ARTetc. A Secret History

Photographer Michal Bar Or explores historical sights and landmarks from unexpected angles.

Ellie Armon Azulay
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Ellie Armon Azulay

The studio of photographer Michal Bar Or, 27, is officially confined to the work table in the bedroom she shares with her husband, filmmaker Avi Levi. The couple live in a spacious, attractive apartment in one of the old buildings on Rothschild Boulevard. Our meeting takes place on the balcony, where the bustle of the street and the social protest provide a distant soundtrack to our conversation.

Bar Or takes her photographs outdoors, not in the studio, and so she maneuvers between different spaces: first the photo location; then home, which functions as a small lab where she scans and prints small proofs; and then she prints larger proofs at the REA Photography House, where she has also been working for the past two years.

Michal Bar Or at home. Dreaming of a physical space to match the space in her mind.Credit: Uri Gershuni

She describes her work routine as follows: "At the stage of the small proofs, the studio is my notebook, it's where the photos meet each other for the first time and start to come together as sentences. The second stage, which sadly is only temporary, is of the big white wall: This is where the large proofs go after they've been through a filtering process, and the combinations between them become more concrete and tighter."

It's not the ideal situation, she says. "In my imagination, in my fantasy, I'd like a physical space with four walls that would give room to what is going on inside my head. A place where I could hang the proofs, leave the room and come back in, and everything I'd done would still be there on the wall." She lacks continuity, she says, lacks the chance to give things a long and leisurely look, as would be possible in a permanent space, but is not possible in temporary quarters.

Bar Or's work could definitely be described as investigative photography. The random or intuitive moments in her work are accompanied by a learning process that is not only visual. "I spend a lot of time in the archives of the Haganah, the Palmach and other organizations. I collect texts and testimonies and work in the archive in a way similar to my work as a photographer in the field. When I come to an archive or a photo location, I have endless possibilities, and then comes an act of gleaning, which is very intuitive. In the field, I define a space, and within it the eye leads the way and determines what stays in the frame and what remains outside. It's the same in the archive." Usually, she says, she starts out searching for one thing and ends up going in a totally different direction.

Her work essentially begins with a piece of information that leads her to look for a story. She works four days a week and makes sure to photograph every week, too, usually for more than one day. "When I go out for two or three days, they are very systematic and comprehensive. I usually define my photography space in terms of a story that contains some kind of hole, something that is not comfortable within our memory, something that doesn't sit well with the things we know."

During her studies at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, from which she graduated in 2008, and afterward, Bar Or roamed the country in search of stories of varying peculiarity. She ended up in some surprising and unusual places, and at some formative sights in local history and culture. Asked where she gets the ideas for her works, she says: "For instance, I have a book from the early '80s of the museums in Israel, and it has all kinds of small and weird places. But some places I get to while traveling - I follow all kinds of remote signs on the side of the road pointing to historic museums of all kinds."

Papering over the cracks: Yafa, 2009.

The country is full of so many layers, she says, that "you have to train the eye to see these things, and then they are always surfacing." She mentions by way of example a trip she took with her mother in the winter near Lake Kinneret: "It was a Friday afternoon and we arrived at Korazim when the site was already closed. My intrepid mother decided that we had to climb the fence and see the place anyway." On their way out, they came across a fenced-in area and something that was covered in green canvas. They found a sign saying that this was the grave of Sheikh Ramadan, a place that had been a pilgrimage site for Bedouin until 1948. Oddly, the sign remained in place while the grave was hidden and covered. One of Bar Or's photographs was created at this site.

"I always have a long list of things or places I want to photograph, and I'm gradually getting through it," she says. "Even when I'm at work at the REA photo studio and not working on my own stuff I feel like I'm helping give birth to art. It's a very fruitful process, and it also pushes me to pursue my own work. I start to tell myself, 'This week you didn't photograph' and 'You're not photographing enough' and it makes me feel guilty, but also spurs me to action."

Right now is quite a pressured and exciting time for Bar Or: She is at the height of a new and large-scale photographic project and, less than a month from now, she will leave for London, to study for the next two years in the master's program in the photography department of the Royal College of Art. Those familiar with Bar Or's work, which is very strongly tied to the local landscape, will surely wonder about the move to London. "Part of the idea of going to London actually comes from a desire to shake up this place that is so familiar to me. The photographic work I do is already familiar to me. The fantasy is that traveling away from home will enable me to investigate the land here from a distant angle."

She compares the process to psychotherapy in which the patient distances himself and tries to observe himself from outside. "From the distance of London I'll certainly need to go into archives, to use various kinds of media or museums. One place I really want to see, for instance, is about the explorer Henry Baker Tristram, who discovered the Tristram's Starling, a bird that nests in the Negev and the Masada area. His museum is supposed to have stuffed specimens of the birds that he took from here and brought there."

The main project Bar Or is currently working on is based on archival research and traces the Haganah patrols that traveled and studied the land in the years prior to 1948. "I'm poring through intelligence information about the towns and villages that existed here. What these patrols did was to map the spaces they observed, to catalog the entries and exits, the best observation points, the mukhtar's house, the wells, and other objects."

Tel-Hai 2009. An exhibit of Joseph Trumpeldor's prosthetic arm.

In her work Bar Or chose to focus on the Tel Aviv region. "It's my city, it's where I grew up. I use the patrols as guides and follow in their footsteps. I'm trying on the one hand to adopt their meticulousness and also to examine how things look today." One thing she finds interesting is that many of the places described in the archives still refuse to be assimilated into the city: "They refuse to toe the line. Either they're converted into real estate projects like Akirov or the Histadrut building, or they remain as places that preserve the rural feeling with their unique topography."

Two examples are Abu Kabir and Sumeil (in the Ibn Gvirol and Migdal Hame'ah area ). One of the most exciting moments, she says, is when she comes upon this kind of juxtaposition very close to home: "For nine years I studied at the Open school, near the Nature School and the Botanical Garden. We would sneak out there to smoke and now I noticed for the first time the remnants of the buildings and what's behind them. As someone who grew up in the city and knows it inside out, I knew that Abu Kabir was an Arab neighborhood or village, but only now did I grasp how blind I was to some things too, how I was so used to seeing these places in a certain way and to not asking anything about them."

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