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Ralph Gibson’s new book contrasts Israel’s ancient land with it’s bustling modernity and diversity

Acclaimed art photographer Ralph Gibson’s new book, “Sacred Land: Israel before and after Time”, released this fall, strives to be a commentary on the country’s beauty, diversity and history, rather than to focus on the political and social issues that are frequently the crux of the nation's portrayals.

The 81 year-old American photographer — whose work is featured in exhibition catalogs for Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum and New York’s Museum of Modern Art — traveled to the pre-pandemic Middle East and juxtaposed the ancient land with it’s bustling modernity throughout 216 pages, published by Lustrum Press. A zoomed-in picture of a camel’s head is printed alongside a truck transporting hazardous materials, graffiti of a peace dove in a bulletproof vest is placed next to army uniform insignia.

“Israel is the oldest and the youngest country in the world. It starts before the Bible and it’s only been a nation for 72 years,” said Gibson. “So, the first thing I did was I compared the old with the new. That was my point of departure. As I was looking at things, I was seeing antiquities as they are perceived today,” he added.

Known for pioneering an enigmatic mode of visual communication in fine-art photography, Lustrum Press — created by Gibson himself in the 1970s — excels in pairing images face to face in order to establish thematic parallels. “For me, photography is largely selective and subtractive,” he explained. “If you’re going to write an article or make a drawing, you're going to add words or marks to the paper, until you are finished. But when I make a photograph, I move closer and closer, to just the information that I want to include, and I subtract what I don’t want from the frame.”

The project was conceived and produced by Martin Cohen, who Gibson credits with creating the atmosphere and the infrastructure in which he was able to function at his very best throughout three visits to Israel, in March, June and late November of 2019. The locations they visited include Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, in addition to landscapes, mountains and cultural institutions.

Depicting diversity and secularism

Gibson and Cohen aimed to debunk the widespread view that Israel is entirely religious and completely made up of European Jews. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, a website run by the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, 43% of Israeli Jews over the age of 20 self-identify as secular in 2020.

“It’s a country that is very misunderstood by people who have not vitiated Israel,” explained Cohen. “Ralph and his wife Mary Jane, within 24 hours, saw it like they never understood it to be. It’s a very vibrant, well educated and diverse country. People of every color imaginable, of all parts of the world, settled there.”

Cohen remarks that Israeli residents, much like US citizens, can’t ignore their country’s politics, both because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a controversial figure and because of the Arab-Israeli conflict. “But if you can set politics aside, and see it for what it is, it’s a remarkable place,” he said.

By Ralph Gibson & Martin Cohen
216 pp. Lustrum Press. $49.95