Visu­al Arts

Paul Gold­man: Press Pho­tog­ra­ph­er, 1943 – 1961

Shlo­mo Arad

  • Review
March 26, 2012

The Budapest-born Gold­man was one of very few pho­to­jour­nal­ists work­ing in Pales­tine in the 1940’s. Although he was large­ly unknown for most of his life — the norm at the time was not to pub­lish pho­to cred­its — Goldman’s work nonethe­less attract­ed a num­ber of admir­ers, many of whom, such as David Rub­inger, went on to become cel­e­brat­ed Israeli pho­tog­ra­phers them­selves. His strik­ing pho­tographs, most­ly depict­ing the day-to-day life of pre-state Israel, were nev­er archived any­where, but stored in sim­ple plas­tic bags in Goldman’s apart­ment and serendip­i­tous­ly dis­cov­ered, after the photographer’s death, by one of his friends.

Look­ing at Goldman’s work today, one under­stands instinc­tive­ly why Goldman’s work was for­got­ten: There is some­thing won­der­ful­ly un-mod­ern about his work, a qual­i­ty that appears sweet and naïve in today’s media cul­ture, in which paparazzi lurk around every cor­ner and the extreme close up is the favored aesthetic.

For one thing, Gold­man nev­er gets too close to his sub­jects. Unlike the gen­er­a­tion of pho­to­jour­nal­ists who would fol­low him, Gold­man, one sens­es, was too much of a gen­tle­man to shove a lens in anyone’s face. Instead, he keeps his dis­tance, and, as many of his sub­jects were Israel’s Found­ing Fathers — from David Ben Guri­on to Men­achem Begin — that dis­tance trans­lates per­fect­ly into respect.

Here, for exam­ple, is Ben Guri­on, shirt­less in a black bathing suit, doing gym­nas­tics on the Tel Aviv beach. Get too close and you run the risk of offend­ing the leader or, even worse, of por­tray­ing him too flat­ter­ing­ly, as an icon of viril­i­ty and strength, an out­come desired by the pro­pa­gan­dist but reviled by the jour­nal­ist. Get too far, and the mag­ic of the moment — the elder­ly states­man frol­ick­ing— would be lost. Gold­man, just a few steps away, strikes just the right distance.

This supreme sen­si­tiv­i­ty makes Goldman’s pho­tographs a small mir­a­cle in today’s world of tele­pho­to lens­es and elim­i­nat­ed dis­tance, and they make for inter­est­ing, almost pro­sa­ic con­struc­tions, rich with ten­sions between pub­lic and private.

But just as impor­tant­ly, per­haps, and just as strik­ing, is Goldman’s refusal to infuse the moment with metaphor, or embell­ish it in any oth­er way. Unlike, say, the atmos­pher­ic shots of Hen­ri Carti­er Bres­son, Goldman’s con­tem­po­rary, Gold­man is less inter­est­ed in the deci­sive moment,” that elu­sive frag­ment of time that cap­tures both the instant and the time­less in one grand swoop. Rather, he is, as much as pos­si­ble, an objec­tive shoot­er, ever more the reporter than the artist, inter­est­ed in beau­ty but nev­er at the expense of his best esti­ma­tion of the truth. His pho­tographs, there­fore, may not be as mov­ing as Bresson’s, but they are instruc­tive; any­one wish­ing to get a keen sense of what life in Pales­tine was like dur­ing the restive pre-state years is very like­ly to find it here, not in broad, inspir­ing strokes but rather in small, qui­et and ele­gant works.

On a lighter note, the book show­cas­es not only Goldman’s touch­ing sub­tleties but also his impec­ca­ble tim­ing: His pho­tographs are a cel­e­bra­tion of being in the right place at the right time, such as the King David Hotel short­ly after it was bombed by Begin and his men.

The pic­tures go beyond telling the word­less sto­ry of Israel’s ear­ly years. They suc­ceed, by strad­dling the line between jour­nal­ism and art, in cap­tur­ing the mind­set and sen­si­bil­i­ties of the young nation, a mind­set that now looks so famil­iar yet so far away.

Discussion Questions