Photo exhibit reveals a new view of Israeli life

Israeli photographer Adi Nes calls the picture “Abraham and Isaac,” but there is no visible altar, blade or ram caught in a thicket. Instead, it’s an image of a grimy homeless man in Tel Aviv, pushing his sleepy young son in a shopping cart.

That’s just one of many striking prints in “Art of Living,” a new exhibit of photography and video from the Israel Museum, opening at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum on April 3 and running through July.

“Art of Living” includes more than 75 photos from 20 top Israeli photographers, all part of the Israel Museum’s permanent collection.

“Israel has such an extraordinary cultural heritage and so many amazing artists,” says Contemporary Jewish Museum Director Connie Wolf. “I felt a need to show a broader view of Israel in all its complexity, to show Israeli lives today and how they use art to show what it means to be alive in Israel.”

Among the participating artists are Barry Frydlander, Tal Shochat, Hanna Saar, Noel Jabbour, Roi Kuper and Igael Shemtov. Adi Nes is one of his country’s most celebrated photographers, having shown his work in Europe, New York and even here in San Francisco, at an exhibition two years ago.

Nes has three pictures in the new show, all from his “Bible Stories” series. The cryptically titled “Noah” depicts a grizzled old man sprawled nude in front of a DVD rental machine. The shock value is matched by the realism, but the shot, like all of Nes’ work, was carefully prearranged using models.

“My style is staged photography,” he says. “The pictures often recall well-known scenes from art history and Western civilization combined with personal experiences based on my life as a gay youth growing up in a small town on the periphery of Israeli society.”

The exhibition features one memorable image after another. Idit Greenberg’s ghostly black-and-white landscapes depict an Israel rarely seen. Oded Yedaya’s series of IDF soldiers parading through the desert evokes the Jewish nation’s tribal past. Vari Kahana’s portrait of three aging Holocaust survivors, each revealing their numbered arm tattoos, contrasts the passage of time with the ever-present reality of their horrific past.

“The artists are creative in the ways they evoke memory and emotion,” adds Wolf. “They invite you in to have that same feeling.”

To put the exhibit together, Wolf called on her colleagues at the Israel Museum, Director James S. Snyder and Nissan Perez, photography curator at the Jerusalem-based museum. “I am a huge fan of the Israel Museum,” Wolf says. “It’s one of the great treasures of the world, and a resource so many people don’t know about, even the people of Israel. I thought, ‘Wow, what an opportunity to bring their material to the Bay Area.'”

Perez combed through the museum’s extensive permanent collection of photographs to select the images displayed in the show.

“Creative art photography is an important part of the contemporary art scene in Israel,” says Perez. “Most of our photographers [in the show] are truly of international standard. The only problem is they are not known well enough abroad.”

Perez hopes “Art of Living” will help remedy that. He chose both established and emerging artists to reflect “almost every aspect of life,” he says, “from the social to the political. Jews find every possible angle.”

The Istanbul-born Perez holds the official title of Horace and Grace Goldsmith Senior Curator of Photography of the Noel and Harriette Levine Department of Photography at the Israel Museum, a place he’s called his professional home since 1970. He was hired initially as a photographer, then became curator designate.

“We formally opened in 1979,” he recalls of his department’s early days. “We started with practically no collection, and today there are over 55,000 items.” To date Perez has served as curator for more than 120 exhibits worldwide.

As is customary with the Contemporary Jewish Museum, several educational opportunities are on tap, including school field trips and dialogues with the artists (several will be in town for the opening and thereafter).

For Wolf, this show could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship between her facility and the Israel Museum. “This is a new direction we’d like to go in,” she says. “We’re always looking for ways to connect with Israel and other places around the world, where artists can be an entry point to seeing things differently.”

“Art of Living” runs April 4-July 30 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 121 Steuart St., S.F. Tickets: $5. Information: (415) 344-8800.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.