Lovable Anarchy

For 20 years, France Lebee-Nadav has photographed the entrances of Tel Aviv buildings - that no-man's land that belongs both to the yard and the street. 'You don't find spaces like this anywhere else,' says the formerly Catholic artist. Not even in the city of her birth, Paris.

Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
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Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel

Not long after France Lebee married Yonatan (Hilik ) Nadav in the summer of '84, he told her they had to leave Jerusalem and move to Tel Aviv. She thought she would faint. She couldn't stand Tel Aviv. She thought it was ugly and dirty, not to mention hot and humid to the point where your face got coated with sweat and dust. But her new husband had found work at Schocken Press, and she had to bid Jerusalem farewell.

The couple moved to a small apartment on Edward Cohen Street, and afterward to Shtand Street, where their two children, Michal, now 24, and Michael, 21, were born. There was no money for a babysitter, so every morning Lebee-Nadav set out with her baby in a carrier and her daughter in a stroller. In her free hand she carried a simple Minolta 35mm camera, so that it would always be handy.

Lebee-Nadav. “I told myself that I would learn Hebrew and Arabic. And that I would be the one to bring about peace in the Middle East,” she explains.

Her random wanderings around the city streets grew into a 20-year journey, during which Lebee-Nadav photographed the entrance ways of local apartment buildings that were not equipped with an intercom or gate, most of them built in the 1930s. The result of this journey is a photographic exhibit in the gallery of Hadassah College in Jerusalem, where Lebee-Nadav herself studied. In addition, an album of the photos entitled "Shetah Meshutaf" (common space) has just been published by Xargol and Am Oved.

"Sit for a moment" - thus writes the late poet and editor Dan Daor, in his beautiful preface to the book, in an unusual but utterly appropriate way. He writes that he sees in Lebee-Nadav's pictures the longing of the photographer, a Paris native, for expressions of holiness; he directs the readers' attention to the altar-like objects in photos of the entrances to buildings at 18 Hanevi'im Street and 4 Reines Street. He suggests taking another look at "these miniature temples" of old Tel Aviv, which people often pass by and take for granted. "So sit for a moment," Daor pleads again, this time referring people to pictures of seemingly innocuous buildings at 30 Hanevi'im Street, 4 Ruth Street, 26 Balfour Street and 80 Frishman Street - "islands of yearning for holiness" that the camera's lens discovered.

France, do you recall the moment when you became friends with Tel Aviv, a city you previously despised?

Lebee-Nadav: "The first thing that struck me in the city was its style of building on pillars. It's a unique element I hadn't found anywhere else in the world, and I'd traveled quite a bit, believe me. It's a kind of no-man's land that simultaneously belongs to the street and to the garden. The Bauhaus style had very clear and strict rules: how the shadows of the balconies will fall and so on. But there was something very anti-dogmatic here, which I liked, because whenever I encounter dogmatism, I have an immediate aversion to it.

"The photos are an expression of my lack of desire to say something definable; they give the viewers many possibilities for exploration within these spaces. Sometimes there are incongruous things. For example, in one yard there is a palm tree with droopy leaves. Or there are stairs, but a wall is hiding them, and so on. I really love Tel Aviv, I walk the city a lot and my eyes are continually searching and observing. And I've walked into poles more times than I care to admit."

"In Tel Aviv terms," writes Daor in the new book, the little patches of no-man's land "were always here, at least in the eyes of a resident who isn't an architect or urban historian or senior citizen with an amazing memory. And they do not even have the historical value that balconies do."

Such places helped transform her distaste for the city into a love story, Lebee-Nadav says: "I discovered a hidden beauty in the city. So many irrational things. There's an anarchy in Tel Aviv and I love that."

To give expression to that love, Lebee-Nadav chose not to photograph human figures, but rather to immortalize objects that could tell the story of their tenants: mailboxes, greenery, floors on pillars that separate the building from the ground, stairwells, gleaming walls - and all those yards caught in shadow, seen in varying shades of gray in the photos.

"Like a couple that has been together for many years and gone through all of life's upheavals, we see the organic appearance of the peeling plaster on the concrete pillars embraced by a tangle of sewage pipes," writes architect Nissim Davidov in an article in the book.

