Photographer Adi Nes connects ancient and modern Israel

Adi Nes’s portrait of Abraham and Isaac – ‘Many fathers sacrifice their sons for the army – this process is recycled over and over again for the ideals of this country.’Adi Nes stares ahead, his thick eyebrows pensive and drooping, …

Adi Nes’s portrait of Abraham and Isaac – ‘Many fathers sacrifice their sons for the army – this process is recycled over and over again for the ideals of this country.’Adi Nes stares ahead, his thick eyebrows pensive and drooping, his large eyes glazed with a satisfied look.

“I’m not a snapshot photographer. I create moments, and I freeze them,” he says. Profound words for a man who didn’t even intend to pick up a camera.

Yet, ironically, today the 40-year-old Tel Aviv resident is one of Israel’s most praised and respected young photographers. His photos have appeared in galleries throughout Israel, America and Europe and have garnered much critical acclaim. Tikkun magazine called him “the face of modern Israeli photography.”

His provocative 1999 work Untitled (The Last Supper) , a staged image of Israeli soldiers positioned to evoke Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the same event, sold in February at Sotheby’s annual auction of Israel and Jewish art for $264,000.

Born in Kiryat Gat to immigrant parents from Iran, Nes was attracted to painting, but was planning to pursue a more practical career in communications, media, and art after the army. When he decided to enroll in Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design (where he now teaches part-time) he couldn’t decide on a main focus for his studies. He settled on photography, an area he says he chose out of confusion.

He showed up for his interview without a portfolio of photographs, but he says he was accepted because his teachers were impressed with his paintings and thought he was creative, different, and special. “They told me photography is a technique I can learn,” he said.

They were evidently right, because today his seventh Israeli exhibit Bible Stories, a series of staged photographs depicting Biblical figures as lower class street people, is on display at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, and will be traveling to galleries in Sweden and Paris in 2008.

Nes concentrates on meticulously staged color photographs that place the characters in an urban Israeli context, but modeled on classic, modern, and historical sources. It’s a medium he consciously chose to pursue instead of the more recognized medium of snapshot photography.

“It’s hard to ask a painter why oil and not acrylic – in this style I have a lot of control,” he told ISRAEL21c, sitting in a Tel Aviv café near his studio.

Being a secular gay man of Middle Eastern descent, Nes appears to put his own sense of being lost in Israeli society in each work, with photos often dealing with his own personal issues of identity. For Untitled (The Last Supper) , his most famous photograph from his ‘Soldiers’ series, Nes conveys themes of disconnection, masculinity and Israeliness.

For his ‘Boys’ series, the difficult identity issues that come from growing up in a development town, is something he took from his own childhood. For his latest exhibit, Bible Stories, the biblical characters are homeless anti-heroes in the lower class of Israeli society who have lost their identity.

Amid the praise of critics, Nes’s work has also undergone intense scrutiny. Many deem it controversial because of its homoerotic tendencies and preoccupation with Israel male identity.

“I don’t think my work is controversial, but I understand why people might think so,” admitted Nes. “It gives the photos another layer. Being gay, being Jewish, growing up in a small town – these are all elements of my identity. My attitude is not to do something provocative.”

Even so, Bible Stories gives the viewer something to sink their teeth into. In his Noah photo, one sees a naked Noah lying drunk in front of a DVD kiosk displaying the movies Identity and Yossi and Jagger, a film about two gay IDF soldiers.

Bible Stories is also Nes’s first attempt to include women in his photographs. Ruth and Naomi are portrayed in Ruth and Naomi – Gleaners, modeled after Jean-Francois Millet’s oil painting The Gleaners of 1857, where they are seen bent over, gleaning food from a barren market where the wind has scattered vegetables and garbage.

Nes staged the location (“the end of the world in my eyes”) and the vegetables (“onions and garlic because they were dry, basic, and make people cry.”) He wanted to show the deep connection between the two women as in the mythical Bible story (“For wherever you go, I will go; And wherever you lodge, I will lodge,” Ruth says) through a strand of Ruth’s hair, which was connected to Naomi’s clothing “like rope”.

Nes began his Bible Stories project four years ago in response to a personal crisis. Unemployed and fresh out of an eight-year relationship, he asked himself why he was living in Israel – a country in economic recession and periods of tension.

Nes wondered how he could portray his latest photo series in a Jewish context. He had already used Christian themes for ‘The Last Supper’ photo of the ‘Soldiers’ series and Greek mythology themes for the ‘Boys’ series and wanted to use a Jewish theme because he was still struggling trying to find his own identity.

“Man should go far away to find himself,” he said. “That’s what I did.”

Nes wanted to present his view of Israel as a country that had fallen from a utopian, mythic culture of the ‘Chosen People’ to a conquering, capitalistic society with large social gaps.

He decided to use Jewish biblical figures as his inspiration because their stories were recognized, dramatic, and good metaphors. He thought about these characters during the lowest points of their stories and decided he wanted to cast them as lower-class homeless people who had lost their identity.

His photo of Abraham and Isaac, perhaps the most publicized photo from this series, shows Abraham as a scruffy and penniless homeless man pushing a supermarket trolley full of bags of recycled bottles where Isaac lays peacefully on top ready to accept his fate.

“I used recycled bottles because I was thinking about the idea of the recycled myth of this land. Many fathers sacrifice their sons for the army – this process is recycled over and over again for the ideals of this country.”

Ironically, though he feels his country has lost some of its social ideals to modern capitalist society, the series helped him realize why he decided to stay in Israel.

“I felt that in a time of crisis, Israelis always look to the past but they also look for hope,” Nes says. “As Jews, we have a connection and our connection is Judaism. We have no other land. We have no other reason to stay together. This is my tradition and my roots. I have no other place to go.”

What does his art say about that Israeli-Jewish self he identifies with so strongly? “My works are personal. I’m creating them from my own experience. The first reflects myself and my country and then there’s the second that belongs to the place where I live.”

But for Nes, that’s not the whole picture. “I have a gallery in the States and my work is in Europe,” he says. “I’m working in the context of the Western art theme and people know and understand the icons that I deal with. The themes that I deal with don’t all belong only to Jews or Israelis. People all over can understand it.”

Despite the warm reception his work has received around the world, Nes emphasizes that ultimately, he’s really working for himself.

“[My work] has touched people. It made them understand the art that I do, but my motivation was to express my own ideas. It was not to touch the viewer. Touching the viewer is a benefit.”