December 11, 2018

‘Israel Impressions’ photo exhibition shows time immemorial

The scenes are remarkable for the way they capture a sense of the ordinary: 

A barrel-chested man wearing a straw hat lights a cigarette in front of the bedding supply stand he operates at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem. 

A woman at the Ramle Market rummages in her purse as she stands between racks of denim and hoodies, only her eyes visible through a black burqa. 

A young woman in a sundress rides a bicycle on the streets of Tel Aviv. Crossing in front of her is a bearded man dressed in traditional Orthodox garb — black hat, black overcoat, tallit.

Several of the photographic images have an anachronistic quality, enhanced by the fact that they were taken not with a digital camera or smartphone, but an old-school Leica rangefinder camera with black-and-white film.

And that is at the heart of Paul Margolis’ upcoming exhibition “Israel Impressions,” which opens Jan. 21 at Hillel at UCLA’s Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts.

“My first love has always been black-and-white film, and I’m grateful to digital for turning the old-fashioned stuff that I love into an art form,” said Margolis, 63. “People sometimes ask me, ‘Why are you using that old-fashioned thing instead of digital?’ I’ll say, ‘It makes me happier than digital.’ It’s not a moral judgment. It just makes me happier, and I like it better.”

The 18 photographs that make up “Israel Impressions” were shot during two trips to Israel, first in 2013 and again in 2014. The New York-based photographer made the journeys for personal and professional reasons; Margolis lived in Israel during the late 1970s but hadn’t visited the country since 1985.

“It had been 28 years between trips, and I really didn’t know what to expect,” Margolis said. “Obviously, I had been following the news about Israel and watching its political, technical and economic developments, but I was actually taken aback from the moment I got to the airport. It was a modern country with high technology.”

The irony, of course, is that Margolis was not looking to document modernity. Whether he is photographing small Jewish communities in Ireland and Cuba or poverty-stricken areas of New York’s Lower East Side, Margolis said he is frequently drawn to “elements of nostalgia and vanished worlds.” 

This is in sharp contrast to Margolis’ day job as a visual communications specialist for the City of New York. In that capacity, Margolis creates images for program brochures, reports and newspapers, with all of the work being created digitally or on video. 

Historian Joyce Mendelsohn recalled the months she spent walking with Margolis around Manhattan as he collected photos for the second edition of her book, “The Lower East Side Remembered and Revisited.”

“We stood on a median in the Bowery with cars whizzing back and forth,” Mendelsohn said. “We waited until Paul caught the perfect image of someone sitting on the sidewalk lighting a cigarette. He was the perfect person to take photos for my book because he always captured and included so much of the character of the people he was photographing and the relationship between the people and the background.”

To collect the images for “Israel Impressions,” Margolis shot in 14 cities over 11 days, photographing daily life in markets and homes, along beaches and on the streets. Few of his subjects posed; Margolis captured them while they were in the midst of daily activities — getting a haircut on a Jerusalem porch or watching a street performer near the Old City. 

Although his subjects rarely noticed the photographer, Margolis’ Leica occasionally became a conversation piece. A man who was buying spices with his daughter at the Mahane Yehuda Market noticed Margolis trying to photograph him and walked over. Margolis expected to hear a lecture on invading people’s privacy. Instead, the man told Margolis that he owned a later Leica model. The two men ended up having a conversation about their cameras in French.

“He told me he had used his Leica for ‘reportage,’ but that he no longer did much photography because of his family responsibilities,” Margolis said. “I ended up telling him, jokingly, that it’s a sin to let a Leica go unemployed.”

Scenes that contained curious or ironic juxtapositions also caught his attention, such as the burqa-clad woman shopping in a clothing shop in an Israeli market or the young man with an M16 slung over his shoulder waiting outside a dressing room while his unseen female companion tried on outfits.

“I don’t have a very modern take on Israel,” Margolis admitted. “In many ways, there’s a quality to this work that’s sort of out of time even though there’s nothing older than 2013. It’s what I happened to see that made an impression on me.”

Margolis said he does not plan to let another 28 years elapse before his next Israel visit — he is contemplating a larger project involving Israeli landscapes. In the meantime, “Israel Impressions” will travel to several other cities following its premiere at Dortort, and an identical set of photographs will be on display at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. 

Margolis will attend the opening at UCLA, his first visit to Los Angeles in several years. And, yes, he’ll bring one of his cameras.

“I had wanted to go to Disneyland, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to fit it in,” he said. “Somehow I think there’s something for me there.”