Leafing through the new publication, one gets the feeling that Lebee-Nadav precisely captured the way Tel Aviv straddles East and West - the attempt by a Middle Eastern city to create an architectural fantasy that cries out: "We are the West." Is this indeed the case, I asked.

"In these works I'm talking about our situation here as a kind of interim one. It might sound outrageous, but I also sensed some of the culture and light here that I knew from Paris. It was my way of reconciling with the city."

"The photographs are far from coming across as decadent nostalgia, and they manage to express a restrained poetics of the present," adds Davidov in his essay. "The circle of life of the buildings is similar to the circle of life of their tenants ... The heroic periods of youthful beauty, filled with the struggles for a brave new world, where everything is divided between good and evil, in a sharp and clear line as between light and shadow, are gradually replaced by a growing paunch and wrinkles and gray hair, and a tolerance that is ready for compromise, and a Levantine attitude that the flies and the weeds are no longer such a nuisance."

Although Lebee-Nadav's works are a beautiful tribute to Tel Aviv, she has lately been disappointed with the city: "There are places that I photographed a few years ago and I returned not long ago to them, and found they'd been renovated and everything looks nice and neat - but it's just dull and too polished. I like the dirt when it says something, and particularly the energies you find in this city: It's all open, all outside, it breathes. Despite the stink and the humidity, there is air to breathe and all the styles mix together. Perhaps I've become a real Israeli. Of course, this is what enchanted me from the start - to come from Paris, from an entrenched and dogmatic culture, to a place of freedom."

Would you say that your photographs attest to the failure of the utopia of "the White City" - of the failed attempt to bring European culture here?

"Yes, this city was saturated with urban culture, and it still is today, in its way. The utopia of the White City failed because every utopia is doomed to fail in the end, fortunately. What remains is a unique city that grew independently, that is not subject to strict rules. And this is the secret of its charm. Tel Aviv is not ugly and gray," says Lebee-Nadav, feeling a sudden need to defend the city.

"There is ugliness but also beauty. The coloring in shades of gray, especially in my photographs, is a deliberate exaggeration and it reflects a very personal mood. Today, in retrospect, I would say it's also a kind of protest against what the French call the 'bling-bling' - against all that is too sparkly and shiny, too quick, too superficial. At the same time, the photos are not about nostalgia for the past, but about taking a precise look at the present."

France Lebee was born in Paris in 1956, to a mother who was a psychoanalyst and a father who was the scion of a banking dynasty. France, the youngest of the family's three children, was just 18 months old when her father left her mother for another woman. After the divorce ("Mother was terribly hurt and quite neurotic, but she did a fantastic job of raising us" ), her father remained in the picture, and she spent weekends and vacations with him. In her mind, her parents represented different worlds.

"My father loved classical art and history, and banking didn't suit him at all as a profession. But his father, director of one of the largest banks in France, forced him to keep the dynasty going. My mother, from the time we were very young, took us to museums and to concerts. When I was seven, I saw Rudolf Nureyev on stage. On the one hand this was really something, but on the other hand - going to an entire Wagner opera cycle at age eight is not something I recall as being that great."

Lebee attended Catholic elementary school and high school. In first grade, she remembers, she was rapped on the fingers when she didn't behave properly. In later years, the teachers, who did not dress in nuns' habits, did not use physical punishment. "They were cleverer. If they thought I was out of line, they would say in this quiet but chilling way: 'What is it, aren't you feeling well? Perhaps you've lost your faith?' and that kind of talk would really jolt me."

She was in the midst of adolescence at the time of the failed 1968 revolution. "I was 12 when it broke out and saw the protesters in the street clashing with the police. For a month there was no fuel, there were lots of blackouts, and we read by candlelight. It was an exciting adventure."

Later on, the adventure spawned her own private rebellion - "a passive-aggressive type rebellion: I joined the anarchists and got closer to the political left," Lebee-Nadav explains. "My mother had leftist liberal tendencies but my father was an avowed rightist and it was hard for him to accept it."

