The Arts: Photos of Truth and Distortion
Art photographer Adi Nes uses icons of Jewish legend and history to create images that are both social commentaries and personal reflections.
The Abraham and Isaac of Israeli photographer Adi Nes are as different as they could be from the biblical patriarchs of synagogue and Sunday school. Abraham, gazing dolefully at Isaac, wheels his son on a supermarket cart through deserted streets. Isaac—trusting, submissive or perhaps resigned to his fate—rests on a bed of plastic bottles gathered for recycling.
“Abraham and Isaac” shows a homeless father and son daubed with grime, their clothes drab castoffs. A collection of green, blue and red plastic bags, the kind that litter city streets, hangs on the side of the cart, adding a palette of bright color to the bleak, enigmatic scene.
In his fourth series of works, Biblical Stories, Nes combines a sharp look at society with allusions to earlier artists and photographers to produce an unfettered and disturbing view of life in Israel today. Like his three previous series, Biblical Stories has moved viewers and reviewers alike, in Israel and abroad.
With the critical acclaim has come a rise in the value of Nes’s work at auction. His monumental photograph of Israeli soldiers arrayed like the figures in Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous portrayal of the Last Supper sold at a Sotheby’s New York auction last February for $264,000, setting a record for the work of a living Israeli artist.
Nes is one of several contemporary Israeli photographers and video artists—including Barry Frydlender, Michal Rovner and Ori Gersht—who have made a name in the international art world (see sidebar, page 74). “The success of these photographers-artists—today, the boundaries are very blurred—is the result of their innovation and originality and their ability to show us the world from a different angle in a way that teaches us something,” says Nissan Perez, senior curator of the Noel and Harriette Levine Department of Photography at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Focusing on questions of identity, especially of masculinity and Israeliness, Nes challenges widely held myths, beliefs and perceptions. Thus, in his earlier Soldiers series, he questions conventional views of the heroic defenders of the state, often using historic photographs or well-known images as reference points. An example is an untitled photo of a group of soldiers horsing around in the water, four bare-chested and one in uniform, holding up his rifle in a proud gesture of victory.
The image refers to a 1967 Life magazine cover by Denis Cameron, that showed Israeli Major General Yossi Ben-Hanan triumphantly raising a captured rifle while cooling off in the Suez Canal during the Six-Day War. But whereas Ben-Hanan has a look of almost boyish innocence, in Nes’s work, the rifle-wielding soldier has a hard glint of hubris in his eyes.
Nes, 42, is scrutinizing the victory in light of its aftermath—the occupation of the territories conquered in that war—and also what it means to be a man, especially a soldier, in Israel. This photograph, like many in the series, has homoerotic overtones; the soldiers’ arms drape around each other in an intimate way that reflects the real intimacy soldiers experience, but also belies common notions of masculinity and its traditional link with military prowess.
Some of Nes’s work appears realistic at first glance, but “photography, by its very nature, is deceptive,” he says, and every scene is staged down to the tiniest detail. His subjects are paid models. The scenes themselves are often the result of intensive research. The process, says Nes, who lives and works in Tel Aviv, is one of alternating expansion and contraction. For Biblical Stories, he studied the figures extensively as they appear in the Bible, Talmud and midrash, in psychological analyses of later writers and in literature and art. Then he winnowed the matter to focus on a single idea that would inform the scene.
The actual photography involved dozens of production people, assistants, make-up artists and dressers, “just as in a film production,” he says. It also meant making many sketches, trial shots and computer manipulations of those shots. “I am in full control as producer, but from the moment I put on my photographer’s hat, I work much more intuitively,” Nes says. When the final photos are taken, they are truly final and are not manipulated digitally.
Nes names a long list of photographers to whom he is indebted, including Boris Mikhailov (for social criticism), Diane Arbus (for portraiture) and Jeff Wall (for staged photography). Often, his photographs relate to iconic works of famous painters and sculptors. “Abraham and Isaac” recalls Duane Hanson’s sculpture titled “Supermarket Shopper,” in which a heavily made-up woman pushes a cart overflowing with food—a comment on consumer society; Nes’s scene, the obverse of Hanson’s, shows the underbelly of that society.
Nes’s Abraham also bears a resemblance to the Abraham of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the Italian Baroque artist who was the first to use common people as models for biblical figures. Many of Nes’s works are informed by Caravaggio’s theatricality and lighting.
For the 14 works in Biblical Stories, which can be seen at the Jack Shainman Gallery (www.jackshainman.com) in New York, Nes chose familiar figures from the Bible who had lost their homes, such as Abraham, who was ordered by God to leave his home, and Hagar, who was expelled from hers. Nes presents them in the bleakest of settings and in life-size or larger format.
“My decision was always to photograph them at their lowest point, because in this entire project I wanted to relate to the fact[s] of contemporary Israeli society,” he says. One fact pertinent to “Abraham and Isaac” is that Israel has the highest child poverty rate in the Western world—over one-third of Israeli children live below the poverty line.
