Avshalom Levi | No Man’s Land / Winter ‘71
Eyal Ben-Dov, Winter 2015
Avshalom Levi came from the winter of 1971; a young boy who grew up in the neighborhood of Musrara by the torchlight of the Black Panthers. He remembers their antics, the hardened faces of those Jerusalem pirates, who fought for their civil and self-determination against a regime that saw them as “human dust.” Avshalom was an eyewitness to their most personal stories which unfolded in Musrara’s alleyways, next to no man’s land—a playground of childhood wars that became social wars, urban warfare.
This child who became an adolescent, was exposed to the social brutality and violent struggles that turned his soul into a no man’s land. In recent years, Avshalom has gone back to roam the neighborhood. He summons the unfulfilled, scarred and shattered memories of his childhood, photographing it in the dark cold night in black and white. We notice the Arab houses built out of rough Jerusalem stone in the Ottoman style, windows decoratively barred, beautifully and painfully romantic. In time, huge apartment blocks—affordable housing projects—were built, which turned into poverty-stricken slums. They look stark and menacing, concrete monsters illuminated by the yellow light of the streetlights, an oppressive architectonic nightmare, symbol of the great failure of public architecture that gave birth to an entire generation crying out for justice and repair of the terrible inequality.
Avshalom studied photography at Hadassah College, in a program that offers high professional photographic abilities. Upon completing his studies he traveled to London in order to study fashion and commercial photography. He then spent an extended period in Paris, working as a documentary and fashion photographer. The series Street Scenes was photographed in Paris’s Belleville neighborhood, a cosmopolitan area, home to tens of thousands of immigrants of different nationalities. The black and white photographs, presented in conjunction with events of the Port Ouvert for a period of four years, conversed with the European “snapshot” tradition inspired by the legendary Cartier Bresson, Willy Ronis and Doisneau. While in Paris, Avshalom began formulating his aesthetic and social viewpoint. Upon his return to Tel Aviv in 1997, he already knew that he would be involved in documentary photography alongside commercial photography.
Alongside the dazzling beauty of fashion and commercial photography Avshalom began photographing women drug addicts who worked as prostitutes in the vicinity of Tel Aviv’s Old Central Bus Station. For this purpose he opened a studio in “Doors of Hope,” a women’s crisis shelter. In the basement corner he set up a background and set lighting that became the stage for extremely moving portraits. The spirit of his sister who was murdered stared back at him from the anguished faces of one of Israeli society’s weakest groups. The “commercial” set up became a documentary studio recording the social-psychological distress of these women. In this series, Avshalom works with the inspiration of the photographs of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon whose output ranged from the commercial to the documentary and also similar to the work of the Israeli photographers Vardi Kahana and Reli Avrahami. For Avshalom, this photographic approach developed into a clear strong and consolidated visual language.
He goes back to photograph the heroes of his youth, the Black Panthers, powerful faces in black and white, which sharpens the dark, painful and violent side of these historical figures. Avshalom takes his own self-portrait in the same expressive and gloomy manner. The aesthetic formula that combines commercial studio and documentary portrait is reminiscent of the avant-garde of Nadar, one of the pioneers of photography in the nineteenth century and also the scarred faces of the Westerners in Avedon’s photographs. Avshalom’s maturity as a commercial documentary photographer breeds a powerful and artistic gaze. The personal-biographical puzzle is blended with a photographic aesthetic that reinforces a world view that is at the same time personal and public, beautiful and dark, and complex and Israeli.
The photos in the series Looking for M pick at an open wound—spirits wander among the abandoned industrial spaces; strange color photographs that create imaginary places; blurry figures that simulate the spirit of the “young girl” conjuring up a repressed memory, the most painful of all; a metaphor for a haunted place in the heart of a perplexed soul on the margins of society in Israel. This series possesses a lyrical aesthetic quality which combines various photographic languages.
Avshalom continues his wanderings and photographs the Backyard series, entrances to houses, crumbling stairwells on the outskirts of south Tel Aviv. The photographs are reminiscent of Atget’s deserted Paris, an empty city depressingly dreaming of herself; direct and realistic photography that seeks to roam dark imaginary realms. The Prodigal Son returns to places similar to those of his youth, to paint them in colors as a kind of spiritual repair of their childhood trauma.
This color therapy enables anesthetization, sublimation and politicization of the self. With this heavy load Avshalom continues his wanderings into the Ben Shemen forest to the edge of his artistic process. A surrealistic, magical lyrical photograph that returns to the scene of the terrible crime that took place between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. On a poor and meager slice of nature he colors the forest in compensation for a painful and haunted past. Avshalom’s photographic language reaches its climax here with its final form: delicate pastel colors like an impressionist painting of a terrible nightmare.
This exhibition of the work of Avshalom Levi is a small retrospective summing up thirty years of photography. Avhsalom is a mature and confident photographer who blends the commercial with the expressive documentary, to the point of surrealistic hallucination which seeks to repair that which is distorted. This movement between the various photographic languages forms a deep and complex expression that exists between the personal and the public, the aesthetic and the political.