Snapshot: The Naked Truth of the Yom Kippur War

Micah Bar-Am's "West of the Suez Canal, October 1973" is currently being exhibited at Tel Aviv Museum of Art

Tal Niv
Tal Niv
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Micha Bar-Am, “West of the Suez Canal, October 1973.”
Micha Bar-Am, “West of the Suez Canal, October 1973.”
Tal Niv
Tal Niv

1. I gaze at the red stain on the nose of the jeep. “Look,” I say, “these are interesting and important photographs. You have to understand when they were taken, in real time, during the fighting, in the field.”

Micha Bar-Am’s exhibition pursues us from every side in the gallery with the oddly angled walls in the Tel Aviv Museum. I try to impress him, to guess what he’s thinking, and also to hide the images from our little one − I regret having allowed her to enter the upper gallery, where the war photos are on display, and I steer her out. But I am eager to show him all the photographs, to explain what happened on that Yom Kippur. To get him involved, to apologize for something, to integrate him. I am tireless.

And then I see nudity. The first totally nude soldier of Micha Bar-Am I’ve seen, and it reminds me of someone and something. I see in it what I need to see. I see his nipple made erect by contact with the water. I see the liquid being spilled from the jerrican, the white flesh that was covered by his shorts, the marking of a summer that has ended. He has low foot arches. He is cleaning his white neck with one hand; the other is gritty, stained with something. I see a green tube of Pine brand shaving cream or soap on the hood of the jeep. His uniform, if that’s what it is, lies in a small pile. I see holes in the dry tree trunks. I see his flat abdomen. The hair on his thighs. I look precisely at the center of his body. It’s gorgeous. This is the moment at which all the theories of gaze in photography collide. I stand alone in front of the photograph. And I looked at it in the place where looking is required − exactly there.

Artillary barrage on Israeli crossing point to the western side of the canal, October 1973.

2. I think this is one of the most daring, purest and most complex photographs Bar-Am has ever shown. Because in this photograph he has to cope with a very powerful anxiety: the anxiety of observing the nakedness of another man ‏(while he himself is dressed‏); and with the second, added exposure involved in the placement of the image ‏(shown publicly for the first time‏) on these walls 40 years later. This, then, is also a projection of an idea of bodily perfection in a place where that perfection is in the greatest danger. This is a surprisingly delicate representation of the anxiety − which could no longer be repressed at that time, in 1973, and in all the time since − of loss of potency. What could be lost is seen here in the sun exactly at midpoint, and it needs no explication or interpretations. Symmetrical and accentuated, blatant in the sun. This is, then, a classic “study” by Bar-Am, a completely lucid study of a young man, suffused with aesthetic appreciation. It is a study in desire, but not in the immediate, shallow sense.

So much has been written about Bar-Am − mentioned with modest generosity in Raz Samira’s article in the exhibition catalog − concerning the way in which his own body, which is present on the battlefield, becomes a living lens, a human photography machine ‏(in keeping with the ideas of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty about the physical concreteness of apprehension‏); concerning whether Bar-Am’s images from 1973 are national or individual in character, yoked to the Zionist ethos in its heroic encapsulation ‏(they are‏). Or do they express universal experience? Do they empathize with others, even enemies? ‏They do, especially when Israeli soldiers and Egyptian POWS are photographed from the same distance. Looking at this image, it becomes clear that Bar-Am’s point of view is what I would call the distance that allows one to be truthful to one’s artistic soul.

On the way to the “Chinese Farm,” Sinai, October 1973.
Israeli stronghold, War of Attrition, Sinai, 1969.
Egyptian prisoners of war, October 1973.

In the catalog, Bar-Am is quoted as saying: “I am one of those who believed, and I am quoting a sentence attributed to Robert Capa, that if your photograph isn’t good enough, it means you weren’t close enough. I add to this that if you are too close, you lose perspective. In order to see things as they really are you also need to take step back.”

Looking at this man − a man before he is a “soldier” or even an “Israeli soldier” standing in a dusky garden ‏(from which he is not being banished − yet‏), Danziger’s “Nimrod” sculpture also comes to mind. One understands that Bar-Am is ready to cope with the unconscious. With what is unspoken about it. With what it is possible to say about desire, about tenderness, and about the fear of losing them.

3. Our little one is waiting on the stairs, playing her imaginary game in which she acts out several roles of male and female warriors. He asks something about her movements, and I say it’s better not to ask, because that generates self-consciousness, which disrupts the game. In very slow English I talk about photographs of Israeli soldiers, from Miki Kratsman to Adi Nes, and about the photographs of POWs in cages and on trucks, and about the change in viewpoint in the wake of the change in Israeli wars, and the invasion of the territories. He listens politely. I finally am silent and think only about my father and the two little dolls he brought back from the war after three weeks and gave to us, his girls at home. And about how we thought they had come from the war and never imagined that it might be possible to buy them on the way. Also how we understood then that if he did not come back − if he did not come back, we would be completely lost, and not grow. Then I think about Bar-Am’s photograph. And about the beauty of the young male bather. About the proper distance. About all that one has to forgo in life.

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