For 12 Photographers, an Anxious Gaze on Israel and the West Bank

Frédéric Brenner, who organized “This Place.” Credit Gabriela Herman for The New York Times

THE NEW YORK TIMES — February 11, 2016 For 25 years, Frédéric Brenner traveled the world, finding Jews to photograph. In every place he went, whether it was a singles weekend in the Catskills or an ancient stone dwelling in Yemen, he sought to uncover a buried trace of his own past. “What had been silenced and ignored by my family, I had to excavate,” he said during a visit to New York last month.

Only after finishing the project did he comprehend his motivations. He had been raised in an assimilated intellectual household in Paris by parents who ignored their Jewish heritage. But the Six-Day War in Israel in 1967 awakened their ethnic consciousness. Against his wishes, Frédéric was sent to a Jewish day school for three years before entering university. There, he became fascinated by Judaism — and, as he grew older, by the ways in which a portable identity had assumed varied forms in different cultures. The product of his wanderings with a camera appeared in 2003: “Diaspora: Homelands in Exile,” a weighty two-volume work of black-and-white photographs and Talmud-like outside commentary.

“This Place,” a photography exhibition through June 5 at the Brooklyn Museum (after stops in Prague; Tel Aviv; and West Palm Beach, Fla.), is the centripetal counterpart to Mr. Brenner’s far-flung “Diaspora.” All the photographs were taken in the concentrated domain of Israel and the West Bank. And while Mr. Brenner, 57, joined the project belatedly as a photographer, he mainly served as impresario. The exhibition features work from 11 other photographers, all foreigners — established artists who for the most part had never been to the Holy Land. “It’s very unusual that a group of not-so-young artists would be invited to do something like that,” said Thomas Struth, who joined a roster that also included Jeff Wall and Stephen Shore.

When approached, most were wary. They feared being supervised as part of a team. “I had never worked in any kind of group, and I was worried that I wouldn’t have freedom,” said Rosalind Fox Solomon, who at first rebuffed Mr. Brenner’s overture.

The tortured and complex politics of the region raised greater anxiety. “I didn’t wish to be instrumentalized,” said Fazal Sheikh, who has photographed displaced and marginalized people in Africa. “All my work prior to this has questioned religiosity. I was a little timid about that at first.”

A whirlwind of charm and energy, Mr. Brenner persisted. “He’s a very enthusiastic person,” Mr. Struth said. “You want to pull the hand brake: ‘Just cool down!’ But he’s also very appealing.” Mr. Wall, likewise, did not know at first what to make of Mr. Brenner. “When I first met Frédéric, I thought he was kind of a showman and a diva,” he said. “But I’ve grown to really like the guy. He’s very sincere.”

Mr. Brenner raised $6 million, largely from liberal American Jewish philanthropists. He invited 30 photographers to visit Israel and the West Bank on exploratory missions of about two and a half weeks, without obligation on either side. They met with a range of people — “a day with an archaeologist, a day with a specialist on the Bedouins,” he said.

After, he decided whether to ask them to continue. “I knew one thing would disqualify a photographer — anger,” he said. “It was important to look at Israel without complacency but with compassion. I believe art has a power to address questions that an ideological perspective cannot.”

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