History of Pre-state Israel, Frozen on Broken Glass

Photographers who captured pre-state Israel put more effort into their work than we do in today’s digital era – but many of the images were staged.

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Outside “Seeing Through,” an upcoming photography exhibit at Tel Aviv’s Eretz Israel Museum, is a marketing gimmick: a life-size blow-up of a historical photograph, with holes instead of the faces of a few of the picture’s subjects.

Did someone really think people would go behind the photo cutout, stick their heads into the holes, smile and upload the resulting images to Facebook? “I had nothing to do with it,” the curator of the exhibition, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Oded Balilty, assured a visitor. “They gave in to the selfie trend.”

It’s not clear why someone at the museum or the Jewish National Fund, from whose archive the photographs in the exhibition were borrowed, added the carnival cutout device to this important and fascinating exhibition, which has no need of any PR gimmicks. After seeing the exhibition, which opens Thursday, it is impossible not to grasp the size of the chasm between the images themselves and the message the curator sought to deliver – both through the exhibit and through the selfie culture represented by the photo cutout outside the gallery.

Upon entering the exhibition space, the amusement elicited by the cutout swiftly turns to astonishment at the site of the 30 rare, historic photographs by the pioneers of Israeli photography. Documenting life in the nation between 1921 and 1960, these images are part of a collection of half a million photographs stored in the JNF archive in Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul neighborhood.

It’s not every day that the JNF exposes the materials in its archive to the general public. The photographs in this exhibition are particularly rare, part of a collection of glass-plate negatives created by JNF photographers. The negatives, of course, are themselves artifacts of a photographic process developed in the second half of the 19th century that preceded the use of celluloid and other flexible films that have themselves been eclipsed by digital photography.

“In this method, the glass plate is exposed to the photographic subject very slowly, resulting in high-quality photographs with depth, transparency and light, as in a painting,” wrote the director of the KKL-JNF Photo Archive, Pnina Livni, in the exhibition catalog. Even after the introduction of celluloid, some of the photographers continued to use glass plates because of the effects they produced.

The exhibition had its roots in Livni’s discovery of “these ancient negatives” stored in old wooden boxes in a room in the archive building. She was “picking them up and putting them in the light, one after another,” Livni recalled. “I got so excited that I started crying to myself, ‘Wow, beautiful,’ over each one.”

Around 3,000 glass-plate negatives are stored in the JNF archive. Some of the plates broke, their pieces stored in a separate box. Livni recruited Balilty, who felt a special pull toward a box labeled, “Broken, cannot be scanned,” for the task of restoration.

Balilty and Livni pieced together a number of plates, like a jigsaw puzzle. Some of the plates had shattered into dozens of fragments, and putting them back together resurrected images that otherwise would have been lost forever.“It was like magic, like traveling backward in time,” Balilty said.

His time spent in the archive was “like being inside the photographers’ mind,” gaining access to their decisions, the raw materials and their work process, he said.

The photographers who worked for the JNF in the 20th century were among the most important in the field, and they included Shmuel Joseph Schweig, Zoltan Kluger and Avraham Malavsky. Their photographs were used to engage Diaspora Jews in the Zionist project, in part through donations.

These photographers documented daily life in the Jewish community of pre-state Israel, known in Hebrew as the Yishuv, capturing images like children sitting in a circle in the Jezreel Valley in 1925, workers digging a well in the Zevulun Valley the same year and a benefit concert for the JNF held at the foot of the Tower of David in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1926. Grapes can be seen being loaded onto a wooden wagon bound for a Rishon Letzion winery in 1928 and harvested in Ein Horesh in 1930. Eucalyptus saplings can be seen in the sand dunes of Emek Hefer in 1930, and honey harvested from hives in Gan Shmuel in 1958.

Capturing a fleeting moment

This week, in an advance press tour for the exhibition, Balilty compared the photographers in the last century to their 21st-century counterparts. A century ago, photographers like Balilty — who was born in 1979, began working for the Associated Press in 2002 and won the Pulitzer for breaking news photography in 2007, for his photograph of the Amona settlement outpost being evacuated — would likely have put more thought into their photography, but it would probably have been staged.

“Today we are accustomed to digital photography, a chief characteristic of which is being undervalued, both in terms of the images themselves and their quantity,” Balilty said. “There is a conceptual gap of 100 years between the amount of thought that photographers once put into every picture and the situation today.”

A century ago, photographers “weren’t subject to journalistic ethics,” he said. “Photography was ordered [by clients] and staged. That bothers me. I’m against that. I like capturing a fleeting moment and freezing it while it is taking place.”

But Balilty said he recognizes that technical limitations forced these photographers to miss the fleeting moment. “Every frame was thought out well before it was shot. It took a minimum of 20 minutes to set up each shot. The technique forced the photographers to slow down. They thought a great deal before they pressed the button.”

Another difference has to do with dedication to work. “These photographers were sent into the field, just them and the camera; they were completely cut off from the world,” said Balilty. “That enabled them to focus only on that, without interference. Today, in the middle of shooting I get dozens of emails as well as someone calling to ask me when I’m sending the pictures.”

The social standing of the photographer has also changed, he said.

“In those days, when photography was a rare event, the photographer and the camera were respected,” said Balilty. “The photographers recognized that they were taking part in the immortalization of history, and anyone who earned the honor of being photographed felt as if they were part of a historic moment. They were all extras in their movie. In many of their works they seem to be trying ‘to freeze’ and immortalize precious moments that will never be repeated.”

Today, in contrast, “when you come to do a shoot you’re treated like a PR instrument and sometimes people move away from the camera because you’re ‘interfering with their privacy,’” he said.

Last week a woman who thought she recognized her grandfather in a photograph that appeared in an advertisement for the exhibition contacted Balilty and asked him for the subject’s name. “I have no idea,” Balilty admitted/ “It’s not like today. There were a lot of question marks in that period. The photographers didn’t always know whose picture they were taking.”