An Engine for Homegrown Creativity

Photographer Gavra Mandil did a great deal to promote and advance the advertising industry in Israel.

Among the hundreds of photographs that comprise the archive of Gavra Mandil, one in particular elicits a unique reaction from his wife, Naomi, who is now 69 years old. The photo features a young man and woman who are naked from the waist up, half-hidden behind a shower curtain. Alongside them is Mandil himself, wearing an undershirt and shorts. "Really, now. Not surprising at all," she says in a humorous tone of voice. "Gavra always liked to be part of his photographs. To feel part of these happenings that he was documenting."

It has been five years since his death. It would be interesting to know how he would react, were he alive, to the relocation of Gavra Studios, the photography studio he founded on Ha'avoda Street in Tel Aviv 50 years ago. In the past two decades it has also functioned as a center for photography studies. Early next month, the institution moves to a new and larger home in southern Tel Aviv.

The couple's younger daughter, Ruti, 39, who has been managing the studio for the past six years, is in a heightened state of excitement. Over the past few years, she says, the number of students in attendance at the studio has grown to the current level of 160 graduates - who complete either a one, two, or three-year program of professional study. "We just had to move to a bigger place," she says.

"When I started out in my studio," Mandil wrote in his autobiography, "Gavra Mandil: Pictures in Black and White" (Milo Publishing House, 2001 ), "it wasn't merely an issue of it being difficult to penetrate the market. First I had to create the market. Many of the people working in advertising in those days considered me arrogant, as I was only willing to shoot advertising photography and was not prepared to photograph weddings, too, for example." But to his delight and good fortune, a few advertising firms encouraged and supported him, and in doing so promoted the growth of a new sector in Israel: advertising photography.

The processes of the professionalization of both commercial and fashion photography took place against the background of widespread changes in the Israeli economy, which had passed through the austerity period and had begun to allocate more time and resources to leisure pursuits and luxuries. The cultural prosperity and economic abundance of the late 1960s forged new patterns. The tendency toward asceticism that had characterized the founding generation was supplanted by a new culture of demonstrative wealth and elegance.

Mandil worked in those years with the top-line clients in the local market, including El Al, the Ministry of Tourism, Amcor, Tadiran, Mifal Hapayis, and Leumi, Hapoalim and Discount banks. He achieved similar success in the realm of fashion, and his client list included haute couture designers such as Pini Leitersdorf, Gideon Oberson and Lola Beer, as well as the companies Ata, Dorina and Gottex.

"During the first few years of the studio we also lived in it, so all of the advertising people used to gather here," Naomi recalls, "eating dinner and then heading over to the printing press to see how the 'wet' photographs turned out. There was a sense of camaraderie: back then, there was no strict differentiation between art director, account manager or budget person. That would happen only later on. We would sit and eat, drink, talk and take photos. Afterwards it became a bit more institutionalized.

"Before we signed a contract to buy the studio, we tried to find out when we would be getting a telephone line. In September, they told us. We thought to ourselves, 'Okay, two months without a telephone isn't that terrible.' But what they neglected to tell us was the exact year it would happen, and in the end, it took seven years until we were hooked up to a telephone line." So it was that the neighborhood grocery store on adjacent Rashi Street became the studio's official secretarial office. Mandil used to stop by every hour, to check in and see if anyone had been looking for him or had left a message."

Naomi Mandil continues: "The height of the studio's activity was throughout the 1960s and '70s. It continued to operate afterwards, but by the '80s, competition in the local photography market had increased. In the years following its establishment, Gavra Studios was among the few that was active in the market, along with those of photographers Mula Eshet, Hanan Sadeh and Peter Herzog.

Looking at Mandil's photos, one notices that the photographer was intrinsically folded into the warmth of the country's landscapes. He blended them into his work with the same attention and affection with which he related, for instance, to the pleats of a cotton blouse or the texture of brocade fabric in an elegant dress.

"He would think above all about the article of clothing, and then would decide where he would be able to photograph it," relates his widow. For example, in a photograph he did for Gottex, he tried to duplicate the swimsuit prints in the background behind the models, which consisted of a thicket of trees. In another photograph he took of a dress designed by Oberson, there is a linkage between the texture of the fabric from which it was sewn and the sculptured stone walls surrounding the model.

