Fruits of Light: A Reflection on Studio Photography

By Ian Sternthal

For the last seven years I have been working on a project to document Tel-Aviv’s oldest photo studio – with the goal of creating a book, a digital book, and travelling exhibitions. To learn more about the project – see a short video I made about the project on Kickstarter. This text was originally published in The Almemar Journal.

Studio portraits were once a staple of modern life, relegated to bureaucratic and personal realms of modern documentation: passport photos, family portraits, and wedding pictures where but a few of the many reasons people would frequent photo studios. According to Jacob Mikanowski, “studio portraits once belonged to the teeming undergrowth of photography, the network of practices and forms that sometimes predate and often anticipate its emergence as a recognized art form.” It was because of their functional nature that they were of so little interest to the world of high culture.

Walter Benjamin astutely pointed that once elements of material culture become outmoded, they evolve into sites of critical questioning, and in the last few years these massive photographic troves have become subjects of great interest. Take for instance the work of Malik Sidibe, the African photographer whose black-and-white studies of popular culture in 1960’s Mali have become important reference points in the world of Contemporary Art, or Hashem El-Madani, the founder of Studio Scheherazade in Sidon, Lebanon – who left behind a massive archive of portraits that was brilliantly interpreted by the acclaimed Contemporary Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari. Years after these studio’s have ceased operate, their images are being reconsidered as powerful testimonies to the societies they documented.

I first grew interested in photo studios when I randomly wandered into Tel-Aviv’s Pri-Or PhotoHouse in 2005. It was like entering a time warp. I was greeted by a then 92 year old Miriam, who sat commandingly at her desk, with a little glass of apple juice beside her, and a mass of framed photographs that lined the walls from floor to ceiling. As I started explaining that I wanted to print images from her husband’s archive in a new book I was working on, she dryly informed me that she did not work for free in a tone that would put any screen siren to shame. I was captivated by her sharp sense of humor and her searing wit, and found myself returning on a weekly basis with my video camera.

The Family Miriam and Rudi outside The Pri-Or PhotoHouse.

The Pri –Or Studio, which literally means ‘fruit of light’, was opened by Miriam and Rudi Weissenstein in 1940, after they married. They were both new immigrants to Palestine who came from Czechoslovakia; She with her family as a child, and he after completing a degree in photography in Vienna. The studio was their main work-space, and providing portraits for people was the bread and butter which allowed them to raise a family, while pursuing less commercially viable forms of photography. Over a span of sixty years tens of thousands of people – from regular folks, to prime ministers, and cultural leaders – all sat on the same bench to have their photograph taken.

For seven years I continued documenting the shop. Miriam would often invite me back to her home for lunch. She told me stories about her childhood, and of the life she created with Rudi. It was her dream to create a book of the many faces they photographed – she wanted to call it ‘Ha’Adam’ – Hebrew for ‘the person.’ I’m not sure I realized at the time how much these moments meant to me. Looking back I realize that being with Miriam connected me to a time and a place that no longer exists. She had these pure eyes, and a sweetness embedded within even her most stinging retort. She was funny and modern. She wasn’t shocked that I was gay. Just watching her brought a smile to my face. She stimulated me, and I really loved her for it.

Miriam, age 92, at her desk. A still from our video project on The Pri-Or PhotoHouse.

I spent time with Miriam’s grandson Ben, who took over the shop after her passing two years ago, Yuri, a Russian immigrant who for years created passport photos for people, and Leti, a foreign worker from the Phillipines who was Miriam’s caretaker and constant companion. A year before Miriam’s death the shop received notice that their building had been sold to French investors, and they would have to vacate the premises. For over a year they fought the decision, creating petitions, meeting with the preservationist lobby, and trying to mobilize public opinion to save the shop. Miriam and her Ben never wavered in their determination. In the end they came to an agreement – where they would move temporarily until the renovations were completed.

The ‘Tzalmania’ was like a microcosm for Israeli society – a palimpsest of the many socio-economic changes that were quickly transforming Tel-Aviv from a provincial city into an international hub. Progress comes with a price, and in recent years the city has been subject to the dictates of real estate speculation, and the pressures of absorbing new non-Jewish immigrants who had come in search of a better life. No longer an active photo studio, today the Tzalmania is a living archive where people come searching for photographs from their pasts.

Spreads from the book Miriam Weissenstein.

A few years before Miriam passed away, I founded an art book publishing company called Sternthal Books, which focuses on spreading ideas through visual culture. It was in this context that I started looking through the archive of portraits, going through the paper sleeves that Rudi had originally filed the medium format negatives in, examining each frame, one by one.

The gesture and posing of each subject drew me to look more closely at the portraits. I have always been interested in identity politics. Growing up gay in a homophobic world I know intimately the importance of being ‘seen’ for those who feel invisible. Through costumes and posing, people begin to participate in the construction of their own identities. Looking at the images I begin to realize how much photography had changed. At the time to be photographed was a special event. In many ways the studio portrait was a precursor to what has arguably become today’s most common form of creative expression – ‘the selfie’, through which most of us participate in the never-ending cycle of photographing, uploading, sharing, absorbing, and quickly forgetting personal images. Today, however, representation has become confused with existence, and modern culture has changed tremendously in the process.

Most people find it crazy to sit there going through negative after negative – but just as my early days with Miriam provided me with a sense of meaning and purpose – the process of discovering new people filled me with a similar buzz of excitement. I grew more and more interested in the images that were of so little interest to others – mundane and quotidian portraits of everyday people. I began to read these images as sociological footprints that testified to the city’s rapidly changing identity.

The Family A still from the Pri-Or PhotoHouse video project.
A still from the Pri-Or PhotoHouse video project.
Spreads from the book A still from the Pri-Or PhotoHouse video project.

For years this collection lay unconsidered, in favor of the lush landscapes, and historical events the Weissenstein’s also photographed. The story of Israel is usually told in grand meta-national terms, where the State’s powerful Zionist ideology constantly privilege sthe will of the collective over that of the individual. While Rudi’s photography has been celebrated as a cornerstone of Zionism’s folkloric beginnings – I quickly realized that within this collection lies a much more telling documentation of Israeli history, that has long eluded the historical canon: The lives of regular people. The slippages, and nuances that are not ‘grand’ enough to make it into official historiographies. The emotional lives of individuals – that connects all people, regardless of their race, religion, or ethnicity. I think the Middle East could use many more initiatives that remind us of our common humanity.

In order to finish this project – I need to raise 35,000 dollars. The negatives will have to be archived, and once I make a final selection, they will have to be professionally scanned and retouched. I will also be doing research about the people I select. Our kickstarter campaign, to create ‘Zalmania’ a photography book of restored portraits from Tel-Aviv’s oldest Photo Studio has grown to over 200 supporters with over $25,000 raised. We are still short of our minimum goal – and with less then a week to go, now is the time to join us on this journey, and give us the momentum to complete it. If you are passionate about photography, and believe in the importance of preserving our history, then check out the great photo rewards we are offering our backers. By pre-ordering a copy of the book, a print, even a postcard – you are helping to ensure that this important aspect of all of our history is not forgotten.

This book will be dedicated to my dear friend Miriam.

The Family2 days left to support the Kickstarter.