He Saw the Light

With a successful solo exhibition here and invitations to exhibit in Venice and New York, photojournalist Pavel Wohlberg is finally being recognized for his unique style.

Of his absorption difficulties in Israel since his arrival in 1973, photographer Pavel Wohlberg remembers only the blinding light. He does not have much to say about his childhood in Leningrad, or about its continuation in an ugly immigrant housing project in Be'er Sheva. He has no revealing comments about his Russian origin, his family, or the absence of a father in his life. Perhaps he actually does have something to say, but doesn't want to. That's what Pavel Wohlberg is like, unsentimental, not a man of words or of memories. Only that bad, penetrating and invasive light that bothered his eyes when he arrived in the housing project. That he remembers well, and he talks about it. He was eight years old, and all he wanted was to close the shutters and sit in the dark.

Perhaps it was the play of light that penetrated through the cracks during his childhood twilight that finally lured him to photography. In Wohlberg's apartment in a quiet residential neighborhood in Ramat Gan hangs a large framed piece displaying three of his photos, one on top of another. All three were taken at night, in various places in the territories and in Jaffa, and at their center is an illuminated and magnetic space.

Threads of this hidden light in his imagination return and dramatize dozens of Wohlberg's photographs, from various spheres. Rays of light momentarily illuminate the housing project in Be'er Sheva; women in religious ecstasy, their faces turned toward the light that penetrates from an unseen source in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; a Palestinian woman at a checkpoint, with the stripes of light on her face creating a sense of illumination. "I don't know, I looked for the light," he explains in his introspective manner what attracted his eye in this routine situation of a soldier and a woman at a checkpoint, which appears regularly in news photographs.

Wohlberg is a marvelous researcher of light. And he is a unique and not entirely understood photographer who was highly praised when he had a solo exhibition last month at the Dvir Gallery in Tel Aviv. What hasn't been said about this exhibition? That "Some of its photographs will be etched in Israeli cultural memory" (Smadar Shefi). That "Some day in the future Pavel Wohlberg's masterful photographs will be the chronicles of our times. Wohlberg more than ever catches the soul of the place and the time as an artist and a documenter" (Uzi Zur).

The exhibition at the Dvir, with all the compliments it received, along with his invitation to exhibit this June at the Venice Biennale, have marked Wohlberg, a photojournalist and street photographer, as a rising star in the art world. Exhibiting at the Biennale is a great honor for any Israeli artist, and particularly for a photographer. Few Israeli artists have been invited to exhibit there outside the Israeli pavilion.

But alongside the favorable reception and the compliments, there are already signs of envy, which perhaps more than anything else testify to his growing status in the local art world. Some try to belittle the fact that he was chosen and to attribute the choice to the political context. Someone active in the field of photography, for example, said off the record that "Pavel's photography deals first of all with the conflict. That's what they're interested in, in Venice, the merchandise of the tragedy."

Wohlberg's uniqueness, which nobody denies, is that he succeeds in creating a different quality in news photography, outside of time and place. Miki Kratsman, a photographer and head of the photography department in the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design (who exhibited at the Biennale two years ago), one of those who bears no grudge, says that Pavel is "a painter with a camera."

"Just as a painter fills a surface, he does in photography. From one end to the other he devotes attention to all the parts, as though the photograph were not flat, as we think. In his photography one can see that he devoted time to every detail in the photo. You can see that in the photo of the wedding (a wedding in the Vishnitz Hasidic community - T.R.) or the carpets or the soldiers on the backdrop of the park in Jenin. The presence of the soldier on the backdrop of the painting is so precise, it's as though someone did not seize the moment, but planned it. As though he staged the picture.

"Pavel creates something that makes a snapshot look as though he mixed colors on a palette. He's very plastic. It's clear that the colors attract his eye and that he is sensitive to light. He understands light on a level that very few people do. In the photo of the horse, he is saying that when one photographs a horse one is actually photographing the light reflected back by the horse. He is aware of that. There are not many photographers who are aware of that."

