When Israel Prize laureate David Rubinger died on March 2, I was disappointed to learn that his archive had been sold to the Yedioth Ahronoth group. The state ought to be the owner of photographic or documentary collections with the kind of historical importance Rubinger’s work had. Not politicians, not lawmakers, not ministers or the government, but the state itself, through entities like the Israel State Archives, the National Library, a national museum or other public authority whose sole concern would be the public interest. Collections of this kind shouldn’t end up in private hands, for obvious reasons.
It appears that the state, for whatever reason, did not make any serious effort to acquire this collection – of nearly 500,000 photographs – so the photographer ended up receiving a large sum from its sale to a private, commercial buyer. Now Yedioth holds the rights to part of Israel’s collective visual memory – for better (the archive is in familiar, professional, experienced hands) and for worse (this is a private and commercial enterprise that could go bankrupt, refuse to exhibit the collection, decide to sell off some of it, etc.).
I am very pleased to report, however, that just the opposite has happened with another collection. The Israel State Archives just announced that it has scanned and uploaded about 20,000 photographs by Zoltan Kluger to its new website. He was one of the finest photographers working in British Mandatory Palestine, in the period that preceded Rubinger, and documented a state in the making. Unlike the Rubinger collection, which is kept in a private archive where access to each photograph costs 800 shekels (about $220), Kluger’s collection is freely available to the public, including for commercial use.
The Kluger collection is a real feast for the eyes. Kibbutzniks, laborers, pioneers, female pilots, children and more – all were captured in the act of building the country, and all the images are easily accessible to everyone, for free. There’s no need to say too much. Just go to the website and see for yourself. Here I present just a few representative images, to whet the appetite.
Kluger’s life story is quite interesting, too. He was born in Hungary in 1896, to an assimilated Jewish family. During World War I, he served as a pilot in the Austro-Hungarian Army. After the war he moved to Berlin, where he worked as a press photographer. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, he came to British Mandatory Palestine as a tourist and remained to join a new photo agency, the Orient Press Photo Company. He began capturing images of the area and its people.
“Kluger brought with him from Berlin high-quality photography equipment, which was expensive and hard to obtain here at that time. And within a short time he became the main photographer working with the national institutions in [British Mandatory] Palestine,” says the Israel State Archives.
In 1958, though, he left Israel and severed his ties with the country. He died in New York in 1977, leaving many questions unanswered. And now, a very significant portion of his photographs (though not all – there are several thousand more in other archives in Israel, not all of them open to the public or accessible for free) are available.
Shortly after I first published details about it online, someone on Facebook spotted his grandfather in one of the images. “Thanks to the link you provided, I found a picture of my grandfather in Ein Hashofet in 1938,” he wrote. And here he is, Yona Yanai, the fellow with glasses on the left in the picture above, who was identified by his grandson.
Take a good look; maybe you’ll also recognize someone in the pictures.