The Stories Behind the Captivating Works of Israel's Pioneering Women Photographers

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Ronit Shany: London, 1976.
Ronit Shany: London, 1976. Credit: Ronit Shany
Tsafi Saar
Tsafi Saar
Tsafi Saar
Tsafi Saar

In one of her exhibitions, Lu Landauer showed a photograph of a cat’s head. At a meeting of the New Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in Jerusalem (today the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design), the renowned Israeli painter Mordecai Ardon, the director of the school at the time, had this to say about it: “There were some who did not understand the why and wherefore. Many were particularly frightened by the cat, and asked, why was there no reaction to current events, why is there no reportage? Why is there not a single thing about Treblinka, Majdanek? Why, they asked, is there not a single thing about the Bible?”

Behira Eden. 'She knew how to photograph the stars and other heavenly bodies.'Credit: Behira Eden

Landauer, who was born in 1907 and was the first female photographer to teach at Bezalel, is one of 10 female photographers who were active in Israel and are the focus of an exhibition curated by the artist Noa Sadka. “The photographer who cares – ‘And I shot and I cried, cried and shot,’” is part of a larger Female Pioneers of Photography exhibition that is part of PHOTO IS:RAEL’s 2019 International Photography Festival, at Azrieli Sarona Tower in Tel Aviv.

Female Pioneers of Photography, which was curated by Guy Raz, includes works from around 100 female photographers from the late 19th century to the end of the 1970s. Sadka focuses on 10 of the women who worked here from the 1930s to the ’70s. Raz and Sadka are continuing the research on local female photographers carried out by Ruth Markus, Pesi Girsch and Rona Sela.

Sadka, an award-winning artist (including a prize given by Culture Minister Miri Regev), says that in addition to Landauer, the nine other artists are featured in the exhibition: “A photographer who was forced to leave her home [in Germany] and abandon her work and livelihood. She stopped in Denmark before coming to Tel Aviv in the 1930s, equipped with a box camera. While waiting for a container with all her family’s possessions that was stuck at the Jaffa port, she took moving photographs, snapshots of humanity she encountered, captured with curiosity and empathy [Frieda Mayer Jacobsohn].

Yael Rozen: Haifa, near the city's port, 1965.Credit: Yael Rozen
Credit: Yael Rozen

“A photographer who said of herself that she had ‘never [had] an ego’ and wanted to photograph people ‘as they were.’ She converted her studio apartment’s laundry room into her darkroom, and the toilet paper was placed outside the bathroom, next to the enlarger, the developing chemicals and the small kitchenette [Aliza Auerbach].

“A photographer who had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and lived in the wilderness of Lapland. Even after 40 years of work, an article written about her started by saying that ‘She is not sure of herself’ and ‘doesn’t recognize her own motives’ [Anna Riwkin-Brick].

“A photographer who took an abstract photo in her kitchen, while making jam. From the magic of the evaporation of water through heat, a drop formed to acted like a magnifying glass, producing a photo called ‘reflection in a drop,’ which, when placed on the text, made the word ‘love’ shine through it [Chava Salomon].”

Naomi Tsur: Florida, 1977.Credit: Naomi Tsur

Another photographer “kept working during difficult times she encountered as a migrant and refugee, with periods devoted to taking care of her ailing mother and a husband who became ill, as well as working at the ophthalmology department at Hadassah Hospital. She devoted her scant free time to experimenting with photographic drawings, photograms, photomontages and a variety of beautiful mechanical, chemical and optical techniques [Bettina Oppenheimer].

Tzipora David. Photographed portraits of young members of one kibbutz community in the Jezreel Valley.Credit: Tzipora David

“A photographer took a picture of herself reflected in the window of her living room, of her shadow falling on gravel on her way to work as a photography instructor. She knew how to photograph the stars and other heavenly bodies, experimenting with different effects and methods of developing film, exposure, printing and format sizes [Behira Eden].