Kratsman adds that it is an optical illusion that Pavel Wohlberg suddenly appeared out of nowhere. "He simply has excellent timing. There was the exhibition at the Dvir and now the trip to Venice, so he suddenly has presence, but that is only in the media. For about a decade he has been exhibiting works of an astonishing level. But quietly. It's like with Barry Friedlander. Two months from now, everyone will know him, because he'll be the first Israeli photographer to exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York and they'll write about him in the paper. He's been around for a long time. To say that he has now had a breakthrough is an optical illusion to which we, the press and the media, contribute."

He was born in Leningrad (today St. Petersburg) in 1966. He sums up the sharp transition to Be'er Sheva laconically: "It was a trauma." He grew up in a house of women. His father, who remained in Russia and whom Pavel recalls only vaguely, died over 10 years ago.

In Israel his mother worked as a kindergarten teacher. His grandmother stayed at home and cooked the meals. After school he would spend his time mainly in the street. Below the house, he says, stood frightening characters covered with tattoos, criminals, drug addicts and drunks. Gangs of different ethnic groups of whom one had to be careful. He was one of the good boys, who went to school and afterward to the army.

If Wohlberg sees himself as an artist, he says it's because his roots are classical and "my mother put it into my head that art is important." In Russia he was exposed to museums and the ballet. He read good literature, Pushkin and Lermontov in Russian, but the art books attracted his eyes and his heart much more. In school he sat in one of the back benches and doodled in his notebooks, "I didn't really do anything else."

Although unlike today, during his time young Russian immigrants did not stick to speaking Russian, he does not feel that he has become involved in Israeli culture, and he still identifies more with Russian culture and admires it more. This foreignness is definitely expressed in the photos as well. He admits that he has a foreign perspective, external to the situation, causing him to look at it askance, as in the photograph of the man, the spoons and the goats. "I'm full of criticism of the way the world is constructed," he says. "I can't look at the world and say: that's how it should be. That's good. I like to see things that are not right and to show them."

After the army, in 1991, on the eve of the Gulf War, he arrived in Tel Aviv determined to study photography. He was not accepted to Bezalel, so he registered for the Camera Obscura School of Art. "At first it was 'wow,' to be in Tel Aviv. It gave you an illusion of being in a big city. Of studying art. I would drink at night and get up late, paint. A Bohemian. But that ended very soon. I didn't really learn there. Except for Moshe Ninio, who really taught and influenced me."

After his studies he did manual labor, worked as a handyman, cleaned, anything that came up. For a while he worked as a stagehand at the Be'er Sheva Theater, and then as a security guard on fuel trucks entering Gaza. He photographed without anyone telling him what to photograph, and painted as well. The photos were "more personal," as he puts it, like the paintings. Some of them were displayed at an exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum, and they show people with the sea in the background, or housing projects in Be'er Sheva where his mother is still living. For six years he worked in the news department of Haaretz and since then he has been working with the European Pressphoto Agency (EPA), which provides photography services to newspapers the world over.

He has been exhibiting for about a decade at group exhibitions in galleries and museums, and has won prizes and stipends in Israel and abroad. In 2002 he had a solo exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art called "Point Blank," which was curated by his teacher from the Camera Obscura days, Moshe Ninio. In 2006, one of his photographs won the photojournalism competition "Local Testimony." In the photo one sees a man fleeing as a car blows up behind him. It happened in Kiryat Shmona during the second Lebanon War.

Yossi Nahmias, the curator of the competition, says that one can be cynical and say that if someone shoots a picture for a newspaper and afterward the photo is in a gallery, people will always find an excuse for why it's artistic. For years in countries like Britain, France and the United States, the divisions between art photography on the one hand, and news or any commissioned photo on the other, are not as sharp as in Israel, Nahmias notes. And even in Israel, he says, the division is gradually becoming blurred. "There is greater openness toward bringing together works created in the media as art."

If often the press is interested mainly in creating an image that will attract attention and deliver a message that is decipherable rather than enigmatic, Wohlberg "is willing not to be decipherable too quickly, and that is evident in the object of his interest, in his sensitivity and in his willingness to pay a price for it," Nahmias says.