In another image in this series, the first in which Nes photographed women, Ruth and Naomi are “gleaning.” But unlike the characters in the biblical story and the gleaners in the famous painting by Jean François Millet, Nes’s Ruth and Naomi are not gathering sheaves in a field but picking up discarded fruit in an open-air market after the vendors and shoppers have gone home. It is a scene that can be witnessed throughout Israel, where, Nes is saying, values rooted in the Bible and Jewish tradition are fading as the gap between rich and poor continues to grow.
“[Nes] put his finger on something very painful,” says Perez. “Taking the Bible as a subject and applying it to a social topic, and doing it well, takes a huge amount of imagination and daring.”
In the photograph “Hagar” (see cover), the biblical woman is a street beggar, looking aside as she tentatively holds out a hand. Expelled by Abraham from normative society to the wilderness, she has laid her dying son under a bush and sits apart, her eyes deadened by despair, unable to watch his death.
The photo is an homage to the Depression-era portrait by American photographer Dorothea Lange of a migrant mother with three of her seven hungry children. Hagar is positioned exactly like that mother, light falling on her face from the same direction. Nes, who is obsessive about detail, searched for months to find a sweater similar to the one worn by the migrant mother.
But in contrast to that mother, Hagar sits alone, an island of poverty in a sea of plenty. Other differences stem, in part, from Nes’s own life. “My art has almost always sprung from a personal experience or feeling,” he says, “so that in each of the figures I photographed, there was always something of myself.”
Thus, unlike Lange’s subject, Hagar covers her mouth, recalling one of Nes’s sisters who broke a tooth in early childhood and for years hid her mouth when she spoke, even after the tooth was repaired. Nes says he used the gesture to show “fragility and…embarrassment, juxtaposed with the erect posture, like the posture of my other sister.”
Other aspects of himself that nes has introduced into his works are three potentially marginalizing elements: growing up in a development town (Kiryat Gat), being Mizrahi (his parents came to Israel from Iran) and being gay (he came out when he was 18). “David and Jonathan, as they appear in my most recent series, were definitely types of street kids I could have encountered in my childhood in Kiryat Gat,” he says. “So, too, each of the boys in my earlier series [Youths] in 2001.”
And when the magazine Vogue Hommes International asked Nes to do a fashion shoot for its Fall/Winter 2003 issue, he surprised the editors by including among his models people from the margins of Israeli society—Palestinians and migrant workers—and by shooting most of the scenes in a prison set or against the backdrop of the controversial separation barrier between Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The David whom Nes chose to portray in “Jonathan and David” is not the young man who trounced the giant Goliath, although—or perhaps because—this part of the David story has been used as an allegory for Israel’s victory over its enemies. Instead, David is depicted “after he has fled the palace of King Saul, [and is] now the leader of a group of bandits, making a living from protection money on the roads,” Nes says.
His David is a scruffy but handsome young man embracing a younger and equally handsome Jonathan. The two stand in a graffiti-covered tunnel, where Jonathan may have been the victim of gang warfare. Wearing a stained T-shirt and holding a crutch, Jonathan leans against David as if giving up control of his body and life. David’s dramatically lit right arm is raised in a strumming position, as if Jonathan were the lyre that David played. According to Nes, the gesture was inspired by the buskers who eke out their living on Tel Aviv streets.
Perhaps the moment portrayed is that in which Jonathan, heir apparent, realizes that not he but David, his friend and comrade in arms, will be the next king. Perhaps it is the moment of their last parting. Though David looks straight at the camera, it is an intimate scene, recalling the controversy about the exact nature of their relationship.
“I don’t think that they were homosexual, but I think the story in the Bible, and in the midrash, has elements that are homoerotic, and in the images which I created, I give the potential for a homoerotic layer to exist, by body language, by light, even by casting David as handsome,” Nes told Nextbook (www.nextbook.org), the online magazine of the Jewish cultural organization of the same name.
Even this scene incorporates a detail of Nes’s life—an accident as an adolescent that left him on crutches.
Nes came to photography by accident. When he applied to the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, the portfolio he prepared consisted only of drawings, and he was thinking of studying something practical, such as industrial design. He mistakenly filled out a form for the photography department, and when he was called for an interview, he was intrigued by the medium. A teacher later told him that he was accepted despite his lack of a suitable portfolio because his works showed creativity. “During the first year, I developed an allergy to the chemicals used for developing black-and-white photos, and I considered giving up photography,” Nes recalls. Instead, he switched to color and never looked back.
In the final student exhibition, “you could see…the ability to take an abstract idea and, by means of staged photography, formulate a personal statement about that idea,” says former classmate Eytan Shouker, an artist, photographer and lecturer at Bezalel.
Nes’s big breakthrough came in 1997, when the Israel Museum began acquiring his works, and in 1998, when those pieces were exhibited in a show of contemporary photography. Soon, he was winning awards locally, including the Nathan Gottesdiener Award in 2000. In 2002, the museum started sending his works for exhibits abroad.
It may be too early to define why Nes and other photographers are the most successful abroad of the contemporary artists from Israel. But, says Perez, photography is “very trendy these days, [and] Israeli photography is at the highest international level in technique, content and originality.”
But there is another factor, notes Sigal Mordechai, comanaging director of Sotheby’s Tel Aviv. “They all deal with local content—political and social,” she says. “There is something in the local that makes it very universal.”