© Gil Pasternak, Esther Pasternak, 1970s. Esther Pasternak collection of family photographs, 1946–99. Description: The defiant lion is a tombstone monument erected in 1932 to commemorate a group of eight Jewish pioneer settlers who, as the Israeli version of the story goes, fell to Arab village militias in the settlement of Tel Hai in 1920 while defending their homes and community. The lower part of the monument lists their names. Immediately above them, another engraved Hebrew inscription reads “tov lamut be’ad artzenu” (It is good to die for our country).
[…] The role landscape and family photographs play in occidental societies, and the meanings one might associate with the information they mediate, has been greatly informed by state politics and capitalist ideologies. Preserving (and imagining) cultural, historical, and human landscape was a role officially assigned to the medium of photography when its invention was reported to the people of France by François Arago, in the Chamber of Deputies in 1839 (Sekula 1981). This resulted in photography’s widespread participation in European colonialism; in representing and shaping Otherness in compliance with European imagination, fantasy, and desire. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Kodak company further cemented this role, enticing individuals to travel with cameras and participate in the depiction of landscapes. Kodak thus invoked the nuclear family to partake in the production of geographical knowledge within the domestic sphere (Olivier 2007).
To fully grasp the operation of the photographic apparatus in family life, its involvement in politics, in landscaping, and in negotiations of power relations, one has to remember that historically, it was the invention of the one-dollar Brownie camera that enabled the practice of family photography and the production of family photographs in the way that one is familiar with today. First manufactured and sold in 1900, the Brownie, one of the first easy-to-operate cameras for amateurs, brought about the notion of the democratization of photography, and of snapshot photography in particular. It allowed virtually anyone to take photographs regardless of whether or not they possessed any photographic expertise. As Marc Olivier notes, “Beforet the snapshot, photography was largely a gentlemen’s hobby, a pastime that required technical skill and costly equipment” (2007: 1).
© Gil Pasternak, Dorit Pasternak, 1971. Dorit and Ephraim Pasternak’s collection of honeymoon photographs. Description: memorial for Moshe Levinger and Arye Steinlauff, […] two Israeli road workers who were shot dead by a group of Palestinian militants while paving the road to the Dead Sea in 1951. The memorial indicates the Hebrew date of the workers’ death alongside their names. Above these, a short inscription reads: “galed chalutzim mefalsei ha’derech le’yam ha’melach she’lo zachu le’siyum” (A monument for the pioneers who had started paving the way to the Dead Sea but were not fortunate to complete it).
[…] The experience of the physical environment and that of psychic life may be perceived as interlinked, as well as being two reciprocal conditions of the family photograph. However, I would like to suggest one encounters the family photograph as a post-memory; not purely as something of the past, but also as an informative image and object existing in, and constantly reshaping the present understanding of, the physical conditions it both portrays and materializes, whether these are credible or fabricated.
[…] From the late 1980s, a new understanding of landscape emerged in the field of cultural geography, treating and discussing landscape as text. The collaborative work of Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels (1988) is an exemplar of this approach. According to their research, landscape must be understood as a system of authored signs working to narrate the terrain in which they are found. The narratives that landscapes present are predetermined by their principal makers or authors, whether these are individuals or groups. Prior to the late 1980s, the predominant approach toward landscape had been derived by the theories of Carl Sauer and the Berkeley school of geographers. Landscape was thought of as a blank sheet to be overprinted with traces of human activity, a by-product of cultural practices where culture was thought to have agency. The new understanding of the term, however, suggests landscape is a product of intentional activities carried out to determine geographical features and meaning (Cosgrove and Jackson 1987; Kong 1997). Accordingly, landscape needs to be considered as a linguistic experience, writing and communicating meanings in a particular language. A capacity to engage with and read the signs used along the geographical terrain renders landscapes legible, allowing the equipped viewer to absorb the information imparted by the landscape’s designer while depriving the less privileged viewer access to its intended meaning. Those who cannot read the signs used are bound to bestow different meanings upon the very same landscape, to read it in a way that may compete with, or even override its projected significance (Jackson 1989).
[…] According to Benvenisti (2002), at the end of the nineteenth century Zionist pioneers brought with them from the diaspora the desire to reclaim the landscape of their longed-for, lost homeland. Upon their arrival in the region, they faced a different reality. Although popular Zionist historiography often presented the Promised Land as a deserted, unoccupied territory, the land was occupied by non-Jewish people; its landscapes did not live up to the biblical primordial images that appeared in the pioneers’ dreams. Having searched the visible landscape for residues that might echo their collective imagination, they worked to alter its physical features and conceal threatening scenes. The second generation of these immigrants, Benvenisti explains (2002), turned to archaeological excavations that gradually exposed the past sites of the ancient homeland, creating the country’s landscape anew. By the time a third generation was born, they could not possibly experience the landscape intimately. Its alteration had rendered it a collective landscape of a nation, and the location of this nation’s identity. Yet, as Ghazi Falah (1996) reveals in an article on the cultural landscape of Palestine, some sites of past villages still contain rubble, abandoned olive groves, cactus bushes, and other indications of their previous inhabitants. Some of these stand untouched, others are hidden among thick plantations of forests “planted apparently after the houses were leveled in the early years of the Israeli state” (Falah 1996: 271). Such locations turn this landscape into a site for Israeli amnesia, where some aspects of a non-heroic Jewish-Israeli history are hidden or camouflaged.
© Gil Pasternak, Untitled, 1980s. The Pasternaks’ family album, 1971–89. Description: This expansive view is captured from a tourist observation point located at the top of the Mount of Olives. The sitters appear comfortable, at ease within the environment and with the photographic gaze pointed at them. The background, however, is loaded with political meanings, as dominion over the Old City of Jerusalem and its sacred places has been a matter of public, regional, and
international dispute since the state of Israel captured the city from Jordan in the war of 1967.
[…] I would like to suggest an understanding of the photographic relationship between sitters and landscapes in comparison with sitters against artificial backgrounds in studio photography. […] If subjects against painted landscapes had to imagine their relationship to the background, when positioned against actual landscapes, family photographs narrate the group as directly involved in, and related to, the landscape surrounding them. This further complicates the reality of the photographic, for if both the subject and the background appear authentic, they are capable of shaping each other’s identity not only historically but also ontologically. Yet, while it could be argued that the two-dimensional painted background draws much of the viewer’s attention precisely due to its visible fabricated qualities, it also serves as an indication of intentionality. It is those already theatrical properties of the background that trigger the spectator’s interest in its symbolic value, and thereby in the possible affinity of the painted background with the sitter. Following the logic of Walter Benjamin’s historicization of photography (Benjamin 1985), it could be suggested that whereas the painted background gains prominence by alienating the sitter from a nonrepresentational space, in family photographs actual landscapes become casual through their photographic replication, allowing the sitter—a person familiar to the viewer—to stand out as the ephemeral element within the photographic image, thus imbuing the background with other significance. This recorded ephemeral encounter of the familiar figure with the inanimate surrounding has the capacity to concurrently familiarize and de-familiarize the viewer with the depicted environment, instilling in the viewer altering visions of conflicting political and social realities.
excerpts from ““The Brownies in Palestina”: Politicizing Geographies in Family Photographs” by Gil Pasternak, published in Photography & Culture Volume 6—Issue 1 March 2013, pp.41–64