Positively Boris Carmi

The tens of thousands of photographs taken by this veteran photographer over a period of six decades have become, in the eyes of many, the official photographic version of Israel's history. Carmi - whose photos are presently on exhibit in Tel Aviv - says that today's press photographers produce pessimistic work and are too busy running from stretcher to stretcher

Neri Livneh
Neri Livneh
Neri Livneh
Neri Livneh

A retrospective of the photographs of Boris Carmi opened at the end of December in the Haganah Museum in Tel Aviv. Even though the 88-year-old Carmi is the country's veteran photographer and one of the pioneers of Israeli press photography, this is only his fourth show. Photography, as an art, blossomed late in Israel, and Carmi began to document local history long before history began to show an interest in his work.

He looks far younger than his age. His clear look lends him an expression of innocence and childishness. He still takes photographs, though far fewer than he used to, on top of which "there are things that I am dying to photograph but I can't now," he says. "The Azrieli Towers, for example - it's an obligation to photograph that project. But it's not so simple. I have to find the right point from which to take the photographs and climb and stand and photograph, and I don't have the strength for that any longer." These days, Carmi is making do with photographing women: "Beautiful, special girls, but not the kind with stereotypical or crude beauty."

It is impossible to talk about the Israeli collective memory without Carmi's photographs. Many of the tens of thousands (in a moderate estimate) of his photos have become so well known and familiar that they have effectively become the official photographed version of Israel's history. Beginning in the 1940s, he documented the state from the final stage of the British Mandate period, followed by the period in which the transit camps for new immigrants were established and the 1956 Sinai war. He photographed that war for the press, and took the most famous photograph of the campaign - of a pair of shoes left behind by the Egyptian army in the Sinai desert.

In a previous exhibition of his work, which was held 14 years ago at the Habimah Theater in Tel Aviv, Carmi was called "the first military photographer." He still has a letter that was sent to him by Yitzhak Sadeh, the legendary first commander of the pre-state Palmach ("shock troops") in 1950. "To one of the war photographers who succeeded in telling the truth about our wars with talent and determination," Sadeh wrote.

But the truth is that Carmi was always frightened by blood and the sight of dead soldiers. "In my dreams, I liked to photograph fighters and general human moments, but not the whole business of bodies and those who were killed. I could never stand the sight of bodies and I never photographed bodies, and from that point of view I wasn't like other war photographers," says Carmi, who describes his own photographic style as "optimistic." He always looked for the aesthetic aspect: "I love to find what is beautiful in everything. Even in poverty - and poverty has disgusting sides - but I find the beautiful and the aesthetic and the humane."

In love with Paris

He was born Boris Vinograd in 1914, in Russia. His mother died when he was a young boy, and his father died when Boris was only 15. Despite having two older sisters, Boris embarked on an odyssey of his own. First he went to Warsaw, where he lived with an uncle, and from there, he proceeded to a boarding school in Germany.

"My life was saved because I failed the final exam in physics, in 1933," he recalls. "I was so upset at failing the exam that I decided to leave Germany and go to Italy, which ever since has been the country I love more than any other." He stayed in Milan for a few months and then decided to go to Paris and study ethnography at the Sorbonne - "to this day, I don't know why."

Seven years ago, after an absence of 60 years, he visited Paris with his late wife, Shula, for the first time since he left the city. "I was always afraid to go back there, I don't know why, maybe the memories were too strong," he says. In Paris he took a series of marvelous photographs, that joined up with a number of negatives he found by chance in his archive, including photographs he took in Paris in 1935 of his first love, of fishermen on the banks of the Seine.

"I lived near the Seine, near Boulevard St.-Germain and Rue St. Michel, near the market and the Pantheon, near everything, and I lived an excellent life. I had always been an amateur photographer, but when I came to Paris, I didn't have a camera. I bought my first camera there, a Leica, for my work in ethnography."

Carmi was soon taking pictures of everything, "but mainly girls. I have always photographed girls, my whole life. I am pro-women and anti-men. I don't like to photograph guys. Of course, if there is a man with an interesting head, like Martin Buber, that's something else."

He would later take famous photographs, not only of Buber. As a regular patron of the Bohemian cafe Cassit in Tel Aviv, and as a close friend of most of the actors in Habimah, he was in a good position to take many historic photographs of the great actress Hanna Rovina, poets Natan Alterman, Avraham Shlonsky, Alexander Penn and Haim Guri, and writers Aharon Megged and Dahn Ben Amotz, to name a few.

"I never needed a ticket to get into the theater, because I simply lived there and the reason I stopped photographing actors was because it started to cost me too much and I couldn't take money from friends." After Carmi had been in Paris for two years, his uncle was barred from sending him money from Poland, so he went to Danzig, which was then a free zone.

"In Danzig, I started thinking for the first time that I should get out of Europe. My sister, who came to Palestine in 1935 with her husband, organized a last certificate for me" - referring to entry permits to Palestine issued by the British authorities according to a quota - "and I came to Palestine in March 1936, straight to them, to their house on Sheinkin Street" in Tel Aviv.

Carmi did well in his new country. A few months after his arrival he founded, together with a wealthy new immigrant from Paris, "a firm of sailboats that brought merchandise from Port Said and Beirut to Haifa. The Germans didn't even bother to bomb them because it wasn't worth their while. I became well-off financially, but then the Jewish Agency started asking people to volunteer for the British Army, and as a 27-year-old bachelor, I decided to volunteer."

He served for four years in the mapping unit of the British forces and when he was discharged, he joined the Haganah, the pre-state force that was the forerunner of the Israel Defense Forces.

