Micha Bar-Am has shot around half a million images in the seven decades he has been working as a photographer.
The Berlin-born Israeli photographer, now 91, has chronicled the struggles of his adoptive country to maintain its territorial integrity and protect its people through wars and conflicts that encompass – and extend either side beyond – the Six-Day War of 1967, Yom Kippur in 1973, and the 1982 incursion by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) into Lebanon (known at the time as Operation Peace in Galilee).
A photographer since 1968 for Magnum – the agency founded in 1947 by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, George Rodger, and William Vandivert – Bar-Am has lived up to Capa’s famous dictum «if your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.»
From the archive
Award-winning Israeli director, Ran Tal, has made the first-ever feature-length documentary about Bar-Am: 1341 Frames of Love and War, which has its World Premiere Sunday (February 13) at the 72nd edition of the Berlinale.
An emotionally powerful study of Bar-Am’s life story seen through a selection of images from his archive – to which Tal was given exclusive access – 1341 Frames of Love and War charts the life of a man who describes himself as an «aggressive optimist».
It traces that life from a privileged childhood in Berlin of the 1930s, via 16mm ciné footage – shot by a father Bar-Am describes as a «typical Berlin playboy» – through the family’s emigration to Israel in 1936 (just a year after the Nazi «Nuremberg Laws» that began to tighten the grip on Jews that would eventually lead to the «Final Solution» and the Holocaust), to Micha’s adoption in the 1950s of a new Israeli identity (Bar-Am translates as «Son of the Nation») through his subsequent career as a photographer.
The film – entirely composed of images from Bar-Am’s archive and interviews with Micha, his wife Orna, and their sons in voiceover – opens with a strangely compelling and emotive black and white still of Israeli sand-bagged defensive breastworks almost empty of any human presence.
The image – evocative of the work of British war photographer Roger Fenton (1819-1869) in the Crimean War of the mid-1850s – sets the stage for a tour-de-force through the endemic violence that has gripped Israel and its neighbours for so long.
a tour-de-force through the endemic violence that has gripped Israel and its neighbours for so long.
The centre of the storm
As a staff photographer for the IDF for several years before going freelance in 1968, Bar-Am was at the centre of that maelstrom.
«I did not follow wars, did not search for anything but an interesting, exciting way to live; as it happened, I also made a living with this,» Bar-Am says, speaking via Zoom from Tel Aviv.
A tall, bearded man, who now rarely takes photographs but spends his days working with his massive archive – long organised by his dedicated wife of more than 60 years, Orna – he counts American photojournalist Walter Evans (1903-1975) and American writer, journalist and social activist Jack London (1876-1916) among his influences.
«I am self-taught as far as photograph [is concerned], but in 1936 when I opened my eyes in Israel, two things happened – the Spanish War and our clash with our Arab neighbours – you [were] always getting images of violent scenes,» he says, speaking in lightly accented, fluent English.
«Robert Capa went to Spain that same year. We had relatives in the U.S. and England sending us a magazine with images of real photojournalism… . . .
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