Around ancient pools fed by thermal springs in Israel’s verdant Gan Hashlosha National Park, 11 of the men and women who have made some of the most compelling photographic images of the past 30 years are gathered to celebrate the final stages of a unique undertaking. Israel:Portrait of a Work in Progress is a temporary title but it reveals the ambition of the project’s instigator, 53-year-old French-Jewish photographer Frédéric Brenner.
Slim, tanned and dressed in a flapping white shirt and the kind of tight swimming trunks only Frenchmen can wear with confidence, Brenner has spent three decades attempting to create what he describes as “the most extensive record of Jewish life ever”. The project, mostly in a black and white documentary style, has taken in 40 countries and formed the basis for numerous exhibitions and photobooks, most notably 2003’s two-volume Diaspora: Homelands in Exile. But what Brenner initially thought of as a personal quest has become a group endeavour. “Israel is both place and metaphor, a land of radical otherness,” he explains as we walk by the pools. “And to explore that, I needed others.”
Brenner’s language is, like his swimming trunks, unmistakably Gallic. He quotes philosophy as easily as other photographers might discuss depth of field, peppering his sentences with references to cultural theorists and terms such as “dissonance” and “unbearable complexity” with as much force as the heated water that pushes out from the hillside above us. Having decided in 2007 on a group project, he personally raised the funds – more than $3.5m in four years. Having photographed many of the best-known members of America’s Jewish community over the past two decades, Brenner was able to draw upon an impressive contacts book, among them Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation, set up by the director in 1994 with his share of the profits from the Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List. “Sponsors liked the idea straight away,” he recalls. “They were very enthusiastic about the project and what it hoped to do.”
Some of the photographers Brenner approached initially resisted his advances. To persuade Thomas Struth, the award-winning German who last year took the diamond jubilee portrait of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh for the National Portrait Gallery, Brenner spent his own 50th birthday at Struth’s New York studio. “Frédéric is a seducer,” Struth, 57, tells me. “A very compelling enthusiast.” “He’s very enthusiastic,” agrees Jeff Wall, the distinguished 65-year-old Canadian photographer whose images are the result of a meticulous process that has been described as akin to filmmaking.
Others were allowed to come to a decision in their own time. Josef Koudelka, the 74-year-old Czech photographer who made his reputation as a daring documentarist when the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in 1968, says: “I didn’t want to come. If I do something, then I get involved, and I knew that, if I came, then I would go as deep as possible and invest a lot of time.” Eventually, after four exploratory visits, Koudelka said yes.
Once signed up, the photographers have been free to spend as little or as much time as they wish in residence. Most have spent six to seven months in the country, staying at a guesthouse outside Jerusalem.
On the weekend I join them, they have come together to share ideas and collaborate in discussion sessions. Wendy Ewald, a 60-year-old American whose project involves giving cameras to Jews and Arabs, particularly the young and female, says: “It is intimidating showing work to other artists. You worry about it the first time. Will people get it? Everybody was nervous about it.” But for others, there was opportunity in the uncertainty. “Although they can be disastrous, group projects have a wonderful potential,” says Brenner’s fellow Frenchman Gilles Peress, 65, a member of Magnum for 40 years, and one-time president of that international photography co-operative. “There’s always a group dynamic and Frédéric loves being in a group. But there has to be a moment when it escapes, when he loses control. It’s a very special moment – you have to be intelligent to let the baby go.”
Of the project’s 12 collaborators, only Stephen Shore, 64, a veteran of Andy Warhol’s Factory, cannot be here for the collaborative session. The others mingle on a grassy bank; they include Rosalind Solomon, an 81-year-old American portraitist; Martin Kollar, 40, a darkly humorous Slovakian digital artist; Jungjin Lee, 50, a Korean whose innovative approach utilises liquid light and rice paper; and Fazal Sheikh, 46, a New Yorker of Kenyan Indian origin, whose work looks at the movement of displaced people around the world. Also present is Wall, the serious formalist, rendered slightly less serious today by the presence at his side of a man wearing a bear head.
The man inside the bear is Nick Waplington, a British photographer who came to notice with Living Room, a 1991 series about life on a Nottingham council estate. He tells me the bear head is a costume for a work he has yet to make: a take on Caspar David Friedrich’s painting “The Wanderer”.
The 46-year-old says he was first attracted to photography by Koudelka’s 1984 show Gypsies at the Hayward Gallery in London. “It showed me that you could take pictures and then put them in art galleries. Until then, I didn’t know you could do that, didn’t realise the possibilities.”
Waplington, who grew up in a house where the arts were frowned upon, went on to study at the Royal College of Art in the late 1980s and was at the heart of the Young British Artists movement in the early 1990s, sharing a studio on Brick Lane with Dinos and Jake Chapman, and Sam Taylor-Wood. By 2007, he felt the need to “completely start again” and accepted Brenner’s invitation to travel to Israel.
At that stage Brenner was still attempting to find his own technical approach to the project. “I was struggling with issues of form – digital or analogue, colour or black and white? But, ultimately, all struggle with form is always a problem of content; resolve this and form comes like a ripe fruit.” Eventually he decided he “wanted to do portraits but in the largest definition of the word. The subject gives me their trust.”