"By then I was doing freelance photography. But the approach to photography was completely different from what it is today. First of all, everything was terribly secret, and it took an excruciatingly long time until I could get close to some Haganah position. On top of that, people didn't take photography seriously."

A vintage name

The photographer Margot Sadeh recommended to her husband, Yitzhak Sadeh, that he take Boris Vinograd, photographer of maps, into his service. Carmi, as usual, took all kinds of photographs; the most famous photos of Palmach troops and then of soldiers in the incipient IDF are his work. One photo that is indelibly etched into the memory of generations of Israelis is of a female radio operator from the Yiftah Brigade who, in short pants, is packing a pistol, wearing a kaffiyeh and leaning on a tree in the Ben Shemen forest.

Carmi purchased his first professional camera from Yosef Bertz, one of the founders of Kibbutz Degania Aleph, which was among the first kibbutzim to be established. "It was a Speed Graphic [a small, popular professional camera commonly used as a "press" camera in those days] and I used it to take the pictures for the book about Degania Aleph. I was still called `Vinograd' then." He didn't change his name: it was changed for him.

"I was a photographer for Bamahaneh [the IDF journal] at the time, and my journalistic partner was [journalist] Menachem Talmi. One day we drove together to the Negev, we came back to the magazine's headquarters and then we went north to Galilee. When we returned from Galilee, I noticed that the byline on the story about the Negev was `Boris Carmi'" [a Hebrew rendering of "Vinograd," both words referring to a vineyard]. "And that's how they changed my name without asking me. About 10 years later, I changed the name officially myself."

Carmi became a professional photographer in 1948. "There are two types of photographers," he says, "those who photograph only what they can sell, and those who photograph everything. I photograph everything. All kinds of nonsensical things that I know I will never use, but I just can't help myself."

What makes someone a good photographer?

Carmi: "My wife used to say that her only competition was photography. A photographer has to keep his eyes open all the time. Eyes aren't the technique and they aren't the camera, but those things aren't important; what's important is the eyes - and culture, too. I don't think that a photographer who has no culture sees things the same way a cultured photographer does. A cultured photographer is more sensitive to things and therefore he sees more."

Carmi launched his career as a press photographer at the end of 1947. "There was a paper at that time called Homa [The Wall], which later became Bamahaneh. It started as a daily paper and then became a weekly. In 1952, Menachem Talmi took me to work on Davar [the now-defunct daily published by the Histadrut federation of labor], and I stayed there until I took early retirement, in 1976."

Photos as `punctuation'

When Carmi started out, the newspapers in Israel consisted mainly of words - columns and columns of text, punctuated here and there with small photos. Photography was comparable to the postage stamp on the outside of the envelope. That conception has undergone a revolutionary change in the Israeli press since then, as in the press abroad. The papers began to treat photography as an authentic means of expression and as an important element in content and layout.

What is the difference between press photography and regular photography?

"For example, I don't like doing portraits very much, unless they are done in the style of the press. That means without lighting and makeup and all that stuff, but as though by chance."

What has changed in press photography during the last 50 years?

"What has changed is that today there is no positive, optimistic photography. Photographers just rush from one stretcher to the next. Take television, for example. There is no sparkle of happiness, everything is bad. I am for good things. I am an optimist, I love people and I don't like it when everyone is in a panic all the time. I have lived here through 60 years of wars and I don't see any reason for being in a panic."

But how has the role of the photograph changed in the press?

"Photography was always the cream of the cake. On the one hand, the photograph induces you to read; on the other hand, a photograph doesn't need an explanation. There is an apparent contradiction here. But I will tell you what has changed. The press has changed a lot. Once you had a fascinating individual like Martin Buber, and you wrote a thousand words at most about him. Today they're writing 20,000 words about people of no importance at all. Who cares? Once the trick was to squeeze a lot into a few words, today the trick is to write reams of words. That's why there's nothing to read in the papers and that's why the pictures are more important than ever."

Carmi didn't exactly get rich from his career as a photographer. "To this day, I live in the smallest flat of any photographer, and the only reason I achieved even that was that my wife insisted, otherwise we would still be without an apartment. Today's photographers are a lot richer, but that doesn't bother me in the slightest. I had it good in this modest apartment and I had it good with my wife and with our son, and I don't need a thing. There was one thing my wife didn't agree to - that I would have a darkroom or a laboratory here. She said, `When you're home, I want you to be home with us and not in the laboratory.' She was right, too."

Carmi married Shula in 1956, "and then I stopped going to Cassit, too, which until then had been my second or even my first home." He took early retirement due to a heart ailment, but he didn't stop taking pictures. He had two exhibitions after retiring and a number of books of his photographs have been published, of which the best known is "State in a Cradle" (1958).

Photographer Shlomo Arad has submitted Carmi's name as a candidate for an Israel Prize in photography. Carmi says that it would be very nice to get the prize but that his life doesn't depend on it. Nor is he overwhelmed with happiness at the new exhibition, even though he had looked forward to it eagerly. Shula died suddenly two-and-a-half months ago, and he can't stop missing her.

"I can't bear the thought that Shula won't see the exhibition. She waited for it so much. I had 45 years of paradise, totally happy years, and all of a sudden it's over, that's it. I can't stand the emptiness. I was sure that I was next in line, because I am 88 and she was only 71. I didn't even know she was ill. She kept the fact that she had a heart condition a secret. She looked after me and cared for me so much that she forgot herself. You have no idea how much Shula wanted to see another exhibition of my work. And now there is an exhibition, but Shula isn't here anymore."n

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