Shooting The ‘Promise’ Of ‘This Place’

Photographer Frederic Brenner’s massive Israel project seeks to see beyond the conflict.

04/30/14
Culture Editor
Photo Galleria: 
A young family of shepherds in Brenner’s “Judean Hills." Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery
A young family of shepherds in Brenner’s “Judean Hills." Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery

When photographer Frederic Brenner decided to invite a group of the finest photographers in the world to spend time in Israel and the West Bank to create their own portraits of the place, some were intrigued and others were wary of being used for political gain, or were just not interested enough. But Brenner is a man of huge enthusiasm, persistence and vision, and ultimately convinced 11 men and women to take up his invitation to see a land more complicated than headlines suggest. At the same time, he convinced funders to contribute several millions of dollars. The result is an unprecedented international creative initiative launching this spring.

“These are seers who ask difficult questions,” Brenner says of the photographers, who include Josef Koudelka, Jungjin Lee, Stephen Shore, Rosalind Solomon, Thomas Struth and Jeff Wall. He didn’t expect them to find answers. “I wanted to expose them to the complexity and dissonance of the place — to get them totally confused on a high level.”

The photographers each spent around six months in Israel over a four-year period. Their styles, formats and areas of interests varied greatly, and Brenner suggests that their art looks far beyond political perspectives. Rather, it’s about exploring the human condition.

“This Place,” to be introduced in stages, includes an exhibition of more than 500 images slated to open in the fall in Prague at DOX: Centre Josef Koudelka, Jungjin Lee, Stephen Shore, Rosalind Solomon, Thomas Struth and Jeff Wall. He didn’t expect them to find answers. “I wanted to expose them to the complexity and dissonance of the place — to get them totally confused on a high level.”

The photographers each spent around six months in Israel over a four-year period. Their styles, formats and areas of interests varied greatly, and Brenner suggests that their art looks far beyond political perspectives. Rather, it’s about exploring the human condition.
 
“This Place,” to be introduced in stages, includes an exhibition of more than 500 images slated to open in the fall in Prague at DOX: Centre for Contemporary Art and to travel to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, to the Brooklyn Museum of Art in February 2016, and then to other venues. Additional plans include books by each of the 12 photographers and an exhibition catalogue; international public programs; campus initiatives and a strong social media presence. The first books in the series are available, including Brenner’s “An Archeology of Fear and Desire” (MACK, 2014).
 
In Brenner’s own photography, as well as in “This Place,” he’s interested in examining Israel as place and metaphor. “What fascinates me is at the edge of the particular and the universal,” Brenner says. “It’s not just this piece of land, the place where three major narratives have been in conflict.” He adds, “I look at it as the theater of the world.”
 
In a series of conversations here, Brenner explains the themes that drive his work and his love of Israel, easily shifting between art and philosophy. “Everything starts with the idea that there’s a promise attached to the land, for all people, for all three narratives,” he says, referring to those of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths. “What have we done with this promise?” 
 
He alludes to longing, otherness, belonging and exclusion; tenderness and violence; redemption and intimacy; and shadows and fault lines in the promise. For him, Israel is a place of wrestling and embrace. “I build a scaffold,” he says. “I play with ideas. Those ideas come from fieldwork. I let things erupt.”
 
Brenner, 55, grew up in a secular Jewish home in Paris; his grandparents came from Algeria on his mother’s side, and Russia and Romania on his father’s. The Six-Day War aroused his parents’ interest in Judaism and Israel, and Brenner finished his studies in a Jewish school before going on to study social anthropology and French literature at the Sorbonne. His camera became a tool of his studies. In 1978, he traveled to Israel for the first time. Mea Shearim — to him a pocket of the diaspora in the heart of Israel — left him speechless, and he kept returning. He photographed the neighborhood, its rabbis and residents, and later published his first book.
 
But it was the diaspora that really drew him, and he traveled to 40 countries in the next 25 years, photographing Jews, many in communities that are no more. “I was trying to reclaim a history that I had been deprived of,” he says. The result was his epic book of black-and-white photographs, “Diaspora,” also an international exhibition. 
 
“The genesis of this project,” he says about “This Place” (http://this-place.org), is those 25 years of exploration of what I call the complex of multiple and dissonant identities. I spent those years gathering my fragments, my own puzzle. I look on it as an initiatic journey.”
 
Now he’s a self-described “embodiment of portable identity,” dividing his time between New York, Amsterdam and Israel. 
 
For “An Archeology of Fear and Desire,” his photographic contribution to “This Place,” Brenner shot in color. His palette, in his words, is delicate. For all of his eloquence in conversation, the book has few words. Captions are spare.
 
