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I could hear the rushing flow of water long before I saw the striking sculpture from which it flowed, its white tile surface gleaming in the Jerusalem sunshine.
Several weeks ago, I returned from my first journey to Israel where I walked among archaeological sites representing thousands of years of social, political and religious history. With direction from enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour guides Gideon Har-Hermon and Ziv Cohen, my colleagues from the American Jewish Press Association and I traced the steps of ancestors whose influences remain though their bones have faded into dust.
The sculpture was on the grounds of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. At that moment, I did not realize that it was an integral piece of the Shrine of the Book, home of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Descending into the darkness of the underground chamber where the Scrolls are displayed, our chatty group fell silent. A Torah-like pillar glowed from the center. I looked up and realized that the ceiling was the underside of the fountain, its shape symbolic of the jars in which the nearly 2,000-year-old Scrolls had been preserved and found.
The artistic display connected these ancient objects to their original context while creating a bridge to the present. For me, this is the essence of art: communicating thoughts, emotions, experiences, and yes, even history.
The purpose of my visit was to understand Israel in a way that I could not through other people’s descriptions. It is tempting to define Israel simply in terms of the ancient because historically significant sites permeate the landscape. However, focusing solely on relics of the past misses the point. Israel is a living, breathing entity. Her complex political, social and religious structures, like those of our own country, beg for analysis, for context. Israel’s art overcame language, cultural and generational barriers, and enhanced my appreciation for this geographically small but globally significant nation.
How many is 1.5 million?
The Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem was designed to help students understand the magnitude of the Holocaust in which 1.5 million children under age 18 were killed.
“How do you show that large of a number? It’s too big for a child to comprehend,” said Yad Vashem guide Dr. Edna Wilchfort. A line of broken pillars of different heights, an image reminiscent of a family portrait, topped the hill toward which we walked.
“How many is 1.5 million?” she asked. Her question hung in the air as we entered the cave-like opening below the pillars and then surrounded by darkness, haunting music and a somber voice that called names, one by one. Slowly, from the oppressive black appeared a single, far-away light. Then 10. Then 1,000. Then tens of thousands-more than eyes could see, more than anyone could count. Like stars in the clearest night sky, they softly brightened the room with a dim light. We understood the depth and breadth of 1.5 million lives lost. I felt the painful impact of that message for many hours afterward.
Israel’s art, in the form of the memorial, told the story that words could not.
Ancient history lights the night
Days later, we experienced the Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem, located in the Old City. The story of Jerusalem is detailed in the permanent exhibits housed throughout this archeological site, where visitors can get a 360-degree view of Jerusalem from the top of The Citadel’s towers. After dusk, the museum came to life with The Night Spectacular. Light, music, and sound were projected from and onto every surface of the courtyard in a multimedia telling of Jerusalem’s history. Who would have thought to use The Citadel as a mega movie screen? Modern technology creatively connected past to present.
The Tel Aviv Museum of Art offered art in a more traditional sense. We visited the one-year-old Herta and Paul Amir wing that houses “The Museum Presents Itself: Israeli Art from the Museum Collection.” Selected works wove a framework of viewpoints regarding modern Israel from the early 1900s through today. A colleague and I searched for connections between the words and phrases painted on the surfaces of the museum’s walls. We debated the meaning of the texts and wondered whether artist Douglas Gordon had some kind of hidden message within the work as a whole.
Our conversation was appropriate. We were in Israel, after all – a place of history with a level of mystery that, like art, leaves interpretation and understanding up to the beholder.
This originally ran in the March 2013 edition of JUF News.
Vivian Maier spent more than forty years working city streets with camera in hand, creating images for her own pleasure we assume, since her work remained undiscovered until several years ago and was first exhibited in the United States this year. Only a tiny portion of the thousands of images she produced has been seen; it will take years to go through the negatives, prints and undeveloped rolls of film she left behind.
