He presents his art, street photography, as a slight, though perceptible, indentation in cosmic time. A ripple of inspiration, an unexpected occurrence, a juxtaposition, a contradiction or irony, snapped in a fleeting microsecond. The object, dappled in light and shadow, unmoving, caught and frozen in a framed microsecond.
Photographer Gabi Ben-Avraham tells it as if he was leaning toward nuclear annihilation.
“When pushing the button,” He says in a voice that could have been lifted from George Orwell’s 1984. “I try to make some sense, restore order to the chaotic scheme of things.”
Ben Avraham, of course, is not Big Brother, but a Tel Aviv based street photographer. In the streets he moves and shoots, stealing the fleeting suggestion of a smile, a glance of suspicion, a flash of anger, the eyes staring out and leading the way to the soul – both man and Cuban street dog. Amazingly, he only returned to the trade several years ago after a lengthy absence.
“It all started long ago but I did not know it was ‘it’,” he says frankly. “During the 1980’s I photographed using film cameras. Even then I used to wander in the streets of Tel Aviv in search of the extraordinary. I then stopped and had not touched a camera for 25 years until I received a digital camera as a gift for my birthday from my wife six years ago. The rest is history.”
He works in his own inimitable style, capturing the essence of the location where he shoots, Tel Aviv (his home town in Israel), America, Cuba. How he operates, what he sees when he looks down the lens and shoots, always intrigues.
“The components ‘speak’ with each other in a special dialogue, either by colour, shape or light,” Ben Avraham explains how he likes to go about his work. “Capturing the elusive, special moment, after which things will never be the same and making it eternal – that is my goal. Forgotten, transparent people in urban surroundings are being granted their moment of grace. The shadows, fragile outlines, reflections within daily lives that are not noticed in the busy…urban landscape and sometimes are even crushed by it – these are precious to me.”
The Israeli photographer concludes with a helpful slice of photographic philosophy, and we move on to a montage of images he shot on a trip to America 2015.
“The American street is the heart of civilisation,” he tells me with some certainty. “The civilisation of consumption. The individual is swallowed by an inflation of images full of colours and symbols.”
In one image taken from this American series he explores the contrast between the symbolism of brands, and the ordinary mass of people on their weary way to somewhere else. Walmart? Apple store? McDonalds?
People walk, unsuspectingly, past a multi-branded wall where a giant, bald, ripped, green man – like an overly muscular William Hague (British politician) – towers above them. The massive green man symbolises commercial supremacy over the people with an allusion to the master and slave cliché. The frame is awash with colour, eye catching brands and comic book pop art. Ben Avraham’s image suggests the omnipotent world of corporate America foreshadowing the desires of American consumer culture. How many iPhones do you need for Christ sakes!
The American series of images is one of my favourite Ben Avraham projects, but what is also noticeable in the Israeli photographer’s work is his playful technique with light and shadow.
“Light and shadow are important,” he agrees. “But they are not alone. The image should include elements such as : relationship between objects, geometric shapes (comparison or contradiction), light and shadows, human factor with priority to body language and taking objects out of their context. The objects in the frame should be organised to make a unique composition. Usually, the photographer has no control over the situation because it is spontaneous but he tries to produce a surrealistic image.”
In a series called, appropriately enough, Magic Light, a young boy, draped in light and shadow, half-turned toward Ben Avraham’s lens squints suspiciously as he swings toward the photographer. On a stall behind him are, what looks like, vinyl records. We begin to question, is the boy interested in music, is this his future, was he suddenly aware of the image-taker and is caught in the half-light, in the half-turn as he moved round toward the photographer?
“Like a fisherman who goes to his daily work without knowing what he will catch, I take my camera and dive into the streets without knowing what will happen five minutes later,” he reveals. “It is an adventure. When I click I try to see the surreal and to sort things out of their everyday meaning and their usual context. I have my favourite places. The people, the light and shadows, the atmosphere.”
Extraordinary and surreal images are commonplace in Ben Avraham’s work. A man, apparently, flings himself toward a jet liner, and from the photographer’s perspective it looks as if he might catch the aeroplane. In another shot, a homeless man, sleeping on the pavement, appears to be under threat from a sinister looking ‘graffiti’ figure.
The electric edge of Ben Avraham’s photography is his narrative, he is a natural storyteller and this emerges in his photographs. His images have a quality which attracts the onlooker to find out what is happening.
“Sometimes I stand and wait for things to converge – a cyclist, a dancer, a child – moving along,” he begins. “They are not aware that they are moving toward a certain object, but I am. Via the camera lens I am constantly looking around me, searching for that ‘decisive’ moment that will never return, unless I catch it.”
Gabi Ben Avraham immersed in the light and shadows of his work, a thoughtful, often surreal and expert unravelling of the art of street photography.