THE ARTS 6.12.09
THE ARTS 6.12.09

A Dying World: Photographer documents Israels shrinking Dead Sea

There are plenty of photos showing people floating and frolicking in the Dead Sea, a favorite stop on anyone’s Israel itinerary. And images of tourists slathering their bodies with Dead Sea mud — believed by many to have a healing effect — are not uncommon, either.

Image from “Tree of Life”.

But Israeli photographer Ofir Ben Tov prefers to focus his camera on a serious side of the Dead Sea — from hundreds of feet in the air.

“The dry-out of the Dead Sea is an issue that is very close to my heart,” the Tel Aviv resident says. “There’s a huge area that was once sea and now it is dry land and sinkholes. This is a very, very dangerous phenomenon.”

Ben Tov, 29, will be in the Bay Area next week to open his photographic exhibit, “A Dying World.” His work will be displayed at the Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center in Los Gatos and the Peninsula JCC in Foster City. He’ll visit both venues, respectively, on Wednesday, June 17 and Thursday, June 18.

Previously on display in Israel’s Knesset, the aerial photos on photography paper and canvas are divided into seven series.

“The Tree of Life” series, for example, features three photos of a delta taken at precisely the same spot in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

In each instance, Ben Tov snapped the shots from an open Cessna or helicopter piloted by friends in the Israel Air Force.

Ben Tov uses a special camera that produces a true digital negative, which allows him to develop every picture using a process similar to that used in a darkroom.

“It looked like a dying tree,” says Ben Tov, comparing the delta’s dried-up rivers with branches. “Every time, I saw it disappearing.”

Another series, “The Swallow Holes,” documents more than 1,000 sinkholes scattered throughout dried-up areas of the Dead Sea. Of the phenomenon, “the swallow holes are increasing and grabbing everything they can,” Ben Tov says.

Ofir Ben Tov on a photo shoot.

While “A Dying World” is characterized by the rapid shrinking of the Dead Sea due to a diversion of incoming water, the exhibit also incorporates a group of images that allow for a glimmer of hope.

“Eternity” follows a thin river flowing between the north and south sides of the Dead Sea. Each time Ben Tov returned to the specific aerial spot where he first noticed the river, he was amazed.

“No matter what happened, the water inside [the river] was still there,” he recalls. “Although it’s a really tiny spot, it shows that nature always wants to exist forever. It’s wishful thinking to have the power of nature be eternal.”

Ben Tov bought his first camera at age 14, and became fascinated by the way photography could combine art, a message and an unlikely component — numbers.

That allure led him to the Israel Defense Forces five years later, where he served as lieutenant commander of an elite military unit that specialized in aerial photography. He clocked more than 3,000 in-flight hours, performing duties that included acute photography and observation.

Ben Tov is currently a major in the IDF Reserve Army. When he’s not shooting pictures (each one sells for $1,000 to $2,500), he’s in the classroom teaching SAT prep courses to at-risk high school students.

He still applies his love of numbers to photography.

For instance, he calculates where the sun is going to be in the sky before choosing the time he flies, thus ensuring the lighting is right for each image. He also uses math to find the correct relationship between his location and the photo’s composition.

“I’ve been observing the process [of the Dead Sea drying up] for a few years now,” says Ben Tov. “The land is changing. This unbelievable phenomenon is something that you cannot see any place else. At the Dead Sea, every three months is different.”

“A Dying World” opens with at a reception 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 17 at the Addison-Penzak JCC, 14855 Oka Road, Suite 201, Los Gatos. Ofir Ben Tov will attend. He also will be at a reception and tour 7 p.m. Thursday, June 18 at the Peninsula JCC, 800 Foster City Blvd., Foster City, where the exhibit will run through Aug. 28. Information: www.svjcc.org or www.pjcc.org.