Ruti Mandil pulls out a well-arranged cardboard box filled with brown paper envelopes. They contain hundreds of her father's negatives, which amassed over the years. "After he died, we began building up his photography archive. Until then, all of the contact sheets were kept in rustling paper envelopes in a storeroom in the back. Early on, we had no idea how to even begin the project. The envelopes were catalogued by ascending serial number, not by date." Everything has now been scanned and sorted by computer, arranged in files.

Before he died, Mandil was at work on a book that he hoped would incorporate all of his accumulated photographic knowhow. Currently, his daughter says, the plan is to publish a volume of his photographs and complete the writing of the book he began.

A bit old-fashioned

To the young generation of fashion photographers working in Israel today, Mandil's photos may seem a bit old-fashioned, but their contribution to this generation of professionals is substantial. Not because they encourage nostalgia for veneration of the land and its landscapes, but for the manner in which they stir a yearning for times gone by, when there was a true scarcity of resources and when the local market was cut off from what was happening elsewhere. This served as an engine for homegrown creativity, albeit one that was at times slightly naive. Studying his photographs now, you get the impression that this chasm that was opened between what was happening in the fashion field in Israel and what was happening overseas left a wide expanse for creative maneuvering and originality. Today, many of the local photographers tend to work too closely with foreign magazine clippings in hand.

Mandil's work has to be seen in the context of the local and international history of advertising and fashion photography. This enables the observer to better assess his uniqueness as a photographer. "He was a classic photographer," Naomi Mandil recalls. "Gavra liked it when you could see every stitch and every fold in the clothes. That is what was truly important to him. That is why there was always an ironing board open here, and clothespins and safety pins that would prop up the article of clothing. I remember how I would argue with him sometimes, but he was insistent that the article of clothing would be ironed and that it lie well on the body of the model, like on a shop window mannequin. That it not simply be carried by a breeze. That it be understood. For that reason, in my opinion a great deal of his photos lacked momentum and dancing. You can see that there is no happenstance here. Everything is calculated down to the last detail."

In those days, the photographer would do everything himself, from coming up with the concept of the photo shoot, selecting the background, doing the styling, make-up and hair design, down to the choice of the model. Naomi, who was his right-hand-man in running the studio, assisted him in several of these capacities. Sometimes she was assigned the duty of casting models ("As a woman, it was easier for me to walk up to strange women in the street" ), or designing the hair and make-up. In addition, she would retouch the photographs. "I had a kit of paints, ranging from brown to black, and thin brushes with which I would retouch the photos. With an old-style razor blade it was a ton of work."

Mandil told interviewers how he used to snoop around Cafe Ravel and Cafe Nitza in the search for photography models. It was there, for example, that he discovered Dalia Navon for the famous Osem soup ad. It was in the cafes, as well, that Mandil met Shaul Nameri, one of the dominant figures of the Tel Aviv bohemian scene in the 1960s, who appeared in his ads for Ascot cigarettes.

Mandil discovered Shmulik Kraus even before he became a singer, and photographed him too for cigarette ads. "He had nice hands, and later on, we were also very impressed by his manly face," says Naomi Mandil, in a recollection of Kraus. "He was as unruly as they come. One day he showed up at the studio with a girl named Josie Katz and said, 'Yalla, you should photograph her, too.' This was before the two of them became famous singers."

Energetic and boastful

Gavra Mandil was born in Yugoslavia in 1936. His maternal grandfather, Gavra Konfino, for whom he was named, was a photographer with a respectable reputation in Belgrade, and was for a time the chairman of the national photographers association there, even serving as official photographer of the royal court. Gavra Mandil's father, Moshe Mandil, was a young, energetic and boastful photographer who arrived in Belgrade in 1934 and began to undermine Konfino's elevated status. It didn't take long before Moshe began to draw away the latter's clientele, and at one stage he was commissioned to photograph the traditional annual ball in the royal palace. And then, at an event of the national photographers association - headed by Konfino - Mandil struck up a friendship with Konfino's eldest daughter, and soon after they married.

