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50 years of love, war and country: Photojournalist’s work expands to massive screens

Micha Bar-Am, along with wife and kids, shares focus with Israel’s major moments in visual and audio installation at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

From 'The Last Photograph: Ran Tal After Micha Bar-Am,' a new exhibit at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on display through December 2022 (Courtesy Micha Bar-Am)
From 'The Last Photograph: Ran Tal After Micha Bar-Am,' a new exhibit at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on display through December 2022 (Courtesy Micha Bar-Am)

There’s a bold change of pace in “The Last Photograph: Ran Tal After Micha Bar-Am,” a new exhibit at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art that slices up and reassembles a documentary film about photojournalist Micha Bar-Am into a gripping video and audio installation covering Israel’s history.

Bar-Am, considered the father of Israeli photojournalism, opened up his 50-year archive 50 for filmmaker Ran Tal. The result was the documentary “1341 Frames of Love and War,” which premiered at the Berlinale film festival and Tel Aviv’s DocAviv film festival earlier this year.

The film is made up entirely of still photographs shown in consecutive order, accompanied by sometimes emotional, vivid conversations between Tal, Micha Bar-Am, and his life and work partner, Orna Bar-Am, who chose photographs, prepared catalogs, and archived his work.

At the exhibit, some half-dozen massive screens set up in the museum gallery show Bar-Am’s stills of Israel’s wars and battle scenes, as well as poignant images from his childhood and family life, while visitors listen through headphones to Tal’s running conversation with the couple.

The exhibit is shorter than the film it was made from, and it takes about an hour to view all of the clips.

“Through his camera we’re seeing Israeli society as well as his partnership with Orna,” said museum director Tania Coen-Uzzielli. She added that as with this installation, the museum was experimenting with its exhibits, including alternate locations and technology.

Curator Noam Gal noted that documentarian Tal had used Bar-Am’s photographs to look deeply at fissures in Israeli society, creating a blend of images and sounds that don’t always flow together.

Also on view is the Bar-Ams’ lives — the photographs of them taken by Micha, the seemingly casual chitchat, the mild bickering of the longtime couple and of their sons as well.

Unlike the film, the installation stations aren’t set up in the order in which the photographs were taken, showing how life doesn’t always follow any specific order, said Gal.

From ‘The Last Photograph: Ran Tal After Micha Bar-Am,’ a new exhibit at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on display through December 2022 (Courtesy Micha Bar-Am)

The exhibit includes images of Bar-Am skiing and dancing during his childhood in Germany. He was the son of a Berlin playboy, and was called Michael Anguli until his family moved to Israel in 1936, he says in the audio.

Bar-Am also talks about his emigration to Israel, where he said he never felt like an immigrant, his romance with Orna, and images from the birth of their first child.

“Micha and Orna see this as an adventure,” Tal says in the audio, of the process of making the film and the exhibit.

Their life story is enmeshed with Bar-Am’s presence at all the major moments in Israel’s history, including five major wars, the Eichmann trial, and snaps of Israel’s leaders as they succeeded and failed and pushed forward in establishing the country.

From ‘The Last Photograph: Ran Tal After Micha Bar-Am,’ a new exhibit at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on display through December 2022 (Courtesy Micha Bar-Am)

Bar-Am’s comments throughout the exhibit distill the experience of photojournalism: “The more you think, the less good it is for the photos”; “No photo prevented the next war”; “Taking pictures is like being in a trance, like a high”; and “Sometimes it’s better to forget and move on.”

He was a consummate war photographer, the correspondent for Magnum since 1968, remaining the agency’s only Israeli member. He photographed for The New York Times and other major publications, and served from 1977 to 1993 as curator for photography at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

There is a progression in the film from the confidence and optimism of the early decades of Bar-Am’s career to the doubt and questioning he experienced later on, particularly with regard to actions of the Israel Defense Forces and events that took place during the First Lebanon War.

From ‘The Last Photograph: Ran Tal After Micha Bar-Am,’ a new exhibit at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on display through December 2022 (Courtesy Micha Bar-Am)

Eventually, he stopped taking photographs altogether and in the exhibit, filmmaker Tal aims to understand why that was so. Bar-Am, now 91, has said that he only photographs his grandson now.

The exhibit “offers a shockingly vivid look at time and events, and far different than today’s ‘like and swipe'” social media, added curator Gal.

“The Last Photograph: Ran Tal After Micha Bar-Am,” June 17, 2022, to December 17, 2022, at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

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