She graduated high school with only average grades, to her parents' dismay, especially her father who'd envisioned her going to law school, like her older sister. But of all the subjects in the world, France decided to study Hebrew and Arabic - at the Sorbonne.

"My first connection with Israel occured through a good friend of my mother, a doctor, whose ex-wife moved to Israel with their two children. On the eve of the Yom Kippur War, my sister visited them and came back to Paris madly in love with Israel. In 1976, the two of us went to work as volunteers on Kibbutz Adamit in the Galilee, a trip that my sister pushed me into doing; it was really wonderful for me. Something here touched me. Maybe the liberation from the rigid atmosphere that I grew up in. My parents' milieu was very demanding. Terms like 'success,' 'career' or 'intellectual ambition' were the norm and it was obvious that I was also meant to follow the accepted path of the French bourgeoisie. Here, in contrast, I felt like I was just being seen for who I was, without expectations."

Inspired by the first encounter with the Middle East, she made up her mind to study Hebrew and Arabic, Lebee-Nadav continues: "I told myself, with real naivete, that I would learn Hebrew and Arabic, and one day would be an ambassador in Israel. And that I would also be the one to bring about peace and reconciliation in the Middle East."

In Paris, Lebee-Nadav pursued a master's degree in Near Eastern languages and civilizations, and also took classes in Middle Eastern studies. When the opportunity to study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem came up, she jumped at the chance.

"It was a fabulous year. I quickly got involved in the local politics, and you have to remember that in those years there was a lot of action at the Jerusalem campus. [She is referring to the many violent confrontations between student union chairman Tzachi Hanegbi and his deputy, Yisrael Katz, and leftist activists - D.K.]." When she returned to France, she wrote her thesis on Yigael Yadin's Democratic Movement for Change party.

"I was so desperate to get back to Israel already that I didn't bother finishing a few small things I needed to do in order to officially earn my degree. My mother never found out about it," she confesses.

She returned to Jerusalem in 1981 and this time enrolled in the Hebrew University departments of English and political science. Now she could really take part in the political activity on campus. That is also when she met her future husband, Hilik Nadav, a Jerusalemite and major in the reserves in the Intelligence Corps. "Everybody was a good Zionist then, but he was a leftist," she says.

It was more or less at that time, too, that Lebee-Nadav decided to pursue her favorite pastime of photography. She enrolled in classes at Hadassah College, and also began an internship in commercial photography, thinking she would make a career of it. But she saw that working in the studio like that was not for her. Subsequently she realized that she preferred to develop her photography as an art, and she signed up for the Camera Obscura school. There, in a workshop given one semester by the American photographer Phil Perkis, the pieces of the puzzle at last fell into place.

"Perkis was a milestone for me. Before that I didn't exactly know what and who I was; I did direct, traditional photography. Perkis taught me how to create a body of work from my photographs. At the time I was already photographing buildings in Tel Aviv, but it was Perkis who got me focused on the shades of black and white, and the grayness. His belief that you should try to achieve as many shades of gray as possible, fired my imagination."

And so she began shooting with her simple Minolta 35mm by day, and when her kids went to bed, she developed and printed the negatives in a small darkroom in her kitchen. In 1990, she had her first solo show at the Borochov Gallery - "Morienval 1984-1990, Tel Aviv 1988-1990" (curator: Roi Kuper ). The exhibition was based on local works, together with photographs from her grandfather's home in a northern French village ("a beautiful village that is home to one of the oldest churches in France ).

Oded Yedaya, the art critic for Ha'ir newspaper at the time, wrote about the show: "In her meandering back and forth between the village in northern France and Tel Aviv, Lebee-Nadav has succeeded in adding an interesting motif. This is the religious, mythic, cultic motif. She collects Christian images like a cross, an altar, a tomb and embeds them in nature."

Lebee-Nadav says that what matters most is that the photographs "convey material."

"I love the textures and sensuality," she says, adding that her affection for "material" is at the basis of her decision to continue shooting with an analog camera even now.

