The Arty Semite

Jewish Photos Laced With Gold

By Ethan Pack

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‘Tallit Steps’ by Bill Aron and Victor Raphael

In the world of Jewish museums and art collections, there is no more iconic landscape than Jerusalem. But how many ways can one see the Dome of the Rock, the Old City gates or the shuk at Mahane Yehuda before they become static tropes? With such a heavily charged backdrop, photography of Jerusalem often devolves into bland suggestions about what people struggle with and share in the sacred city.

The most welcome achievement of “Illuminated Reflections: A Bill Aron and Victor Raphael Collaboration,” showing until May 8 at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, is how directly it takes on these familiar scenes and creates something new with the material. Aron is a photographer who focuses on Jewish communities, while Raphael works with an eclectic range of media, from traditional gold leafing to digital art, both of which he uses here to alter pictures taken over the course of Aron’s career.

The collaboration yields compelling results. By applying gold and metal leaf over certain aspects of the photographs, and pumping up the color saturation of selected elements, Raphael brings out entirely new dimensions of Aron’s pictures. The artists deserve credit for resisting the tempting but facile gesture that accompanies many efforts to “enhance” art photography through heavy-handed use of collage and the juxtaposition of subjects, contexts and themes. Instead, Raphael’s contributions put a great deal of trust in the original images themselves.

‘18th St Subway’ by Bill Aron and Victor Raphael

“Hasid and His Shadow,” for instance, begins with a characteristic Jerusalem scene. A skinny ultra-Orthodox young man walks down the sidewalk, his shadow thrown up against a bright wall of Jerusalem stone glowing softly in the sunlight. With his hands held behind his waist, one foot on the ground and the other sweeping behind him mid-step, his walk resembles the pose of an ice skater. His straight back and slightly tilted head is a line of black; the Hasid himself evokes the silhouette climbing up the wall. Taking things further, Raphael covers the Hasid’s shadow with a sparkling mix of red, orange and gold. These earth tones glimmer, making explicit the subtle magic of the otherwise everyday scene.

With “Watermelon,” by contrast, Raphael creates an entirely new sensation from Aron’s photograph. Resting in rows on a market table, the tops of halved watermelons are cranked up to an intense vermilion shade. The fruits’ green exteriors are blanketed with an oxidized metal leaf: As a result, the bright red surfaces gleam and float in a disembodied plane. This takes the typical “succulent Israeli fruit” shot to an unexpected but somehow logical extreme.

‘Watermelon’ by Bill Aron and Victor Raphael

The same method is used in “Rabbi Eisenbach, Scribe.” In a depth-less field of gold leaf, an elderly, long-bearded and picturesque scribe pours over a Hebrew scroll. What remains of the black and white photograph seems to hover over the flat surface, with no sense of the original setting. We see only the seated rabbi and the scroll’s enormous rolls, larger than his head, unfurling in a long stretch of sacred parchment over his desk and off into metallic space.

Some of the most striking pieces owe their quality to the manipulation of color and other forms of digital editing, and not the superimposition of metal leaf. Pink, violet, blood orange and turquoise burst out from “Panorama of the Damascus Gate.” It takes the viewer a moment to trace these colors to their sources: the headscarves of Palestinian women. And by inversion and mirroring, a painted stretch of Israel’s separation wall endlessly duplicates other forms of separation: cloud and light, sky and earth, metal and paint. The leafing runs along the wall like graffiti. This piece, “Sacred and Profane,” is among the best of the exhibit. Raphael’s addition of original material distills the photograph’s pre-existing qualities to extend its emphasis.

When the leafing technique misfires, as it does more than once, it weighs down what are otherwise consistently impressive compositions with an unattractive glitter. But for most of this exhibition, the artists select images that refocus customary views of Jewish subjects in Israel and the U.S. with a clever dose of novelty.


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