Hebrew has no continuous present tense, but Boris Carmi’s images of Israel’s early days have the power to stop time, a friend recalls.
The last time I saw Boris Carmi was in the Café Diza in Tel Aviv. It was, perhaps, a month before he died. He told me that the great Alexandra from Berlin was absolutely insistent on organizing an exhibition of his work in Berlin—in Germany, the land of his youth, which he used to love so much. But nothing would come of all these plans; who, after all, would want to see an exhibition of his work. He spoke as he always had: carefully, almost whispering, tormented, yet not complaining, evidently weary, even though he did not want this to be noticed. But he really could not envisage the possibility of an exhibition. A year earlier his wife, Shula, had died. They had been the loving couple of our city for over 40 years and communicated with each other by telepathy. Now he sat there, crushed and yet, like a child, full of hope. With his watery, innocent eyes, he looked at me and whispered that certainly nothing would come of it.
Boris was the youngest old person I knew. Once, when he was already around 60, we were working together on a report about a ship that had brought Jews from a country that had not yet formally issued them with permission to emigrate to Israel. We went by boat to the end of the Bay of Haifa and boarded the ship. I interviewed some of the people and Boris was overjoyed. He had found an ideal position from which to take photographs. A strong wave that broke over the deck almost swept him overboard. He was enchanted by the sun, which was just then sinking behind Mount Carmel, and deeply moved by the fate of these people who seemed hardly to know in what country they had arrived. He took a great interest in them, yet at the same time he was sizing them up, and in his mind they were already photographs.
When this story later appeared in the newspaper Davar, for which we both worked, I asked him if he had read my article. He nodded, but when I asked him a few questions about it I realized that, for him, the text was only the “wrapping,” a “frame” for his photographs. And in fact my article can hardly be said to have stood the test of time, but the moments captured in his photographs have been truly preserved. His photographs are documents. He saw reality as it would appear in 50 years’ time. Not one of Boris’s photographs makes any claim to be a work of art, even though he knew very well that they would be regarded as art and fully understood what art was. He wanted to document reality, but would much rather preserve a telling moment than the entirety of a situation: for he knew that, by that means, reality might be known and understood even when it had ceased to exist.
In one shot from 1948 there is a pretty girl in shorts, of the type then in fashion—this photograph became a sort of symbol for my generation. With her pistol in its holster pressed close to her hips and a kaffiyeh wrapped around her head, she is shown leaning against a tree trunk, the essence of both womanliness and strength. Around her sits a group of young men, among them Amos Katz, a good friend of mine. For me, this photograph does not illustrate its ostensible subject, the war of 1948, but the motif of Amos’s wonderful smile, perceived by Boris and now preserved forever in the record of this moment. We were good friends in those days, Amos and I, but then I lost touch with him. I think he was killed in the war.
Some time ago, at the opening of a Boris Carmi exhibition at the Haganah Museum, I was waiting until the crowd had dispersed so that I could look at the photographs in peace. It was as if time had stood still and I alone was able to move about freely within it. Here were images of people whom I had known and who were now old but nonetheless still alive. Suddenly, I found next to me a woman of about 70, with a delicate, almost transparent beauty. There was a sad light in her eyes as she looked at the girl with the pistol. She smiled at me and I returned her smile, and then she said: “Do you see how, in these pictures, we have remained the sketches that we once were.”
I looked at her and then at the photograph, until I realized that she was both here and there: the girl that she had once been and this old woman who certainly had children and grandchildren, and yet her gaze was not clouded with longing but had, rather, a look of gentle resistance—like light grazing the calm surface of the sand. We stood there and looked again at ourselves as we had been: young people with great dreams. And, at the same time, we saw ourselves as we were: old people with fear in our eyes, but also with a feeling of pride that we had been preserved in these pictures. Boris had immortalized us as we were in that terrible time. In those days of dreams, days of blood, days of massacre. What had happened then in Israel had been a crusade: Young people had fought in order that the Jews might have a state of their own. Only we didn’t know then how to set up a state in a hostile environment.
This was the deeper meaning that I could also read in the beautiful eyes of the woman standing next to me. We got into conversation: She spoke with a soft whisper, and in my own words there was a certain awe at the mystery of life—it was as if we were the tombstones of our own ruins, the tombstones of that which we had once been. It was with all these thoughts that we stood in front of Boris’s photograph; and, in a strange way, after more than 50 years, we have remained within the photograph. Until then I had always thought that a photograph belonged to the time in which it was taken; but the photographic images of Boris Carmi are more us than we ourselves have been. Those that we once were cling to those that we have become.
In Hebrew, as in German, there is no continuous form of the present tense. There is no equivalent of the English “I am sitting,” only the equivalent of “I sit.” Yet “to sit” is a process, taking place in time. The Hebrew language has effectively adjusted itself to the climate in Israel. One moment it is summer and extremely hot, the next it is winter—there is no real autumn in between. And so it is with every aspect of our lives here. It is always like this when the day is about to end. Everything is on a knife-edge. Sunset in Tel Aviv lasts only a few minutes: It is exceptionally beautiful, but it is brief. It does not have the mildness, the slow evolution, that it has in Europe. Here, everything is either hot or cold, day or night, existence or nonexistence.
