'He's the only person in the world to do what he does'

Photographer who digitized Dead Sea Scrolls completes new Kirk Douglas archive

Ardon Bar-Hama regularly works with rare documents such as the Aleppo Codex, so when the Douglas Foundation tapped him for a 10,000-item collection, he was ready. Now it is, too

Reporter at The Times of Israel

  • Photographer Ardon Bar-Hama's digitizing camera setup. (Courtesy)
    Photographer Ardon Bar-Hama's digitizing camera setup. (Courtesy)
  • Kirk Douglas celebrates his second bar mitzvah in 1999. (Courtesy of The Douglas Archive)
    Kirk Douglas celebrates his second bar mitzvah in 1999. (Courtesy of The Douglas Archive)
  • Kirk Douglas and his wife Anne Douglas hold his honorary Oscar in 1996. (Courtesy of The Douglas Archive)
    Kirk Douglas and his wife Anne Douglas hold his honorary Oscar in 1996. (Courtesy of The Douglas Archive)
  • Kirk Douglas, back right, with his family in an undated photo. (Courtesy of The Douglas Archive)
    Kirk Douglas, back right, with his family in an undated photo. (Courtesy of The Douglas Archive)
  • Kirk Douglas received an honorary Oscar from Steven Spielberg in 1996. (Courtesy of The Douglas Archive)
    Kirk Douglas received an honorary Oscar from Steven Spielberg in 1996. (Courtesy of The Douglas Archive)
  • Kirk Douglas as Spartacus in Stanley Kubrick's film of the same name. (Screen capture)
    Kirk Douglas as Spartacus in Stanley Kubrick's film of the same name. (Screen capture)

Israeli photographer Ardon Bar-Hama has worked with the Dead Sea Scrolls, and now he can add Spartacus to his repertoire. Bar-Hama has made a career out of digitizing rare historical documents — from ancient Israel to the Golden Age of Hollywood — and has recently digitized 10,000 items relating to the late Jewish-American cinematic icon Kirk Douglas.

He conducted the work for the Douglas Foundation, a philanthropic foundation established by the star and his late wife Anne Douglas, who had archived her husband’s personal material across the decades.

Now, it’s all online for anyone to access free of charge. It was released early last month, around the third anniversary of Kirk Douglas’s death at age 103 in 2020. Anne Douglas died 15 months later, at age 102, in 2021. The photos have received over 1 million views since they were made available to the public.

“It’s a beautiful archive,” Bar-Hama told The Times of Israel. “It’s 60 years of his legacy. What could be more beautiful in the history of movies than Kirk Douglas?”

The photos are arranged in multiple categories that reflect the multidimensionality of Douglas’s long life. There are stills from his more than 80 films, including what is arguably his best-known one, “Spartacus,” directed by Stanley Kubrick and released in 1960, with a cast that included Tony Curtis, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons and Peter Ustinov. Some of Douglas’s films pertain to Jewish and Israeli history, including “The Juggler,” the first full-length US feature to be shot in the fledgling country of Israel, in 1953; and “Cast a Giant Shadow,” which brought fellow cinematic legends to Israel, such as Yul Brynner, Frank Sinatra and John Wayne.

“We all watched that movie,” Bar-Hama said of “Cast a Giant Shadow.” “It tried to show the birth of Israel.”

Kirk Douglas as Spartacus in Stanley Kubrick’s film of the same name. (Screen capture)

With the Academy Awards this past Sunday, several Tinseltown-related photos from the archive feel especially timely — shots of Kirk Douglas receiving an honorary Oscar in 1996, presented by his friend Steven Spielberg, who has made his share of Oscar buzz over the years, including this year for “The Fabelmans,” which was nominated for seven Oscars but failed to clinch any. The two legends exchanged correspondence over the decades, with Spielberg calling Douglas his second father and Douglas signing his name in Hebrew, along with a caricature.

Yet Hollywood is but one part of the panorama. Early images show the future star growing up as Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, New York, as well as his Russian Jewish immigrant parents, Harry and Bryna, and his six sisters — Betty, Fritzi, Ida, Kay, Marion and Ruth. Later in life, Douglas would name his production company after his mother. By that time, he felt confident enough to hire blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo for “Spartacus.”

Kirk Douglas received an honorary Oscar from Steven Spielberg in 1996. (Courtesy of The Douglas Archive)

Despite his liberal views, he was bipartisan in the company he kept. Viewers can see Douglas meeting with both Democratic and Republican presidents — Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Henry Kissinger, who advised both the Nixon and Ford administrations on foreign policy, shows up in quite a few images. Kissinger’s correspondence with Douglas over the years, like Spielberg’s, included a Hebrew signature and caricature from the Hollywood star in 2019.

On the global stage, Douglas met with world leaders, including numerous Israeli prime ministers including David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Pope John Paul II in 1989. In other photos, Kirk and Anne Douglas travel abroad as goodwill ambassadors of the United States, aided by the fact that Anne — who was born in Germany and fled the Third Reich — spoke five languages.