Brenner speaks of how he had to find the “scaffolding” of the project, and perhaps the frontispiece photo suggests those metaphorical and complicated details that captivate him. “Palace Hotel, 2009” shows a decaying grand slice of Roman and Ottoman architecture — this façade, supported by metal beams, is all that remained then of a historic structure. Here’s a building exposed as though it’s inside out, mysterious, silent, its beauty not always evident. 
 
Brenner doesn’t give any clues, but a quick glance at the history of this curved pile reveals that its 1928-29 construction, under the auspices of the Mufti of Jerusalem, was completed quickly by Arab workers, supervised by a Jewish engineer secretly working for the Haganah. Its last guests checked out in 1935, and it was subsequently used as administrative offices for the British Mandate and later as headquarters for Israel’s Ministry of Trade before being abandoned to the city’s homeless. But just weeks ago, it reopened in a rebuilt version as Jerusalem’s Waldorf Astoria, with this façade maintained.
 
Most of the other photographs involve collaborative encounters with people. Often, his subjects lead him to tell stories other than the ones he intended. In his portraits, the eyes are full of emotion. Viewers are challenged to meet their gaze.
 
In “Judean Hills,” he photographs a young family of shepherds, the straggly-bearded father in a large white kipa, three children, the seated mother with hair covered in the style of Orthodox women, a sheepdog at her feet. Their beautiful, unsmiling faces are inscrutable. Behind them, lots of sheep separate them from the ancient rocky hills.
 
Brenner also includes his daughter Elior, seated in woods the color of the army uniform she wears; a couch full of women kibbutzniks, a portrait labeled “Identity Undisclosed” of a man with a scar forming a line down his face, above and below his dark eye; “Shlomi and Oren,” a pair of handsome male lovers embracing amidst tall cacti; and “Ben Gurion Airport,” a trio of chasidic men standing with their wheeled suitcases in what looks like an empty terminal. Each has black fabric attached to his hat pulled over his eyes to shield him from things he might inadvertently see.
 
The book’s final photo, “Tel Aviv,” offers a view of the highway with all cars stopped and drivers standing outside in stillness. Time itself was stopped when this photo was taken, with a siren marking a moment of silence for a national day of remembrance.
 
There’s a somber beauty to these photographs. In some of his work in “Diaspora,” there’s more joy and humor, even amid the complex range of feelings of displacement and longing, as in the photos of the Jewish barbers and their Tajik customers in Tajikistan (“Barbershop”) in 1989, and the same group posed in the Dead Sea, with their Israeli customers in 1992.
 
According to project director Matthew Brogan, the budget for “This Place” is about $6 million, with $4 million for the photographers’ residencies and over $2 million to support the dissemination of the project, with its ambitious digital media campaign intended to trigger conversations. 
 
When Brenner first approached the Charles H. Revson Foundation for support in 2008, as senior program officer Nessa Rapoport explains, she and Julie Sandorf, Revson’s president, saw the project as “an audacious idea. But we knew Frederic could pull it off because of his track record with ‘Diaspora.’ 
 
“We are looking for ways to showcase Israel beyond the black-and-white shouting match of the conflict,” she says. “We believe in the power of art to change consciousness. These enduring images will always be in the world. And so we were not afraid to be among the first funders.”
 
 
Brenner organized a two-week informal think tank for the photographers on their arrival, with trips and meetings with Israelis like philosopher Moshe Halbertal, Bedouin expert Clinton Bailey and feminist and peace activist Leah Shakdiel. He also arranged for each visiting photographer to have a Hebrew-speaking assistant, selected from the Bezalel Academy. For all the photographers, Brenner says, the program was “a profound transformative experience.” 
 
Martin Kollar of the Slovak Republic, said, “Some of the places I had the impression that I was on a film set, and I tried to bring this to the images. You don’t really know when the reality and the fiction somehow stops and starts.” American Wendy Ewald shared cameras with 14 groups of people from different regions and cultures to record themselves, to help her to create a map from within. Canadian Jeff Wall devoted his time to making a single large-scale photo, “Sleeping Olive Harvest Workers,” taken near the town of Mitzpe Ramon, with Bedouin olive pickers and a prison seen beyond the farm. Czech photographer Josef Koudelka, who grew up behind the Soviet Iron Curtain, was drawn to photograph the separation barrier. 
 
Brenner also uses the Hebrew and Arabic words for This Place as part of the title. In Hebrew, makom, place, is an attribute of God. 
 
“Will we dare not to understand this place? Will we dare to not connect the dots?” Brenner asks.
 
“Will we dare to open our hearts unconditionally?” 
 

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04/30/2014 - 14:10

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