In December 1949, a press photographer set out to produce a portrait of a day in the life of the Steiner family of Tel Aviv. We have three photographs from that day depicting quiet bourgeois life in the young country. The first photograph shows the parents and their twin daughters leaving their building to go shopping. The second one shows the mother examining the items she has just bought: a loaf of bread, three potatoes, two tomatoes and a pair of sausages. The caption on the back explains: “Mrs. Steiner wonders whether her hour-long shopping trip will meet her family’s expectations. Her husband, a lab worker, wants a satisfying meal after a nine-hour workday.” The third photograph shows the family sitting around the table eating soup. The photographer explains that later in the meal, sausages, rice and salad will also be served, and finally a fruit salad. The children will be given chocolate. Not exactly the kind of meal we’d expect to see in the midst of the austerity period.
The photographs are staged and there’s no way of knowing the true story behind them. But as photographs do, they reveal a more complex truth. For example, in the first photograph, sandbags left over from the War of Independence, which ended only a few months before, are clearly visible behind the mother’s back. In the third photograph, the parents are sitting on a sofa that has been pulled up to the dining table, and the table itself is actually two small tables that have been put together. These details give some indication of the size of the home.
These pictures were taken by a foreign press photographer working in Tel Aviv and were later acquired by long-time photography collector Buki Boaz. Boaz’s collection is considered the largest of its kind in Israel, and includes photographs of all types and from all periods from the invention of photography through the 1980s.
The collection also affords the opportunity to focus on specific periods in Israel’s history. This time, we chose to focus on the first year, 1948-1949, and tried to choose photographs of daily life rather than pictures of battles, prisoners of war or the ravages of war. But upon close examination of the photographs, we found that, like the sandbags that appear in the picture of the everyday shopping trip, the war somehow managed to seep in to nearly all of them.
For instance, a photograph from Kibbutz Ein Hamifratz shows children wearing tank tops happily playing on the grass. A closer look reveals that they are playing with the empty hull of a munitions shell and with what appear to be rifle bullets. The photographer writes that they were playing with empty gun cartridges. He adds, “The children are unaware of the bitter battle that will take place in Acre the next day.” In a 1948 photograph from Passover Eve in Jerusalem, a military helmet is being used as a candlestick. A photograph from 1949 shows a woman who looks like a tourist dozing on a beach chair by the sea, a Harper’s Bazaar magazine lying by her feet. In the background a child is playing and in the sea there are several ships, at least one of them a destroyer.
In a totally innocuous-looking photo three men are seen loading animal waste onto a horse-drawn wagon, but the caption on the back of the picture lends it a whole different aspect. “The Jewish settlement, Kibbutz Buchenwald.” Soon this place would change its name to Kibbutz Netzer Sereni.
A hint of the tension between ordinary life and war can also be seen in a photograph taken in the military police headquarters in Jerusalem. The board showing the various assignments to which policemen are posted contains 20 postings in Katamon, the Arab neighborhood that was conquered during the war, and 12 policemen are assigned to “attendance inspection” – i.e., chasing after deserters.
Boaz acquired many of the photographs from newspapers that went out of business or sold their archives. He says an eclectic collection of press photographs gives are more accurate picture of the reality than what one finds in institutional archives. “If you go to the JNF archive, you won’t find Arabs in there. If you go to a Palestinian archive, you only find Palestinians. In a Beitar archive, you won’t find any red, not even on Coca Cola bottles. The press photographs were curated — someone selected them, someone composed the text to accompany them. They give a much better picture of the reality. "
Another photograph from the beach, from late June 1949, shows a lifeguard calling out towards the waves. Above him, a black flag flutters – and for some unknown reason, the pirate symbol of a skull and crossbones is painted on the flag.