Seeing Israel Through The Camera’s Eye


It’s extremely rare for 12 photographers to show their work together. Photographer Frederic Brenner not only convinced 11 of his renowned colleagues from around the world to share in an exhibition, but to first spend six months in Israel — where most had never been — and present their own photographic vision. The result of his remarkably ambitious project, “This Place,” with more than 600 photographs on view, opens this Friday at the Brooklyn Museum and runs through June 5th.

Brenner, along with Jeff Rosenheim, curator-in-charge of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Photography, treated Jewish Week readers and others to a sneak preview of the exhibition, at a Jewish Week Forum at Temple Emanuel’s Skirball Center last Thursday evening.

“Israel is a place of metaphor… of radical optimists,” Brenner observed. “It engages viewers in a conversation.”

“Seeing is a creative act,” Rosenheim said. Each photographer was “looking for that thing they had never seen before, never felt before.”

Several of the participating photographers were present as Brenner and Rosenheim showed and commented on the work. Their longtime association was evident in the natural back-and-forth between the two. They also showed a video about the making of the $6 million project, which took several years to complete.

The evening was a primer on photography. Rosenheim showed historical photographs not in the show that were taken in Jerusalem at the dawn of photography more than 170 years ago, including early daguerreotypes by French photographer Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey.

Some of the historical photographs were shot at the very same angles as the contemporary ones, with all photographers facing similar questions about “how to record this unbelievable place.”

Brenner narrated his own story beginning in the late 1970s — with photographs from his distinguished oeuvre — of his shift from photographing Jews in the diaspora to seeking out the complications of Israeli society. The French-born photographer, who speaks — and photographs — in poetic metaphor, explained: “For me, diaspora begins in Jerusalem.”

When he first visited, he was captivated by Meah Shearim, the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem where, he said, “people live in the diaspora in the heart of Jerusalem in the heart of the Middle East.” He then began “piecing together the puzzle of many fragments, of the Jewish people” — “my own puzzle,” he called it — traveling to 40 countries in 25 years. He then felt a need to return to Jerusalem, to try to understand “the promise attached to this land from time immemorial.”

“What have we done with this promise?” he asked. “What has it done to us, [and] what will we do with it?”