Heather Zeiden, “Warmth, texture characterize Israeli photographer's portraits of stones”, San Diego Jewish World #84, July 23, 2007
SAN DIEGO — What is the first adjective that leaps to your mind when someone says the word “stone”? If it is “cold,” or “unyielding,” then you might be surprised by the photographs of Didier Ben Loulou, an Israeli of French-Algerian descent.
Five of his works are being exhibited at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park as a complement to the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition not far away at the San Diego Natural History Museum.
Ben Loulous portraits of stone are warm and intimate. You can almost feel their textures whether they be in a graveyard or on the wall alongside a staircase. And they are bathed in color. Four of the large images (approximately 18 by 18) are from Jerusalem; the other is from the mystical city of Safed.
I was immediately pleased by the aesthetic beauty of the photographs. It struck me that Ben Loulou had incorporated color studies in addition to his subject matter into each photograph. A viewer can immediately differentiate the works based on their respective blue, yellow, orange and white themes.
Additionally what is fresh about Ben Loulou's work is the way he uses abstract angles and close-ups to portray his subjects He tries to capture the pure essence by getting up close with his subjects. As a result, the viewer becomes more involved with the subject, perhaps leading to speculation about how these close up shots are pieces of some untold, but definitely imaginable bigger story.
As I had returned recently from a 4-month stay in Safed, naturally my interest immediately traveled upward to the photo, Safed 2000. The white grave stone is stained with a rich sea blue and hints of violet. The details in the grave stone as well as the small rocks placed on the grave are crisp. The photo captures the essence of the city's mystical core with a view of the cloudy mountains overlooking the grave. I imagine the grave could be of some mystical sage, as Safed is the center of the kabalistic movement. It's hard to say, but that added to my intrigue.
Next, Jerusalem, 1997, which I think of as Ben Loulou's yellow subject, is a close up of tombstone with details of Hebrew letters and a swirl of rocks. In Jewish tradition it is customary to place rocks as opposed to flowers upon a grave stone because the rocks dont wilt so they remind us that the spirit of the person lives on. The yellow, a moss that has grown on the grave, is pleasing to the eye. The diagonal angle that Ben Loulou uses from above provides an interesting perspective. See if your eye doesnt begin at the bottom of the photo, and then follows the rocks in a spiral upwards. Finally, it rests on the Hebrew letters on the grave. It appears that the stone is slanted on a cliff. Technically we are viewing the grave stone technically upside down.
Then, Jerusalem 2000, which I call the white subject, is hung in the center of the 5 photos. The photo itself has three subjects, the letters on the grave, a white dove and a hand. The viewer can come up with his own story of what the images symbolize, but to me it was someone visiting a loved one. As they reach out their hand trying to be closer a dove lands; a sign of peace.
Jerusalem 2005, the orange or burnt umber image, is a gravestone in a field. A trees branches crawl over the grave. Lying on top of the grave is a smaller stone with a single Hebrew letter "shin" carved into the stone. Again, to me it's a symbol of peace to the soul and the visitor.
The last photo, #67 Jerusalem, is a silhouette of a man walking down a set of stairs next to that famous Jerusalem stone. This is a quiet and eerie shot that leaves the viewer asking for more of the underlying story.
After doing some research on Ben Loulou's work, I have found that it is not uncommon for Ben Loulou to take close-ups of his subjects, so that the viewer is forced to become more intimate with them. Ben Loulou's photos can be appreciated as stand alone works, but it is also apparent that they are metaphors to a larger story and collection of work.
I recommend a visit to San Diego's MOPA to see Didier Ben Loulou's work. Those who are just as eager as I for new original work, and with an interest in contemporary Israeli photography will thoroughly enjoy the exhibit which continues through September 8.