In the shade of a gum tree, Solomon, the oldest here, sits on a garden chair, resting after a schedule that has seen her travelling between the comforts of Tel Aviv and the tumult of Jenin in the West Bank. Last April, she found herself a few minutes away from the scene when Juliano Mer-Khamis, an Israeli-Palestinian actor and director, was shot dead, most probably by Palestinian gunmen. Had she found it tiring? On the contrary, she tells me, “I feel I have been energised. And although it is a lot of work, it is very fulfilling.” Her approach is simple: “I make portraits of people who have a particular connection to where I want to go. So I follow them and if the doors open up for me, I walk through. Doing close-up, sometimes something really interesting occurs. People put themselves in a certain place. It just happens.”
Such alchemy is rarely accidental. For his project, Peress decided on the village of Silwan, outside east Jerusalem, where Palestinians are in regular violent confrontation with Jewish settlers. “The big issue is the gap between what you hear and see,” he explains. “In Silwan it’s about putting in the work so people know me. People stop doing things for the camera, and then I can notice the patterns, understand the space. I work with large format cameras in the middle of this chaos and it is hard: the management of chaos in the frame of the streets, how you place yourself physically in the middle of all this.”
If Peress immerses himself in his subject, Koudelka has removed himself completely from direct interaction with his. “In my photographs there are no people, only their influence,” he explains. “For the past 15 years I have been concerned with how contemporary man has influenced the landscape. That is the reason I accepted [the invitation to do this]. My feeling is that this landscape, which is holy for much of humanity, is not treated well. This country is divided, each side reacts to that division in a different way but the landscape can’t react.” It is no surprise, then, that Koudelka focuses on the wall that cuts in and out of the West Bank.
The wall is alongside us when I join Waplington to reconnoitre some of the most disputed settlement areas around east Jerusalem and Bethlehem. As well as taking landscapes of the settlements, Waplington has been photographing the settlers. “I guess I wanted to humanise them,” he tells me. “Because you only ever see the settlers within the context of trouble – press photos of them fighting with the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] or cutting down Palestinian olive trees.”
Further south, beyond Hebron at the militant Susaya settlement, Waplington drives confidently past the armed Jewish settlers, who take his beard as an indication he is one of them. Once inside, Waplington works quickly, using large format camera technology that is essentially unchanged since the 1880s. The long exposure gives incredible detail – landscapes that are luminous yet explicitly revealed.
According to Struth, “This place is very far from neutral. I don’t like Israeli or Palestinian politics. I wish both sides would come down from their thrones and make peace, which would make them stronger. I have travelled this country and looked at lots of places. But it makes me sad – this is not a joyful, inspiring place.”
By contrast, Wall has no apparent emotional or political issues with Israel – this is simply somewhere he may or may not find an image. When he arrived, he says, “I was careful, because I was not looking for something. Looking doesn’t work. I drift along and see what happens. If I hadn’t stumbled across something, I would have left.” Wall’s project is in the Negev desert, in southern Israel, where there is presently a bitter dispute between the Israeli military and Bedouin tribesmen. But he will not commit himself to any details of his shoot other than to say it “might involve” Bedouins. “Anyway,” he adds, “I would resist anything that says Israel is the significant artistic element in the work – it could be anywhere.”
Wall is known to put in months of work to get one print but he does not see himself as purely a planner. Is that misunderstanding annoying? “No – misreading, misdirection is good for art. The darkroom is always full of uncertainty. And they are only people’s opinions.”
For Waplington, opinions are important. After the project, he plans to make three archives. “One for the Israelis, one for the Palestinians, one in the US. That’s partly why I shoot with film, so there will be a physical archive – something you can pick up. So people on all sides can look back and see what happened.”
It is a very practical ambition in a field where the abstract can often take precedence. But Waplington contrives in his work to both buy into the theoretical strictures of contemporary art and to avoid them, as with the bear costume, which underscores and yet slightly undermines Brenner’s stated concerns with identity. For Brenner, typically, this just adds to the pleasure of a project that has an overarching ethos he describes as “sharing and giving”.
“I have a lot of tenderness for Nick,” he says. “He is someone who touches me. I can see the theatre of the struggle in him.”
And what does Brenner want to leave behind? “As Roland Barthes says in Mythologies, ‘Myths enable people to recognise themselves without knowing themselves.’ So if people can realise that they are all invented through these images, they might start seeing the roles they are trapped in and look into their hearts and minds. That’s why the mission is important,” he says. More prosaically there will be a show opening at the beginning of 2014 and then touring, perhaps until 2016.
A collection will be published to coincide with the opening exhibition but individual artists will publish their own books. On the day we meet, the overall name of the project is yet to be decided.
“If it’s anything to do with the Holy Land, I’m out of here,” Struth tells me. “Artists have a desire for uncompromised content but if you work here on a project paid for by Jewish donors and you are a guest – it is already a compromise and you have to stay firm in relationship to that. As much as I like [Brenner], I’m principally a sceptical person and critical. I spend lot of time wondering what is the real agenda of Frédéric.”
This and other questions are lost in the next surge of Brenner’s enthusiasm as he brings the participants together for that most clichéd of photographic set-ups – the group picture. What is, today at least, the most impressive line-up of photographers in the world, shuffles into place. Before an assistant presses the button, Brenner turns to them and shouts: “Instead of ‘Cheese’, say, ‘Dissonance’ !” And they all do. Apart, perhaps, from the man in the bear head.