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Life in the Unholy Holy Land

My partner, who went to school in Israel during the 1950s, is fond of recalling the fact that some 28 different languages were spoken by the 42 children in his third grade class. Even today, holding up a mirror to Israeli society produces a fragmented image of rare complexity, showing a culture multiply divided between ethnicities and languages; secularisms; forms of Jewish observance and other religions; First and Third Worlds; recent versus past immigrations, and an ancient history set against the breathless rush and controversy of current events.

At least that’s my outsider’s perspective. The Israeli photographer Barry Fryd- lender begs to differ. “Every society is complex,” the soft-spoken, 50-year-old Tel Aviv native told me a few weeks ago on a visit to Andrea Meislin Gallery in New York’s Chelsea district, where a show of his latest work is hanging through October 23. “You just have to look closely”

Frydlender has been doing just that. At first glance, his new pictures seem to be straightforward panoramic scenes of urban, secular life in the unholy Holy Land: scantily clad youths parading through Tel Aviv’s narrow streets on Friday evenings; latter-day hippies and their children selling tea and smoking hookahs on the beach; Muslim men with lined faces sitting silently over cards in an East Jerusalem café; a group of peace demonstrators who appear utterly defeated. Yet there’s something unsettling about each image. Figures appearing to be the same person show up repeatedly, and the viewer’s eye seems to travel a distance impossible from the camera’s single vantage point.

In fact, each image is a composite, a digital mosaic painstakingly pieced together via computer from pictures of the same scene taken by the photographer over intervals of time ranging from minutes to months, which he then selects and edits, in the way a filmmaker works from rushes to create a finished product. Except Frydlender leaves his seams exposed: A shadow or a table’s edge may appear slightly broken where two shots didn’t quite match up, and the work as a whole gives one pause, hinting at untold narratives and imbued with an uncanny timelessness.

The son of immigrants who escaped the German occupation of Poland, Frydlender has been taking pictures since he was 15 years old. He studied film and television at Tel Aviv University and worked as a photojournalist, but chafed under the limitations of that medium. He dates his current preoccupation with incorporating multiple perspectives in his pictures to an image he put together in 1998, from negatives taken during the first intifada nearly a decade earlier, of kaffiyeh-swathed youths setting up a shot — complete with fire, smoke and stones — for an international crew of news photographers. He called the picture “The Birth of a Nation/The Palestinians Make a Movie” (1989-98).

Politics lurk at the edges of his recent work, casting a shadow from which his subjects often long to escape. Such is the case with a scene of young people smoking pot and otherwise relaxing in a makeshift, open-air lounge between some thatched huts and the sea — an unidentified Shangri-La that Frydlender tells me is the Southern Sinai. “Officially, there’s a warning for Israelis not to go there, but people are flooding back,” he explains. “It’s just a one-hour flight from Tel Aviv, and yet you arrive in this really remote location.” The image has a dreamlike quality, the aura of a delicate cocoon whose power to hold the real world at bay is brief.

“Because it’s made from many images, you can’t consume it in a moment,” Frydlender said. “You’ve got to sit down with it.”

Fragile, quasi-utopian communities and Israeli youth culture are a frequent focus. (Frydlender says he still considers himself a part of the latter, though his two daughters are now teenagers.) A gloomier view returns in “The Flood,” which was meticulously collaged together from shots the photographer took from the window of his apartment during the two months preceding the second Gulf War, showing a line of young people caught in the rain while on a high school field trip to an army museum. The mood is dystopic, the bad weather of nearly biblical proportions. Will this deluge end or sweep the state along with it? Frydlender conceded: “This is my darkest image.”

But in most of his pictures, the dream still holds — the broad boulevards filled with buildings vaguely reminiscent of European capitals, the overstuffed bodegas serving the Sabra and the Russian immigrant, the Palestinian girls playing in the street beside a Muslim graveyard and, behind it all, the sea, glittering in the Mediterranean sun.

Leslie Camhi writes about art, film and books for numerous publications, including the New York Times.

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