“A photographer who first came to photography in her teens, while holding a camera while roaming a field with her class and a teacher who considered his every step lest he trample on a living creature. She took photos of ‘reality’ and of things ‘up close, just in front of our eyes,’ basing her future career on the primal, the secret and the mythical [Naomi Tsur].

“A photographer whose first street photo hits you in the gut in its description of human encounters, who continued her career as a magazine photographer, with her subjects always seeming relaxed and at ease [Yael Rozen].

“A photographer who wishes to capture the simplest shots, as if she has no opinion, as if she weren’t present, going out into the street, sometimes for hours, looking around and searching, ending up with something as simple as someone going to get some fresh bread or to a gym class, wondering if she wasn’t somehow ‘stealing’ something, taking it without permission [Ronit Shany].”

Lu Landauer: Self-portrait, Jerusalem, 1944.Credit: Lu Landauer

The name of the exhibition comes from two sources. The first part relates to Cornell Capa, brother of renowned war photographer Robert Capa and the “photographer who cared.” Sadka explains that he set up a foundation to collect and preserve the works of photographers who cared, mainly war photographers. The second part comes from a quote by Anna Riwkin-Brick. She photographed not only Noriko San and Elle Kari, the girls from Japan and Lapland featured in the famous children’s books about their lives (“Noriko-San, Girl of Japan”; “Elle Kari”), but also took pictures in refugee camps in Gaza and gynecological examinations in the 1940s. She told her friend, author Leah Goldberg, that after photographing in Korea, “the country of terror,” that she “shoots and cries, cries and shoots.”

Sadka notes that she was offered to curate the exhibition after a book she had worked on for seven years, “Photographic Truth is a Natural Truth,” came out (in Hebrew). The book looks at the way photography was taught at Bezalel from 1910 to 1984. She says that “when I studied there, there was not one female photography instructor and I was barely shown work by female artists, none of them local ones. I was shown a lot of American photographers taking pictures of American suburbs. The curriculum in such classes affect the artist that later goes out into the world and impacts the subsequent presence or absence of relevant content in the art world.”

Ronit Shany: London, 1976. Credit: Ronit Shany

On the need to deal with the local scene, she says: “After 17 years of teaching photography at Bezalel, I could no longer keep talking about American photographers while standing on Mount Scopus, with the neighborhood of Isawiyah just around the corner; I couldn’t keep showing [the students] European female photographers, knowing that the Qalandiyah border crossing was nearby. I began working on a massive archival-research project. A teaching situation either encourages or weakens some types of photography. How is it taught? How is photography perceived? What photos are taken? Which ones are shown? Which ones will be displayed later with a price tag? Which ones will be removed, finding themselves in a flea market, or in a suitcase in some attic?”

Aliza Auerbach. A photographer who said of herself that she had ‘never [had] an ego.’Credit: Aliza Auerbach

Sadka defines her work as “gathering-collecting.” “At first, I barely found anything on Lu Landauer” she relates, “only invoices and receipts and orders for equipment, and requests for Leica plates and photo paper. I kept searching and gradually I came across a self-portrait from 1944, in Jerusalem, taken while she was teaching in Bezalel. She used to teach photograms and photocollages and liked experimenting with light.”

This is the kind of work where one thing leads to another, says Sadka: “I don’t want to be a bundle of information when I come to an archive or meet a photographer, and I refer to and use any scrap knowledge that was already there.” She says she sometimes finds things in the garbage.

In the text accompanying the exhibition she writes: “I do think that the art of photography is gender-dependent, and gender is related to psychology, to consciousness. It’s good that art is connected that way, that it clings to some inclusive and seeing ‘I’, an absorbing, reactive, internalizing, feeding, digesting, expelling one. How can one be a sterile, androgynous model when facing the world, and why should one be? Sterility is not good for art.”

Frieda Mayer Jacobsohn: Jaffa Port, 1930s.Credit: Frieda Mayer Jacobsohn Estate.