Although it is too early to determine how Maier’s work will be viewed in photographic history – will she be considered among great street photographers like Cartier-Bresson and others? The prints displayed at the Chicago Cultural Center reveal the excellence of her photographic eye and technical skills. Thus far, her images demonstrate that she mastered Cartier-Bresson’s concept of finding “the decisive moment” in photography, which he defined as “the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which gave that event its proper expression.” (Women in Photography International, “Decisive Moments: A Tribute to Henri Cartier-Bresson” (2004). http://www.womeninphotography.org/decisivemoments/pr_info.html)
Magnum photographer and author Joel Meyerowitz said when he first saw her photos, “he first thought Maier’s photos had been shot by a man. ‘They’re earthy and gritty and tough…She was incredibly bold as a woman and vulnerable at the same time in a period when women weren’t necessarily thought of that way.’” (Associated Press, “Vivian Maier,” Daily Herald (March 14, 2011), http://www.dailyherald.com/article/20110313/news/703139924/)
Later, Meyerowitz said, “I’m not a forecaster of what will last, although I am moved enough to try to give her leverage of being taken seriously in a history book.” (Dozeema, Marie, “Vivian Maier: Amateur With a Sharp Eye,” Christian Science Monitor (April 12, 2011) http://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Arts/2011/0412/Vivian-Maier-Amateur-with-a-Sharp-Eye)
Colin Westerbeck, with whom Meyerowitz wrote “Bystander: A History of Street Photography,” has a different opinion. “’I think that in historical perspective the photographs are not in and of themselves a revolutionary discovery…Part of the interest in it is a combination of the images and intensity with which she did this with the seemingly rather quiet and almost withdrawn life that she led.’”
I believe that Maier’s work demonstrates aesthetic excellence. Her attention to detail and careful composition must have been instinctive in order for her to make the photographs she did in urban settings. Her images show a breadth and depth of understanding, creativity and occasionally, humor. She explored social issues like homelessness and isolation, childhood and more in the thousands of photographs she left behind.
UNTITLED: AUG. 22, 1956
A steady noon sun, warm white sand and the rhythmic hum of waves are more than a tired man can resist. Maier finds him asleep on a beach, his hat a makeshift pillow squished under his head, his languid body slowly sinking into flowing sand. We smile at the incongruous nature of the scene – our subject is fully dressed, his pants pressed, plaid shirt buttoned at the cuffs, socks and dress shoes on his feet. He seems to have plopped onto the beach from nowhere, as there are remnants of only a few footprints leading to his resting spot.
Open space and repeated horizontal lines lend this photo a sense of tranquility. The man’s horizontal pose, the hairs on his head, the lines in his shirt, the water’s edge, the horizon line itself, wispy clouds in the sky (visible on the museum print) – even a row of pebbles forms a line extending to infinity left, infinity right. Maier’s lens again captures the tiniest details. Pant buttons, pocket tabs and creases. Wrinkles in his relaxed hand. The softest impressions in the sand.
Possibly, the man is as homeless as Maier’s throwaway man; perhaps this is the most peaceful place he can find to sleep – alone on an empty beach. We wonder if Maier came to this open space to find rest from the busy, congested streets as well. Either way, her photograph provides respite for our eyes.
Thousands, even millions followed her steps years before and years into the future as well. A smartly dressed woman walks a familiar corridor framed by colossal pillars on her left and smooth columns alternating with shiny glass windows on her right. Contrasting horizontal lines of sidewalk, of venetian blinds at half-mast, of long shadows of columns, draw the woman in silent rhythm toward a lighted archway at the end.
In this photograph, Maier captures patterns and textures of daily living – the subject’s womanly curves accented by the flow of fabric, mid- to late-afternoon sun highlights the top of her hat, warming her slightly rounded shoulders and rippling along the gathers of her sashaying skirt as she walks.
Her path, like those who came before and those of us to follow leads to the gateway of light straight ahead. Silhouettes of three women turned inward toward one another can be seen at the end. Perhaps they are her goal – she is meeting them for an early supper. Or perhaps she is alone, always alone, their presence emphasizing her isolation.
Those familiar with Chicago might have a sense (as I did) of déjà vu – knowing that they have walked this woman’s path either in life or in a dream. I experienced that peculiar sensation, that nagging feeling of knowing a place as I viewed this photo at the Cultural Center. Later, walking back to the train station and turning a corner, there it was: the scene Maier captured more than a half-century before. The light nearly the same. The colossal pillars and mirror-like windows and horizontal shadows, the same. The feeling was a bit surreal, yet it was comforting to know that Maier had walked the same steps, taken a breath and made a photograph that was being appreciated so many years later.