Micha Bar-Am, an Israel Prize laureate in photography, thinks that Wohlberg "crosses the boundaries between news and artistic photography and also combines them with each other.

"I think Pavel Wohlberg is one of the best things that has happened to photography in Israel in recent years. His work is neither naive nor overly clever, it is intuitive rather than opinionated, and he succeeds in demonstrating that news photography can become iconic photography. That the photographic phenomenon deals not only with reporting, but also creates images."

Like Kratsman, Bar-Am also believes that Wohlberg's timing is perfect. "In recent months," he says, "fascinating things have happened in terms of the museums' acceptance of what is called 'documentary photography' - a term that I abhor - because they've understood that there is power in these photos, as in those of Pavel. And fortunately, like photography that takes place at the right moment, he was born into this situation that has ripened to accept him. It's as though he seized the moment in history of gradual acceptance of photography, and it's fascinating.

"I'm pleased about it because he creates in the field with direct methods. He understands that life is sufficiently dramatic and theatrical and he has the proper combination of the laws of the chase and knowledge, in making a visual and artistic statement," Bar-Am concludes.

The display of the photos at the Dvir exhibition in a large format of 1.5 x 1 meters moved Wohlberg up, in commercial terms. According to art industry assessments, he doubled his commercial value, and the works displayed cost several thousand dollars each. This exhibition is also much less callous and rough than the exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum, which was mounted at the height of the second intifada.

For me, a trip together to Umm Al-Fahm in 2000 to report on a science high school for Muslim girls exemplified Wohlberg's hunting instincts. He is a giant of a man who is somewhat awkward. There is something wooden in his conduct, until his eye catches his photo and then in a moment he changes. His entire body. On the long trip from Tel Aviv we were silent on all kinds of subjects. It was hard to get him to talk, to get him to relate. When we reached the edges of the Arab community he became alert, and his vitality returned. As we ascended the twisting alleyways, he leaned half his body out of the window and kept on taking pictures. That week the newspaper published a beautiful photo of girls with their heads covered walking through passages filled with light as though there was a kind of halo above them.

As opposed to the image of Pavel the fighter on the roads, which he nurtured during the years he worked for Haaretz, galloping to the territories on his huge motorcycle, today he lives a quiet life in Ramat Gan with his partner Osnat, who does psychological research. The couple has a four-year-old son, Amir.

At an age where one tends to make depressing summations, Wohlberg can permit himself to feel that he is on the threshold of a great and exciting period. But Wohlberg, who always looks as though all the prizes and the exhibitions have come as a surprise to him, does not yet feel this success. "Once I would have said that in another 10 years you'll do this or that. Now I feel that I don't have another 10 years," he says.

He describes his life as a press photographer as an incessant chase. "It's exhausting," he complains. It is more and more difficult to catch the unique photographic image the more "the whole business of photography develops," and the possibilities of photography are greater: video cameras, cell phones, police vans. "There are endless images everywhere. The easier it is, the more difficult to photograph something. There are years of press photography, there's a photography service on the Internet. You see pictures, images, all the time. Once it was easier."

For someone like Wohlberg, who is used to getting the story in an unusual way, more and more places have become closed to him, mediated by public relations people and spokesmen. "There are areas that are dead in terms of photography. France, for example. Because it's so familiar. Because you can't simply take out a camera and photograph people. They can sue you. There's no life there," he says. Is Israel, a victim of the conflict, actually a photographer's paradise in that sense?

Wohlberg complains that even in Israel people have become much more paranoid and also much more aware of photography, and when their look reveals awareness, that "pollutes the situation" and invalidates the photo in his eyes. Perhaps that is why he did not photograph the settlers much from close up, although he has been taking pictures in the territories since becoming a photographer, and of course took pictures during the disengagement. He has loads of close-ups of Palestinians. That is not because he is a political photographer. "What is a political photographer? I don't represent any side and am not planning to bring down a government. The Palestinians bring their own truth. And the settlers are too aware."