Eretz

part 2
by Sandy Cohen

 

 

 

June 25, 1967

 

 

 

The photos I took during that summer and fall on Kibbutz Dvir were appreciated for their variety if not their beauty.  I had many shots of the kibbutz's kitchen, for example.  I made my first explorations into abstraction in that kitchen.  Luckily for all the kibbutzniks, I had nothing to do with cooking.  I am talking about abstractions of photographic images that I made there.  Large polished pots and kettles, well-used copper and brass, were hanging right at eye level late in the afternoon (just begging to be photographed) when everybody else was resting and trying to keep cool.  I could use my close-up macro lens to treat the utensils as still-life images.  The light in the kitchen was what I would call perfect.  The kitchen in the afternoon was sweltering, because the ovens were kept hot through the rest period.  It was also very humid, with boiling-tables giving off steam all day.  But, the temperature and humidity actively enriched the streaming sunlight hitting the dents and stains and scratches on the metal surfaces.  The detail I was getting made each scratch seem sculptural and exotic.  I was like a fly flying among the inverted forest of hanging pots and pans.    What's more, the steamy atmosphere, which condensed moisture on my lens, resulted in deeper saturation of the colors.  The kitchen photos were very satisfying to me as art.

 

In September, I also got the chance to photograph a wedding.  Safir, an Argintine kibbutznik had a Jeep and drove me out into the Negev on a sand road (I should say, track) where the first thing I saw was a man riding as fast as he could, a horse and tightly grasping the reins of a trailing horse, also at full gallop.  The man was racing to keep up with us.  When we were going the same speed I started right then snapping the shutter (I had a slow color slide film with an 85mm fast lens).  I was getting the view of both horses leaving a wake of dust that luminously clouded the light dramatically.  I also got the flowing robes of the rider flagging his sandaled feet and cuffed trousers.  My side of the Jeep drew close enough for me to capture the energy and motion in the locomoting flank of the horse glistening with sweat in the dusty light.  For some of these shots, I used a slow shutter to record with blurs, the sense of motion and action.  "This is how the boy teaches the girl's pony obedience.  It is part of the mariage ceremony," Safir said. 

He knew the chief of this nomadic clan well enough to obtain permission for me to photograph the event, so I also was at ease to take portraits of the guests, who seemed welcoming and glad I was there to record their happiness.   I photographed the groom's grandfather, who was a goat shepherd.  His head dress was checkered black and white, and he wore a thin veil-like shawl trimmed with gold braid.  His face was wrinkled and textured, so I moved him into the sunshine, and had him sit so that he could be comfortable, and I could fix the camera on the tripod, and arrange the background as much as possible, so that I could see this man face and shoulders without visual distractions.  I wanted the eyes and the skin around the eyes in perfect focus. In addition to the people there, I also took photos of the bride and groom and the ceremony, itself.  This was like covering a three-ring circus, because in the main ring, while the vows were taken, in another ring, like the acrobat act, was a band of musicians, instruments which favored a variety of drums.  They were trying to rehearse without interrupting the ceremony.  When one of the elders in the tent was speaking, an old man who had many stories to tell about his granddaughter, the musicians were outside the tent, tapping their instruments as softly as they could, in order to practice the music they would have to play, apparently for the first time together, shortly after the grandfather sits down.  What caught my eye was the concentration (that showed on their faces, and postures) they beamed on the task of rejearsing quietly.  They often had to stop to quarrel, again, in silence, about one of them having just played too loud.  I realized the many photographic possibilities of this minor drama playing out with the tent, a weathered and soiled old, cotton and goat-hair tent as backdrop.  The light outside the tent was intense.  The slow film meant that I would have to set the tripod somewhere innocuous to them, lest they stop the emotional expressions I wanted.  The shots of this side-show were mostly at a remove from the six musicians dealing with their comical situation. Even at a distance from the action, one shot showed the combination of consternation, effort to get the notes right while half-listening to the old speaker who was his uncle, and trying to be polite to the strangers (half of the players were little or completely unknown to the other half).  I wanted to portray the situation as well as the individual faces so the final image showed them as standing, huddled lower (as if that silenced their instruments) and watching each other unabashedly, seeking clarification of some aspect of their part in the ritual then underway.

In another ring, I got a good picture showing the bride and groom's parents. A four-shot and the area around was how I framed it.  Inside the tent, the light was still and shaded, creating a wash of muted sunshine, penetrating the diffusing smokes and steams ascending from the area used for cooking. Two men dressed in white robes, were reclining on a wide settee next to each other.  Their respective wives were next to them.  The men were talking, by leaning toward each other, whispering to each other's ear, literally cheek-to-cheek.  They were both resplendent and had gold braid on their garments, too.  I saw that they used their eyes so expressively, to both listen to what was being said, and to emphasize some point, when it was their turn.  Each man fingered his worry beads.  Mothers were clothed in black, positioned on the outside of this side-by-side arrangement, posing for me by sitting up straight, face forward, blank expressions, especially from the one who was wearing a chador.  Looking in opposite directions, the two men's faces were in profile, but showed them as deeply attentive to the other.  I wanted to express in each person's face, eyes and gestures (or for the women, immobility), a visible insight into them.  I read in each person's face, concentrated awareness and concern for status and standing with each other.  In the background you could also see pictures and ornaments placed as this matrimonial occasion merited. The frame showed the sand floor of the tent, overspread with ruby and cream-colored rugs and spotted satin cushions.  The men's feet and sandals, which you could see in shadows, revealed their respective wealth and position.  The settee they sat on was interesting to me because it had ornamental vines and leaves carved in its back, armrests and legs.  The dark wood, maybe ebony, showed in its scuffed and scratched and scrubbed surfaces age and wear.  The tent, often-seamed and repaired, was itself, worthy of a portrait, which I did not successfully take.  I would have tried to convey the tent's story, detailing in its textures and surfaces, hopefully all in in critical-focus, its age, experience and history, which was obviously rich. 

