In the Eye of the Beholder

I've said it many times over the years — Yale University Press continues, season after season, to publish some of the finest, most adventurous books to appear in this country. And not only do they do it consistently, but they do it in bulk. They don't print just five or six top-quality works every fall and spring, but often dozens and dozens of them. Their art books alone rival those issued by such equally stellar houses as Abrams, Prestel and Bullfinch.

Still, every once in a while — and it's a truly sporadic occurrence — they publish a volume that I find perplexing. For the life of me, I can't imagine how it got past their editors. In the few instances that come to mind, the works have been photographic surveys that have dealt with Judaism and Israel. And because of this aspect, I've searched my conscience before writing a word, assuming that I might be judging from too sensitive a position, seeing criticism where there's none at all.

But, in the end, I don't think I've been incorrect in these instances, and that there was something truly out of joint about these projects. Such is the case with Yale's dateline: israel, subtitled new photography and video art — all in lower case — by Susan Tumarkin Goodman, senior curator at the Jewish Museum in New York. The work also includes essays by photography critic Andy Grundberg and Nissan N. Perez, curator of photography at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

What struck me immediately about the photos, which also made up a show at the Jewish Museum earlier this year, is that there is some implied criticism of Israel in every shot, and that, more often than not, the explanation for what's going on within the frame depends too much on some extra-textural information.

Take, for example, that within the first three pages of the work, you're faced with depictions of what some would call the security wall or barrier established by the Israelis at the border of the West Bank. It is shown as a towering separation, thrust into the lives of the Arab population, not as a necessity to save Jewish lives.

My discomfort with this and other images collected here stems from the fact that not only is a strong political point being made, but that the Israel depicted is not the country I know. Mostly, we see empty or underpopulated, ugly spaces on the outskirts of cities, not a festive, lively society. Israel has its problems and the land has its bad patches, but that's certainly not true everywhere you turn.

And whenever portraits are presented, they are usually of young Israelis in defiant positions, rendered in garish, in-your-face colors. Yes, the Israelis can be abrasive, but they are also fun-loving, spirited and, often times, unbelievably beautiful.

All of these elements tend to reassure me that I'm not reading things into the pictures I've been asked to peruse.

The artistry on display is unquestionable. It is of a very high order, indeed — and that may be another reason why my discomfort is so palpable. Many of the images I find completely arresting on the level of craftsmanship and composition, while I'm still eaten up inside by what's implied by all that's been caught on film — and all that's been left out or ignored.

The biggest problem is that I see the unfairness of it all, that Israel and the Israelis are being condemned — maybe by fellow citizens — without the other side being given a chance. Dissent, especially by Israeli artists — even dissent that goes too far — is understandable and, at times, laudable. But a book that peddles only one side is illegitimate in its criticism.

As for the accompanying essays, they remain utterly puzzling. I simply don't get what either is saying vis-à-vis the images on hand.

How is it that so much talent can be applied to such a tantalizing subject, and the result be so frustrating, so unsatisfying?



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