The family arrived in Haifa in 1948, when their son Gavra was 12 years old. There Moshe opened the Talpiot Photo Studio. The time Gavra spent with his father in the photography studio as a young man reinforced the feeling that he was not interested in pursuing photography as a profession. However, when he found out about a school of higher learning abroad for photography studies, he realized that photography offered many more opportunities beyond the sort of work he associated with his father and grandfather. Gavra decided to go to England to study.

In order to study abroad, he needed a foreign currency provision, which had to be issued by the state. He was compelled to appear before a 24-member committee and convince them that photography was a critical profession to the state at least as much as nuclear physics, as he put it. "It wasn't only a great personal victory," he wrote in his autobiography. "It was a precedent for state recognition of the importance of the photographic profession."

In England, he was accepted for photography studies at the Birmingham School of Arts and Crafts. Although he lacked theoretical knowledge of the field, by dint of his diligence and decisiveness, he managed to complete his studies with honors, receiving his diploma in photography studies in only two years (instead of the usual four ). He then worked as an assistant to and as studio manager for advertising and fashion photographers in London. Once he felt that he had acquired adequate professional knowhow, Mandil decided to return to Israel and try his luck as a professional photographer.

Along with his wife Naomi, Mandil purchased a basement apartment at 24 Ha'avoda Street in Tel Aviv, where they established the Gavra Studios for advertising photography in August 1962, when he was 26 years old. "Photography is not merely an occupation and family livelihood," he wrote in his book. "I owe my life to black-and-white pictures. The picture of a pair of smiling kids, wearing holiday clothing and standing in front of a Christmas tree, turned out to be more persuasive than a thousand words and forged documents, when it was shown to a German SS officer, who believed we were purebred Christians; the wedding picture of my parents, which helped to secure the few possessions that still remained after the Holocaust; pictures of the Italian jailers and officers that my father commemorated in his camera helped us to escape the talons of death at the last moment."

In 1969, Gavra Mandil and several colleagues founded the Industrial and Advertising Photography Association of Israel, and initially he served as its chairman. A decade later, he joined the Professional Photographers of Israel, and in 1985 began a two-year stretch as that association's president. Mandil set himself the objective of bringing a little order into the advertising sector in Israel. Should a uniform price list be set, and for what services? Should the association protect copyrights, etc.?

As one of the few photographers in Israel to have acquired formal education in the profession, he was asked to teach photography at schools of higher learning throughout the country. He taught at Bezalel and at Hadassah College in Jerusalem and at Kiryat Ono College. In these latter roles, he made a significant contribution toward the education of new generations of photographers, and to a shift in the nature of the sector in Israel. In 2001, Gavra was awarded a Photographer of the Century prize by the Federation of European Photographers. He was given the prize on behalf of his contribution to advancing photography in Israel and for educating generations of young photographers.

Gavra Mandil did a great deal to promote and advance the advertising industry in Israel, although when it became competitive and saturated, he felt sated and chose to concentrate on teaching photography.

He attributed his departure from active photography to the difficulty he experienced in competing with his own students, but it seemed as if he discovered greater pleasure in teaching. "Even in my best dreams, I never dared to conjure up such a pleasurable solution that would be so well suited to me," he said in one magazine interview. "My satisfaction is seeing my students going out and succeeding." Naomi Mandil notes that it may be that he felt the competition, "but as someone who was at his side, I can testify that he was tired of having to constantly run after models and locations and advertising firms. This side of the business used to be very stressful."

In the five years that have passed since his death, the school has retained a homey and warm character, and takes a personal stake in watching over and accompanying each photographer as he or she continues along their professional path. "Gavra is still present in spirit. Just as it was important to him to see his students' success, so, too, the entire staff is directed to impart to the students all of the tools, both technical and human, to go out and deal with the professional photography world, and to realize the dream and make photography a way of life and source of livelihood," says Ruti.

These days, the studio is not abuzz with bohemian figures and local celebrities, as it was in the past. Ruti is looking to the future. "We are now preparing the new location, and the move itself will take place in November. Then we will embark on the next 50 years of Gavra Studios."