work for institutions such as the JNF and the Jewish Agency. He categorized only about 200 of the thousands of photographs he took as artistic, and printed them for inclusion in exhibitions or albums. In 1927, Lord Palmer, the British high commissioner in Palestine, gave King George V an album of Schweig photographs as a gift. A congratulatory letter of thanks was duly sent to the photographer from the monarch.

Three years later, Schweig went to Britain and for three years audited courses at the University of London. Afterward, he held a solo exhibition at the Royal Photographic Society in London. Sir Frederic Kenyon, the director of the British Museum, wrote him a letter of appreciation for his work. He also added an offer for Schweig to produce a luxurious album of 300 photographs to be entitled "The Beauty of the Holy Land." Kenyon wrote: "I saw Mr. Schweig's collection after a short visit to Palestine, and was much impressed alike by their fidelity to fact and the technical and artistic skill shown in their production. Any librarian that owns his volumes will have both a thing of beauty and faithful pictorial record of the land with which the hopes of our civilization are so indissolubly associated." However, the album project was never realized.

Four years later, Schweig received an honorary diploma at the international colonial photography exhibition in Paris, and a year later was awarded a gold medal for artistic photography at the Levant Fair held in Tel Aviv. In 1933, he held an exhibition in Jerusalem under the patronage of the high commissioner, Sir Arthur Wauchope, which included 100 photographs "without a propaganda context and without captions," he noted.

In 1934, he was appointed chief photographer of the antiquities department of the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem, and no longer worked for the JNF and Keren Hayesod. He was also accepted as a member of the British Royal Photographic Society. In 1941, he prepared a handmade album of images of British police stations in Palestine.

When the British left Palestine in 1948, Schweig received letters of appreciation from them. Richard Stubbs, the director of the British Press Information Office (forerunner of the Israeli Government Press Office ) noted that Schweig had come to the PIO following exemplary service in the antiquities department. Schweig, he went on, was a consummate professional who provided services to the PIO generously and as a true artist. As one of the officers who maintained the activity of the PIO in the final "impossible" week of the Mandate, Schweig demonstrated praiseworthy responsibility to his community and his country, Stubbs wrote. Years later, in 1976, Schweig received from the British the title of honorary fellow of the Royal Photographic Society for his contribution to the art of photography. After 1948, Schweig channeled his activity primarily into archaeological and scientific photography. He did photographic work in the laboratories of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem until his retirement in 1971.

16,000 negatives

The Schweig collection, which includes both glass and large gelatin negatives, is divided among the Israel Museum, the archive of the JNF, the Zionist Archives and the Rockefeller Museum. Many original prints, mostly small in size, are held by private collectors. One of them is Buki Boaz, 48, a businessman from the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Yerushalayim.

Boaz, who started to collect Israeli photographs at the age of 16, owns about 250 photos by Schweig. Ido was stunned when Buki called him two years ago to inform him that he was holding an exhibition of his father's work sponsored by the art society of Mevasseret Yerushalayim.

"I gave my business card to all the garbage workers of Tel Aviv and asked them to call me if they found anything," Boaz said this week. "On Thursdays and Fridays I was at the Jaffa flea market at 4 in the morning, waiting for the garbage people to arrive with the finds. Not long ago, at the market in Dizengoff Square [in Tel Aviv], I bought a fine folder of photographs that Schweig prepared for Keren Hayesod. It's an album he put together with his own hands. I paid a pittance."

In 1999, Boaz, a former photographer himself, an activist in the Society for the Protection of Nature and the holder of a Ph.D. in town planning, published a book, "Following the Footsteps of Jesus in the Holy Land," which has sold well around the world. His collection includes photographs by Israel Prize laureate Peter Merom, about 20 percent of the American Colony collection and more. "I see my collection as a type of salvation, because some of the items reached me directly from the garbage," he says.

In 1985, a year after the death of their father, Schweig's children donated 16,000 of his negatives to the Israel Museum. "For years, my father dreamed of publishing a book of his selected photographs," Ido says. "Whenever I asked him why he wasn't starting to work on the book, he would reply, 'Soon.' From the 1950s, my parents lived in an apartment in Kiryat Moshe [a Jerusalem neighborhood] which also contained a laboratory and a somewhat disorderly work room. After my father died, I came to the apartment and over a year catalogued the negatives by type, size and subjects, such as exhibitions, landscapes and holy places, settlement and family. I gave the whole collection to Nissan Perez, the curator of photography at the Israel Museum. I loaded my father's equipment on a truck and took it to the kibbutz. We donated the equipment, which is now on display, to the Museum of Photography at Tel Hai. I also gave them 600 prints of 240 photographs that belong to the negatives I catalogued and which I downloaded to discs."

Twenty-five years have passed since Ido donated the photographs to the museum, and he is disappointed. "Since 1985 I keep hearing that they are going to publish a serious book about his work, but nothing is being done," he says. "Two years ago, when Ruthie Ofek, the director of the Open Museums at Tefen and Tel Hai, talked about an exhibition and a catalog, I contacted Perez. A meeting was held at which he said they were not interested in cooperating with the exhibition, but that if we approached them in the conventional way they would help. I wrote a letter to the director of the Israel Museum, James Snyder, with a copy to Perez, noting that we had donated my father's collection without asking for a cent in return and would be happy to have their cooperation to help offset budget problems at Tel Hai. I never got an answer. In 2009 I wrote a second letter on the subject and again got no answer."

Will you consider asking them to return the collection?

"I imagine that that would not be so simple legally, even though no document was signed between us. Perez told me that they are now working on the digitalization of the collection and that he promises to publish a big, respectable book in January 2012. It's a very painful story."

Nissan Perez said this week that during a two-year period he and Schweig met once a week, when they were working on the retrospective, which was held a year after the photographer's death. "Those meetings were one of my formative experiences," Perez says. "The collection was transferred to us because that was the photographer's wish - he bequeathed his estate to us. We received about 16,000 negatives, and in a department with two employees and limited funds it was difficult to deal with a collection of that scale."

How is it that the Tel Hai museum preceded you with an exhibition and a catalog?

"It's because they are not dealing with the totality of the estate, but with the photographs that were in the possession of Schweig's daughter and son. We are now discovering wonderful things in the collection. We discovered that the first color photographs taken by a local photographer in Palestine were done by Schweig."

Why did you turn down Chanoch Ido's request for assistance in producing the catalog?

"There was a meeting in my office, at which I said, 'Tell us what you want.' Total silence fell. I don't remember letters being sent and not answered, and I also do not wish to get into this argument. I promised to publish an art book, which will reflect the totality of Schweig's work. I have not yet seen the catalog that has just been published, but I know that we have negatives of photographs that have never been published. If Chanoch Ido asks for the collection to be returned to him, we will discuss that with him. I am fond of him and have a high regard for him; we are on good terms. I explained to him what happened. I would say that within two years we will finish recording and documenting the collection and we will publish the most comprehensive book about one of the best photographers to emerge in this country since the 1920s. He was one of the geniuses and his prints are spectacular. Actually, he was one of the legendary printers in this land." W