As I write this I’m sitting in a café on the beach promenade of Tel Aviv. It is a new café with a name that doesn’t quite suit it: Masada—literally, “café of death.” But I’m eating good cheesecake with raspberry sauce and drinking excellent coffee and in front of me lies the beach promenade. The promenade that Boris Carmi used so often to photograph no longer exists. What we find in his photographs is long gone. A new promenade was built underneath the old one, and so I gaze at the sea as it slips into the darkness, into the surging waves of dusk.
It was exactly here, in front of the sea, on the old beach promenade, that Boris photographed a flamenco dancer in the 1950s. Graciously, she whirls her arms through the air and seems to belong in spirit to the sea, which never stays still, and to the beach promenade, which is no longer there. And even though the dancer is now an old woman, she continues to exist as a young woman on the beach promenade, which is no longer there; for Boris was not trying to take a photograph; he was trying to capture a moment capable of reaching into the future from out of the past.
The original term for a Jew was ivri, meaning Hebrew, but also meaning someone who comes from the far side of the river. We, the Jews, are a people who have come from the other side. In the Bible we are referred to as “the people from over there, from the other bank of the river.” Those who come from the other side and who continue to come. The Jews have always come from somewhere and then gone off to somewhere else. For the last 2,000 years their homeland was the desire for something that had not yet come to pass. Our Messiah was a Messiah who could not come. He embodied longing, desire, not reality. But then the Jews set up a state and had to convince the entire world that they had to be there—and Boris was part of all this. He was able to capture this period in our history with his camera. He was fired by the enthusiasm of youth. He photographed everything so that we would learn where it was that we had come from. His interest was not merely decorative, but immensely earnest: He aimed to erect a tomb where the corpse was the grave and the grave the corpse. In the photograph of 1948 Amos Katz is not only a memory but also the friend of my youth: He is anchored in objective time. We ourselves may well be subjective, but time is not. The time of Eretz Israel, which Boris created anew, was very brief, but in another sense also very long. His photographs do not record the passing moment; rather, they give that moment immortality. Boris was not preoccupied with artistic manipulation. Excited, enchanted, he stood in front of his motif, took his photograph, allowed it to become a composition. He did not seek out compositions, he found them. Or, rather, they found him.
In the photographs of Boris Carmi one can see people standing or sitting in rows. There is a camp with primitive dwellings: newly arrived immigrants, who were living in tin huts or in tents. Boris had the ability to hit on the element of the eternal in the transient, without taking any great trouble to seek it out. And yet his photographs are not a form of creation out of inner compulsion, nor a means of reproducing reality and thereby preserving it, nor the creation of something entirely new because as yet unobserved by others—be it a tented encampment or an Arab and a monk with an umbrella. His photographs are not the reality of the houses along the beach promenade, subsequently destroyed and now rebuilt. His photographs are a new reality, for in them he seized the moment in which the past became the future.
Boris Carmi, the Russian who went to school in Germany and spoke German, became an Israeli before Israel itself came into existence. His grasp of Hebrew was not outstanding, but his photography is as Hebrew as it is possible to be. It has the rigid yet beautiful Hebrew grammar, which lacks any “true” form of present tense, for the present tense of photography lies in its meaning. For Boris at least, photography had no past and no future.
In another photograph we can see a city of tents: Today it has been replaced by a living, breathing city. In yet another, a man with a horse or mule stands in front of a kiosk next to a police station: Today it has been replaced by one that is much larger and is full of policemen and the criminals they have apprehended. And yet this city of today still embodies the tented encampment that we see in the photograph, and these Holocaust survivors who lived in it, and these Moroccans, who came to Israel, whether legally or illegally, just after the state had formally been founded. All of these, in the second in which the photograph was taken, crossed the thin line between their own past and the future in which they will seek for themselves.
Boris Carmi photographed in Hebrew, and it was precisely this that distinguished his work. As a man, he was modest and never had an elevated opinion of his own importance. When we discussed a book and exhibition with him, he was very happy and his eyes lit up. All right, then, he would say: If this wonderful woman from Berlin, who had found her way to the remotest corner of the city in order to see his pictures, was absolutely set on this plan, then she should go ahead and attempt to realize it. But then he would immediately add that nothing ever came of such plans and nothing would come of this one. Even if he genuinely desired that such a plan be realized, his doubts invariably persisted. He lacked that often ruthless striving for recognition and triumph. He would look at the person he was speaking to, and regardless of how much he or she liked him, he wanted more and would hold out for yet another good word, only to dismiss that one, too, almost as soon as it was uttered.
When Boris Carmi took a photograph, he himself became a camera. He did not run about, as many photographers do these days, hunting for the best motifs. He had learnt from his experience of life, from his travels in Africa, from the eagles in the Negev Desert, how to remain still, as if rooted to the spot, how to wait, and then to pounce. One photograph. Perhaps two. Boris would always wait until the moment was right, then he would scramble for his camera and shoot a few pictures—and that was it. Those images were not beautiful, and they were not ugly. They were true.
Good art is nothing more and nothing less than what is true. It can only be how it is. And somewhere in there, where Boris Carmi wanted to be as a photojournalist, he was a great artist. Blessed be his memory.
The Jewish Museum avoids making Modigliani into his generation’s Jim Morrison, but does it paint itself into a corner with another cliché?
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