Tel Aviv photo shop freezes a changing Israel in its frames

Entranced Montreal publisher Ian Sternthal calls attention to lesser-known images by famed photographer Rudi Weissenstein

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Nurit Wahl (photo credit: Rudi Weissenstein/Courtesy of Ian Sternthal)
Nurit Wahl (photo credit: Rudi Weissenstein/Courtesy of Ian Sternthal)

In 2006 Ian Sternthal wandered into the legendary Pri-Or Photo House on Tel Aviv’s Allenby Street and never really left. Although he has come and gone on visits to Israel from his Montreal home, he has been unable to get the thousands of portraits taken by the studio’s co-founder, famed photographer Rudi Weissenstein (1910-1992), out of his head.

Sternthal, owner of Sternthal Books, an art group and publishing company, decided to curate and produce a coffee-table book of some of the portraits. He plans to also create an e-book with digital footage, as well as a traveling exhibition. The project, which he has named “Zalmania” (Hebrew for photo house), is moving ahead following a successful Kickstarter campaign.

“I came across the zalmania when I was doing research on old photos of Tel Aviv for a project on Zionism I was doing,” Sternthal, 33, tells The Times of Israel. “People are always interested in Rudi’s folkloric, scenic and event photographs of Israel’s early years  but I was captivated by his studio portraits.”

Sternthal got to know Miriam Weissenstein, the photographer’s wife, who was still running the shop more than six decades after its founding (she died a year and a half ago at age 98). She told him that she had always wanted to make a book of her husband’s portraits of famous people, like Golda Meir and Ariel Sharon, but Sternthal saw the value in including regular, everyday people, as well.

He views the black-and-white portraits as a study in identity politics. “The portraits provide fascinating insight in to how Israeli society works and how it has changed over time,” he explains. “It’s amazing that the prime minister would come in to the studio and sit on the same wooden bench as a bar mitzvah boy or a newly married couple.”

“Rudi was not known for his portraiture, but his portraits are technically beautiful. You can see how he captured people’s personalities, and you can see the archetypes he created.”

The central place of the photo studio in the community in the pre-digital era intrigues Sternthal. “It used to be that photography facilitated remembering. Now, with everyone acting as a photographer and so many images coming at us all the time, it almost facilitates forgetting.”

Sternthal has scanned 3,200 negatives so far, and has been reviewing and editing the more than 30 hours of video footage he captured while visiting the photo house and spending time with Miriam. “She was a real character,” he says.

The eviction of Pri-Or from 30 Allenby Street, the location it occupied since 1940, and its effect on Miriam and her relationship with her grandson, Ben Peter (who now runs the business from a temporary location at 5 Tchernichovsky), was documented in the award-winning 2011 film “Life in Stills” by Tamar Tal.

On November 27, 2012, the day the building on Allenby was demolished, the National Library of Israel signed a contract with Pri-Or to preserve its archive of more than one million images.

Sternthal, who still needs more funding to be able to complete his “Zalmania” project by the end of this year, is dedicated to doing his part in preserving the treasure that Rudi and Miriam Weissenstein left behind.

Working with the thousands of photos taken to mark particular moments in other people’s lives has reminded Sternthal of how his own life has been changed by hanging out at the zalmania on Allenby.

“It was a special time in my life,” he says.

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