‘Amazing’ photographer of 50s-60s Israel emerges with posthumous exhibit
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‘Amazing’ photographer of 50s-60s Israel emerges with posthumous exhibit

Sarah Ayal took photos as part of her governmental work, but never had them displayed until her granddaughter got to work

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

  • Sitting and chatting in the sea, from 'Emerging from the Shadows' exhibit at Beit Avi Chai, through June 2020 (Courtesy Sarah Ayal)
    Sitting and chatting in the sea, from 'Emerging from the Shadows' exhibit at Beit Avi Chai, through June 2020 (Courtesy Sarah Ayal)
  • Selling newspapers on Dizengoff Boulevard, from 'Emerging from the Shadows' exhibit at Beit Avi Chai, through June 2020 (Courtesy Sarah Ayal)
    Selling newspapers on Dizengoff Boulevard, from 'Emerging from the Shadows' exhibit at Beit Avi Chai, through June 2020 (Courtesy Sarah Ayal)
  • A girl and her bananas, from 'Emerging from the Shadows' exhibit at Beit Avi Chai, through June 2020 (Courtesy Sarah Ayal)
    A girl and her bananas, from 'Emerging from the Shadows' exhibit at Beit Avi Chai, through June 2020 (Courtesy Sarah Ayal)
  • Boys waving their lulav for the holiday of Sukkot, from 'Emerging from the Shadows' exhibit at Beit Avi Chai, through June 2020 (Courtesy Sarah Ayal)
    Boys waving their lulav for the holiday of Sukkot, from 'Emerging from the Shadows' exhibit at Beit Avi Chai, through June 2020 (Courtesy Sarah Ayal)

It’s several steps back in time when viewing the black-and-white photos from Sarah Ayal’s camera, now on exhibit at the Beit Avi Chai cultural center in Jerusalem.

The exhibit, “Emerging from the Shadows,” which opened on December 19 and closes in June 2020, reflects the careful eye of Ayal, who took the photos as part of her job as a photographer for Israel’s security service.

Alongside her professional work, she captured imagery of Israel and Israelis during the 1950s and 1960s, finding the iconic moments of both regular weekdays and holidays, of well-known and anonymous faces in their everyday life.

It was her granddaughter who made this posthumous exhibit happen at Beit Avi Chai, after family members discovered the collection of 4,000 negatives buried in a basement.

“There were amazing treasures to be found in this collection,” said Amihai Hasson, the exhibit’s curator who spent months sifting through the photos, choosing 60 for the exhibit and another 100 for the catalog.

Sarah Ayal, the photographer whose collection of 4,000 photos was culled by Beit Avi Chai for an exhibit that opened December 19, 2019 (Courtesy Beit Avi Chai)

This is the first time Ayal’s photos have been displayed, and the exhibit is open free to the public at the family’s request.

The photos depict a combination of idyllic, historic and mundane moments that Ayal captured, often without the subjects’ knowledge.

Celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square in the 1960s, part of the ‘Emerging from the Shadows’ exhibit in Beit Avi Chai (Courtesy Sarah Ayal)

There are images from the Jewish Israeli year, including the Rosh Hashana tashlich ceremony at the beach, buying schach for Sukkot and celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut at Rabin Square, when it was still planted with grass.

The photographs are a mix of smaller frames and larger ones, and exhibit designer Dov Abramson placed the smaller photos in frames on a shelf, enabling viewers to lean in and examine the imagery captured.

“She used to take pictures of people who were unaware of her presence,” said Hasson.

She also had a sense of history as it was happening; there’s a shot of two men covering a car’s headlights, following army orders, and another one of Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat in the moments before they signed the historic 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

There are others that are harder to identify, whether it’s a meeting of officials at the former Knesset, on King George Street, or a cliff being used for kids diving and jumping into the Mediterranean. That one is disputed as to whether it’s in Acre or Jaffa.

Taking a rest, from ‘Emerging from the Shadows,’ a photography exhibit at Beit Avi Chai, through June 2020 (Courtesy Sarah Ayal)

“She tells full stories in her photos,” said Hasson, “and her compositions appear accidental, but they’re carefully considered. She brings us into her world.”

The photos also tell the tale of an Israel that has all but disappeared, although not entirely, and this offers an unsentimental look at what once was.

“It’s a story that spoke to us,” said David Rozenson, CEO of Beit Avi Chai. “Her story came alive and it could have remained stuck in that basement.”

Visitors are welcome to enter Beit Avi Chai and see the exhibit in the lobby area. Check the Beit Avi Chai website for information about tours of the exhibit.

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