November 19, 2019

Breathtaking ‘Holy Land’ Photographic Exhibit at UCLA Hillel

Donn Delson aerial photography.

Donn Delson was thousands of feet above the Earth when he aimed his camera and captured a majestically barren panorama along the Dead Sea in Israel. Somewhat paradoxically, he would later title the resulting image “Waterworld.”

Back on land, tens of thousands of miles away from where he collected that photo, the 70-year-old photographer gestured to the photo displayed at the Dortort Center for the Arts at UCLA Hillel, and said, “I’ll let you look at it for a moment and tell me why you think it’s called ‘Waterworld.’ ” 

Upon my blank stare and a few babbled words about a disastrous Kevin Costner film from the 1990s, Delson put me out of my misery. “See the mouth and the eye of the bass?” he said. “See the puffer fish? See the mermaid’s tail?”

And indeed, amid the zigzags and lines, the cliffs and soil, the sea creatures emerge. “At one point, all this was under water. It was in the Dead Sea and the fish remained,” Delson said. “So even though it’s not blue or turquoise or aquamarine, it’s waterworld.”

There are more bits of visual playfulness within the 21 photographs of Delson’s “Holy Land” exhibition on display at the Hillel. Occasionally, the title card tells us exactly what we’re looking at, such as “Masada Sunrise.” In most instances, the title invites a shift in perspective. “Holy Land” takes us not just into, but literally over the Holy Land, offering views that most of us will never experience.

“What I enjoy is that multi-layer sense of perspective, the perspective of seeing something that one wouldn’t normally see which, maybe if we’re open to it, offers us a new insight.” — Donn Delson 

Israel — indeed much of the world — looks very different from on high. Delson learned this in theory when, as a high school student in Cincinnati, he read T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King” and was intrigued by the portion of the story in which the wizard Merlin schools his young charge — the future King Arthur —by turning him into an eagle. 

“Arthur could fly and get a sense of the oneness of the world,” Delson said. “That was a seminal moment for me.”

As a student and later as an adult, Delson enjoyed photography largely as a hobby while he pursued entrepreneurial ventures. Then, eight years ago, while on a trip to New Zealand, he took a helicopter to a glacier and began shooting out the window. Seeing that his passenger knew his way around a camera, the helicopter pilot offered to strap Delson into a harness and to remove the doors to give him an unobstructed view.

“That was it: a transformational moment for me,” Delson said. “It was another year or two before I actually started doing the aerial photography, but it has really become the focus of my work. What I enjoy is that multi-layer sense of perspective, the perspective of seeing something that one wouldn’t normally see which, maybe if we’re open to it, offers us a new insight.”

Delson’s family had attended the UCLA Hillel and they knew Executive Director Rabbi Aaron Lerner, who knew Delson’s family and his work. Lerner and Hillel Artistic Director Perla Karney said that Delson might come up with something for the fall exhibition at the Hillel’s Dotort Center for Creativity in the Arts.

“I don’t think either of them expected me to go to Israel and spend 35 hours on a helicopter taking pictures,” Delson said, “but I hope they were pleased with the results.”

Indeed, they were. The opening drew more than 150 people and generated several sales, a portion of which will go to Hillel. 

“I thought that was pretty remarkable, that he made it kind of his mission to go and take photographs for our exhibit,” Karney said. “Donn is very detailed. He’s a visionary and he does things to perfection. He had something like seven sales on the opening night, which is unusual for Hillel. We’re not a gallery. But people really responded to these images, and they bought.”

Delson’s journey took him from the Golan to the Negev. He flew over Tel Aviv and the Sea of Galilee. Shooting with a Nikon 860 and a Canon 5Ds, Delson captured a bird’s-eye view of the Mar Saba Monastery and picked out a solitary kayaker breaking away from the shores of the Dead Sea for his “Odyssey.” Other images evoke jewel-like patterns (“Gemstones”) or fabric (“Crystal and Lace”). His shot of the cliffs that once housed the Dead Sea Scrolls appears from above to be a giant hand. Its title: “Hand Written.” 

Delson knew he wanted a view of Masada at sunrise and another of Jerusalem’s Old City at dusk. But as is often the case when he goes airborne, he also was willing to be taken by surprise. 

“A lot of it is serendipitous,” Delson said. “It’s my eye searching for patterns, for symmetry and for negative space. I’m searching for things that are colorful because a lot of the Earth is brown and green and gray. Finding things that are colorful and beautiful, things that appeal to me for what I’m looking for is a challenge.”

Delson contends that the work is not without its obstacles. Even with the doors off, shooting conditions from 5,000 feet include dealing with vibration and wind. From a helicopter, it’s so easy to quickly review your work and do reshoots. 

Not that Delson is complaining. Quite the opposite. Sometimes he gets so caught up in the view that he almost forgets that he is working. 

“In doing what I do, the reward I get personally is having that mystical magical moment,” he said. “When I was over Manhattan a few years ago, I flew over Times Square at dusk and it was so magical and so incredible that there was a period of probably a minute where I was actually just looking and not taking any pictures. And I remembered, ‘Oh yeah, the whole reason I was up here was to take pictures.’ You look out and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh. What a gift to be able to have that experience and that opportunity.’ ”


“Holy Land” will be on display through Dec. 22 at the Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts at UCLA Hillel, 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles, (310) 208-3081, uclahillel.org.