In 1997 she set out on a journey with artist Drora Dominey, with the aim of photographing and documenting about 200 monuments scattered from the Golan Heights to Eilat, to examine the way in which they are planted in the landscape, as well as their influence on their surroundings. The joint project, which lasted for four years, not only yielded photos and other documentation; its creators also sought to provoke a debate that went beyond that, to various aspects of Israeliness such as the aesthetics of bereavement, if one can call it that.

The results, presented in 2000 at the Artists' Workshop in Tel Aviv, were characterized by an attempt to elude standard heroic-Zionist photography. Secularization of the monument was the guiding theme for her and Dominey, said Lebee-Nadav in an interview with Galleria magazine.

In 2002, her photography album "Kol Makom" ("Everywhere: Landscape and Memory in Israel" ) was published, containing photos and essays (by Meir Wigoder, Hanan Hever and Avner Ben-Amos, among others ).

For Lebee-Nadav, the focus on monuments derived from their universality. "Granted, in Israel those here are not part of my biography, but in France, my grandfather was the head of the village, and I remember how he cried at the memorial ceremony for the casualties of World War I. His eldest son was killed in the war, and when I looked at the names of the fallen, I realized that half of the men of the village did not return from it. The fact that I have a son, and knew that one day he would enlist in the army, also influenced me. There were years when I photographed the memorial ceremonies at his school for fallen Israel Defense Forces soldiers.

"To go back to Perkis, the American photographer: When he saw my work, he told me that I had to photograph funerals and cemeteries. And that's not a morbid statement at all. Death is just something that is always accompanying me. It's a matter of character. Maybe I have a melancholy side."

In "Shetah Meshutaf" there are also photos of interior spaces in buildings that are reminiscent of churches or holy places - which brings us back to Daor's commentary.

Lebee-Nadav: "The claim that spiritualism exists in nature is not new. But I also look for it in the very mundane secular world of Tel Aviv buildings, and find it. The fountains in the yards that were supposed to have water in them and the surrounding greenery have become neglected memorials."

In 2007, she had another show, called "Hatzad Ha'afel shel Hapompiya" ("The Dark Side of the Grater" ), at the Artists' House in Tel Aviv. In her work, Lebee-Nadav used souvenirs from her family home in France and the home of her husband's parents; the objects she collected were related to her childhood and to her place as a woman in Israel. Lebee-Nadav placed the objects on a scanner and placed cardboard boxes over them to trap the light. Added to these "burial boxes" were a baptismal dress, a stylish high-heeled shoe, some 18th-century lace that belonged to her grandmother, her husband's Kiddush cup, a jar of pickles from her mother-in-law, a dental plate and a grater, alongside an etrog cover and a sponge. "In that exhibition, too, I dealt with the connection between here and there," the photographer says.

"She observes these objects as one observes flickering ghosts from another time, and transforms them into frontal and restrained images," wrote Ayelet Hashahar Cohen in the catalog's opening article.

Are these things that were only revealed after the fact in the photographs? Things you didn't notice at first when you looked at these places?

"I sent the book to my sister in France and she commented that there were a lot of crosses in my pictures of Tel Aviv. So it's clear that I'm still a little Catholic, you can't just erase 25 years of your life. It's a part of me and I can't deny it."

Dan Daor, a founder of the Xargol publishing house, was one of the people responsible for the idea for your new book, and he wrote such a beautiful text to accompany it. He was also a friend. His sudden death was a big shock to everyone.

"Daor began following my work in the 1990s, and wrote his very moving text for the book 15 years ago. The first time I saw Hilik cry was at his funeral. Dan was anti-dogmatic and anti-snob, and could relate to anyone in the world. He had unbelievable knowledge and for Hilik, he was somebody who he could go see an action movie with, eat hummus with and then discuss literature. He wasn't an easy man, but he loved life. I don't know if Daor needed people that much, but with his basic curiosity, he found something that interested him in every person."

What was lost with his death?

"People admired him because of his ability to be engaged in so many different fields and to know all about food and art and Chinese and Japanese and Indian philosophy and so on. I read what he wrote in my book and I'm amazed at how he touched on so many things ... It's hard to say what has been lost with his passing. I know what I loved about him. The basic skepticism about everything ... He had this wonderful openness about him. You felt like he gave you room to wander and didn't lock you in." W

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