 

While I was in still in England I had requisitioned the 105mm portrait lens from the University of Michigan.  It arrived while I was in the hospital.  I had tried portraiture on my family and friends, especially my girlfriends.  But never with this lens, and I never was very interested in the portrait form.  I did have one exceptional experience that taught me a lot. There is a lot to think about when doing portraits.

Somewhere in my belongings is a portrait series portfolio I did of Madam Endeberg, of Vienna.  One of the hard parts about portraiture is that you have to keep the subject happy, while trying to decide on the placement of the light, composition and framing, the background, the aperture and shutter speed and so so.  Madam Endeberg was the mother of Nell Endeberg, one of the other graduate students at Sheffield.  Madam Endeberg was visiting her daughter for a few months, and I was once invited to have dinner with them.  At the table, Madam Endeberg started to tell about her shop at Opera Plaza that specialized in fine optics, and especially opera glasses.  By the time the apful strudel was served I was completely in the thrall of Madam Endeberg of Vienna.   Her eyes sparkled with excitement like crystals in a beacon, as she spoke of Vienna.  What particularly fascinated me was her knowledge of optics.  We spoke of the theory of light, and then got to photographic lens design.  This was very exciting to me to share an enthusiasm about light and optics.  She was also very beautiful, and I was pleased by her bright attitudes and animated and passionate interests.  I arranged to have her come to a studio I made up in the tea room of the Psychology Department on a Sunday, when nobody was around.  I had a comfortable chair for her (pilfered from the Chancellor's office, upstairs), and a blank 18% gray backdrop.  The afternoon light from outside was fine for the purpose, it being foggy and very diffuse.  This meant a reduction in shadows (and wrinkles), and therefore, a more flattering illumination, which was appropriate for an eighty-four year old sitter.  For three hours I clicked the shutter and tried to concentrate on choosing the moment to expose a frame.  Meantime, Madam Endeberg was speaking to me, about her life in Europe in the war, about her best customer, Bruno Walter, whom she said was a particular friend, if you know what I mean.  Everything she said, spoken in a Sigmund-Freud accent, interested me.  She enjoyed receiving the attention I was focusing on her voice, her thoughts and feelings, as well as her face and appearance.  Thanks to her comfort-level, and the obvious interest on my part in what she was telling, Madam Endeberg relaxed her face and looked younger,  Because she had a good listener, she spent more effort in choosing the English words to express herself.   Consequently, I had time to compose the shot and capture her thoughtful and pensive expressions.  Other times she sparkled with intelligence and wit, which photographed with a Garnet brilliance.  These very human qualities were rendered visible in the photos.

So, I had some experience with portraits when I got the lens and when I befriended Mustafa.

My favorite photos from that time were the ones I took with Mustafa.  He was fresh from medical school (Colgate) and this was his first internship in a hospital.  He worked on me when I was brought out of the well.  We became friends while I was recuperating in the hospital. To help me recover, Mustafa started to have me come along on his frequent photographing adventures around the crowded neighborhoods of Tel Aviv.  We usually met at the Museum of Art, sipping cups of tea and seeing the paintings and other exhibits to get inspired by the complicated imagery and hues in the stained glass art of Marc Chagal or vivid colors of Chiam Soutine.  Then we'd wander around the streets together stopping when one of us saw something of interest.  Mustafa had a Leica, whose shutter was soundless.  He liked people, and his photos were almost always of smiling beautiful faces, usually groups of urchin kids grinning and looking expectant.  They wore many-colored clothes.  Mustafa's prints always had unfocused interesting architectural or sculptural backgrounds.  Palestinians are in the majority in Tel Aviv, that's what we shot the most.  For me, it was a passport to a life that I would never have know otherwise.  I was invited many times to Mustafa's family,who lived in the Arab Quarter in a stucco one story three room apartment.  It was crowded and noisy.  Mustafa's father was a doctor who had trained at Rochester, and his mother wrote books about textiles.  Mustafa introduced me to his friends, who were very animated about the way the Israelis were closing the road between Gaza and the West Bank.  I had the opportunity to use that 105mm lens on these wonderful faces and costumes that would never have sat for me unless I was introduced by and accompanied by Mustafa.

But I also got portraits of Mustafa while he was in the act of photographing.

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copyright © Sandy Cohen, Little Deer Isle, Maine, 2008