Kirk Douglas, right, and Anne Douglas, with former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. (Courtesy of The Douglas Archive)

The couple was married in 1954, a union that lasted for 66 years. Photos show family time with children and grandchildren — including Kirk Douglas’s son from his first marriage Michael Douglas, who has become a movie star in his own right. There are also sweet scenes from Kirk Douglas’s second bar mitzvah in 1999, which occurred as he reconnected with his Jewish faith following a deadly helicopter crash eight years earlier. Michael Douglas has also reconnected with Judaism and received the Genesis Prize in 2015 in recognition of his contributions to cinema, work on behalf of the United Nations, and his love of Israel and his Jewish heritage.

The younger Douglas has a busy schedule lately, with projects including “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and the AppleTV+ series “Franklin,” in which he plays the titular Founding Father. He also made an appearance on “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” promoting the archive and giving a shout-out to Bar-Hama.

When Michael Douglas sought to create a photographic tribute to his father and stepmother, he connected with Bar-Hama, who has made a unique name for himself over the past 20 years. In a February 4 article, Deadline quoted Douglas calling Bar-Hama “a remarkable Israeli photographer… who developed a technique and a camera that allowed him to capture stunning high-res images of the most fragile of artifacts.”

Photographer Ardon Bar-Hama, left, with Michael Douglas holding a Golden Globe award in an undated photo. (Courtesy)

Bar-Hama has digitized the Dead Sea Scrolls in a 2011 collaboration between Google and the Israel Museum, along with the oldest-known Hebrew and Christian versions of the Bible in their complete forms — the Aleppo Codex in 2002 and the Codex Vaticanus in 2005, respectively. For the latter project, he went to the private vault of the Vatican to do the work.

“You have to be perfect at what you do, how you hold the manuscript, process the image, get the best, most accurate image rendered of the original,” Bar-Hama said. “As close as possible to the original to keep it preserved for many years.”

In projects of a more recent vintage, Bar-Hama has digitized the archives of luminaries such as Sigmund Freud and Nelson Mandela, as well as the collection of the New York Philharmonic. Although Bar-Hama grew up admiring the photo artistry of Ansel Adams, he modestly describes his own work as more technical. He does it with a Swiss-made Alpa camera, incorporating UV light for digitization.

“Even Michael [Douglas] said he could not believe how quickly I worked,” Bar-Hama said. “There was no need to remove a photo [from an album], put it on a scanner and wait forever.”

Michael Douglas met Bar-Hama thanks to their mutual friend George Blumenthal, a businessman-turned-philanthropist who’s known the star for 47 years and had a memorable cameo in one of Douglas’s best-known films, “Wall Street.” Over the past two decades, Blumenthal has worked with Bar-Hama on multiple projects, many of them related to preserving Jewish history.

George Blumenthal, left, with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas in an undated photo. (Courtesy)

“He’s the only person in the world, to my knowledge, to do what he does,” Blumenthal said, calling it “photographic digitization” and crediting Bar-Hama as its inventor.

The “aha” moment occurred at the Ben-Zvi Institute in Israel when Blumenthal realized Bar-Hama’s ability to digitize a large number of artifacts in a short amount of time — first, documents relating to Sabbatai Zevi, a self-declared 17th-century Jewish messiah in the Ottoman Empire, and then the Aleppo Codex. From these successful endeavors, the duo moved on to other projects, including the visit to the Vatican, where Bar-Hama digitized the Codex Vaticanus.

In addition to Bar-Hama’s extensive portfolio, another factor worked in his favor, according to Kim Morey, administrator of the Douglas Foundation. Unlike US-based companies that did digitization work, Bar-Hama was willing to do it on location instead of having the materials sent to him.

“He was the perfect person to do the archive,” Morey said. “He had such a level of appreciation and mastery of his craft.”

Issur Danielovitch, later known as Kirk Douglas, pictured here as the undefeated wrestling champ at St. Lawrence University. (Courtesy of The Douglas Archive)

Bar-Hama flew out from Israel to Los Angeles, where the Douglas Archive is based. Arriving at LAX, he showed up at the archive headquarters in Beverly Hills, toting his equipment in a wheeled suitcase. He did the work at Kirk Douglas’s old desk, sifting through boxes of material that Anne Douglas had gathered over the decades. Staying at an Airbnb, he worked long hours, turning down Morey’s offers of a water break but welcoming recommendations of nearby kosher restaurants.

There were not only photos to digitize, but also movie posters, press clippings and even school yearbooks. These documents are worth a look as well: From Douglas’s St. Lawrence University yearbook, we learn that Issur Danielovitch of Amsterdam, New York, was an undefeated wrestling champion as well as a budding actor.

Douglas turned to journalism in 1953, penning a newspaper article about his experiences filming “The Juggler” in Israel, including meeting Ben-Gurion; receiving a welcome from an Arab mukhtar, Ibrahim Abdul Abed, in the village of Tamra; and giving a fond farewell in Tel Aviv, concluding with the words “Peace be yours.”

“I don’t think I shall ever again get the kind of ovation I received when I closed my brief remarks with that earnest, deeply felt wish, uttered in Hebrew that last night in Tel Aviv,” Douglas wrote.

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