Frédéric Brenner: An Archaeology of Fear and Desire

BY Jordan G. Teicher, May 19, 2015

Frédéric Brenner, Ben Gurion Airport, 2010. Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery

Few photographers capture the complexities and diversities of the Jewish experience like Frédéric Brenner. Surely, none do so with greater scope or greater sensitivity.

An Archaeology of Fear and Desire, on view at Howard Greenberg Gallery until July 3, is a study of modern Israel, a place, in Brenner’s view, where Jewish history lives in the stories, expressions, and environments of its modern inhabitants. 

Brenner’s opus is Diaspora, a 25-year record of Jews in 40 countries; selections from this body of work are on display in an adjacent room at Howard Greenberg. Archaeology is a narrower project by comparison — the earliest photos date back just six years, and they’re all taken in the New Jersey-sized country — and yet its reach feels comparably wide. Israel, here, is both urban and rural, modern and ancient, moving forward and looking back.

Frédéric Brenner, Palace Hotel, 2009. Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery

These images, though straightforward in their approach, embody many of the contradictions and contrasts in Israel, a place Brenner has described as “un-understandable.” One photo shows three ultra Orthodox men at Ben Gurion Airport, all wearing black hoods over their eyes to block out the so-called immodesties of modern life. And yet, they have all consented to be photographed — that is, to be seen by the very people who they refuse to see themselves. 

Unlike Diaspora and another people-centric work on display here, Exile at Home, Brenner lets the landscape itself do the talking to a larger degree in Archaeology. In one wide shot of a schoolyard, for instance, children play amongst white cubes we know to be bomb shelters, a simple scene that speaks to the everyday possibility of violence here. Other views are more open to interpretation, like the one depicting a tree blossoming from rubble on a dusty, brown plain, or the one that shows the Palace Hotel gutted amid construction.

Brenner’s focus, frequently, is on family. In one portrait, we see three generations of women, the oldest a survivor of the Holocaust, staring straight into the camera. One is left to ponder the profound differences in their individual experiences, as well as the strong ties that unite them. In another, we see the Orthodox Weinfeld family, its brood of nine children seated at a long dining table bookended by the stoic matriarch and patriarch, the latter looking much like the old paintings of Orthodox men hanging on the wall behind them. In this context, the image seems like a sign of timeless rigidity in a land marked by so much change. Israel may be un-understandable, but in Archaeology, Brenner reinforces his case that it is an enigma worth exploring.