A Glance at Five Works by Photographer Simcha Shirman

The untouchable: An imminent disaster, an impotent sea, a smoldering refuse, a black breast and a culture awakening.

“The Palestinian Market,” Hebron, S.S. 470430-120104, 1987
“The Palestinian Market,” Hebron, S.S. 470430-120104, 1987. Simcha Shirman

Simcha Shirman took this photograph in Hebron’s Shuhada Market in 1987, while on reserve duty. Born in Germany to Holocaust survivors, who immigrated to Israel in 1948 when he was a year old, he grew up in Acre. An old sea fortress. 

He served as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces. A photographer’s photographer. But also known among broader public. Very well known. He teaches. Exhibits. Works. He’s been written about. His use of film, his way of developing film in a darkroom, his absolute control of the wide spectrum of gray tones. This shot, one of a group of photographs of Hebron and Lebanon, is taken from a high vantage point and demonstrates Shirman’s all-seeing gaze. And one can see the boy in the box in the foreground, looking at him. Or maybe not. There is life in the market. And two adult settlers. One on the far right. They will wreak disaster there. All the people will disappear, the settlers will take over.

“Weekday,” S.S. 470430-111225, 2000. Photo by Simcha Shirman

I see families and solitary people. Towels. Beach umbrellas. And an omnipotent sea. I understand that it is impossible now to suddenly discover Shirman, but it is possible to look at a photo by him and discover something new. He’s not involved. Doesn’t go down to the sea. The details are many. The crow is but one.

“Thicket,” S.S. 470430-111225, 2010. Photo by Simcha Shirman

Shirman’s take on nature floors me. The smoldering metal refuse in the center, the roots and the iron foundation pillars. Seemingly ordinary, astonishingly rich, thrillingly restrained. I feel it. But where did I see a photograph of his for the first time? Bicycling at night on the Jaffa boardwalk on the way back from a small wedding, humming “Enta habibi, inta ayuni” (“You’re my love, you’re my eyes”) – the little Arabic I know – and thinking of the children of the groom, dressed in grown-ups’ suits. He had been widowed a year ago and is now remarried. I see people gathering outside one of the hangars at the port. Drinks in their hands. It is an art exhibition, a benefit for Physicians for Human Rights. I remember reading about it in the paper.

I walk in. A small print on sale: “Acre Beach,” 1990. Shirman’s. He likes the sea. Later I learn he has taken many photos of the Acre waterfront. This small one on the wall shows a boat, photographed through a hole in some sort of a rock. Fleeing. The essence of fleeing. I know this can be described as a form of unconscious voyeurism. Maybe it’s conscious. It doesn’t matter. It works. I photograph his photograph. A voice behind me. What? What do you want? The curator. She’s pregnant. She is upset. She sees me with red lips, braided hair, too close to the photo. Almost licking it. I say: It’s for work. Ah. Embarrassment. Blush. Escape. Later, I contacted Shirman’s assistant. He said he does not have a copy of the small print. He will mail others.

“Berlin,” Alexanderplatz, S.S. 470430-111225, 2009. Photo by Simcha Shirman

Shirman, who signs his work “S.S.,” is taking a photograph in Berlin. Here’s a fountain, a woman; the animal is hirsute. The breast black in the center. It’s his center. In his photo the non-rainbow colors – the grays – look like the natural colors of the world. It’s realism. I see the clear jets of water. You could write a book about it: water, Pygmalion, wet animals. A nourishing mother. A marble woman. Repression.

“Diana,” S.S. 470430-111218, 1984. Photo by Simcha Shirman

And here’s a woman, in a tree. Long lashes lying languorously. Nature awake. Culture awake. The sleeping one, pretending not to be awake. That’s how he prefers it. The young sleeping woman is a history of art convention. The girl is dressed the way immigrants to Israel used to dress. Like his mother. Simcha Shirman, who is not happy, who photographs beauty as such, the ne plus ultra. Her beauty, which lies deep, truly deep as the undergrowth. His trees murmur, their leaves like those in a German photograph: sequential, expressionist. The photographer of faces that disintegrate. A face that does not burn in the sun. Unlike my braid-rolled nape.