The Grace of Photographer Osnat Ben Dov’s “Shadow of a Passing Bird”

Light permeates the resurrected still-life exhibit burned by Hamas
By | Apr 22, 2024
Arts, Israel, Latest

The long stem of a wilted flower in a tall glass bottle, a bowl of artichokes covered with a folded napkin, an old encyclopedia of plant life bookmarked with forgotten, curling strips of paper. These were some of the Israeli photographer Osnat Ben Dov’s still-life images that hung on the walls of Kibbutz Be’eri’s art gallery, torched by terrorists on October 7. Burning the gallery and the art that was in it was a small, gratuitous gesture of cruelty among the unfathomable atrocities that happened that day.

The concept of mutability is rooted in the still-life tradition that the Dutch refer to as stilleven, stilled life, and the French, as nature morte. Thoughts about impermanence and the transience of life have been central to Ben Dov’s work for many years and that’s what inspired her to name her exhibit “Shadow of a Passing Bird.” “Because I’m watching everyday moments, I’m watching our lives,” she says. “But what’s a dramatic moment? The everyday, you know, the simple moments. I notice when a bird is flying, you see a shadow and it’s just a surprise. It’s one minute; if you see it you’re lucky. It’s the opposite of forever, fleeting. In photography you shoot a passing moment. Like the passing bird, life is passing.”


Ben Dov was born in Jerusalem in 1968, but her parents were children in Iraq during the Farhud, the violent mob attack on Baghdadi Jews and Jewish property that occurred in 1941. Her father’s family emigrated to Israel in 1948 and her mother’s family came just after. In Iraq, her grandfather had been a textile merchant, engaging in the trade between Baghdad and India, but in Israel he dedicated himself to making covers for religious books, doing everything by hand—measuring, cutting, gluing, even making the glue himself. She has fond memories of visiting him in the small workshop he set up near his home in Jerusalem, where, to entertain the grandchildren, he would take a handkerchief out of his jacket pocket and make it seem to have turned into a cloth bird that could move and fly. Images both of textiles and books have strayed into her photographs. “You know,” she says, “everything is under your skin and finds a way to get out.” From childhood, Ben Dov studied music and played the flute, but she chose to study art at the Art College in Ramat-Hasharon and photography at Hadassah College in Jerusalem. She then worked for many years as a commercial photographer, taking photographs for culinary magazines and for major chefs, using a large format, 4 x 5 camera mounted on a heavy tripod base. In 2006, after the birth of her third child, she decided it was too hard to balance work and family and she put the cumbersome photographic equipment away, storing just one last box of Polaroid film in her refrigerator.

Lisianthus with an Embroidered Napkin, 2022

She gradually returned to photography with a new orientation, thinking about the long history of the still-life genre, in which ordinary objects are stilled in time, so they can tell us something about themselves and about the world that surrounds them. Ben Dov thinks about the long line of Old Master and modern still-life painters, along with the photographers, as a large and connected family. She particularly loves the work of French painter Jean Siméon

Chardin because of the way he captured the simplicity of every-day moments, but she also admires Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán, the Flemish painters and Italian painter and graphic artist Giorgio Morandi, as well as photographers such as Irving Penn and Sally Mann. What continues to interest her is the tension between time and light. “When you see a still life, on the one hand you think you’re looking at something that’s endless. On the other hand, the painting says it’s not really forever, it’s right now and the light is right now,” she says. This is especially the case for photographers working with natural light, where every second brings another variation. “Even if it’s north light, which seems permanent,” she shrugged, “nothing is permanent.”

World of Plants, 2022

I ask Ben Dov about her work process. Does she have a studio? “Yes,” she laughs, “I have a studio, a very nice studio, but most of my photographs are made at home since that’s where life happens, where I have a relationship with the rooms, with the kitchen and bedroom, an intimacy with the light where my family has been.” She often chooses objects to photograph because of the connection they have to her life (hand-stitched table linens that belonged to her mother-in-law), because of their symbolism (swordlike gladiolas as emblems of the current war), or simply because they strike her fancy (the unusual red color of a group of apricots that reminded her of how cheeks sometimes get really red). She now works almost exclusively with a digital camera that she puts on her old tripod so that the camera and the point of view remain totally stable while her hands are free to touch things and move them, to see how the light touches her objects. “It’s light,” she says, “that puts life into photography and connects things together, as a kind of glue or a juice for the camera.” It can take a long time to take a photograph, sometimes as long as a week, though sometimes just a few hours. She waits, she says, for the objects to tell her their secrets. “And all that time I’m looking for something, but I don’t know what it will be. If I knew before taking the photo, it wouldn’t be interesting.”

Sometimes things reveal their stories to her as they change. This was the case with a couple of ears of corn she saw at the home of a friend, a woman pianist she plays duets with as a flutist. Her friend had received a basket of organic vegetables that included some especially beautiful corn, and Ben Dov noticed that it looked, as she put it, gentle; she saw something romantic in it. When she asked her friend if she could take the corn to photograph at home, at first her friend said, “No, it’s my dinner.” Eventually she relented, “for art’s sake.” Ben Dov brought two ears of corn home and put them on her table, thinking she would bring them back to her friend right away. But, as she tells the story, “After one day, I couldn’t take a photo.” Two days passed and she was just watching, no photo. One week passed and she didn’t take the photo. She felt guilty, taking her friend’s meal, and not taking a photo. Every day, she waited and watched and by the time ten days passed, the corn had aged, like flowers. Something happened to them—they started to lose their mass. They weren’t heavy any longer, they became light. Then she felt she had to protect them, so she wrapped them loosely in a gauzy white fabric and began the process of looking at them all over again. It took close to two weeks before she felt it was time to make the photograph. The picture that came out appears almost painterly, as though the loosened husks or leaves have been made with brush strokes. The corn looks bridal.

Corn, 2024

As in the tradition of many Old Master still lifes, darkness often surrounds the objects in Ben Dov’s compositions. “When it’s dark,” she says, “you can see every light, every light is very strong. It’s like when you’re in a quiet place and there’s a sound, say the sound of a bird. But if you’re in traffic and there are a lot of noises together, you can’t hear the voices outside. So, in a dark place, you have the opportunity to hear the smaller voices.” If you look at her largest photograph, which is life-size and called “Safari Still Life,” you can see how the dark leopard-print textile in the background acts as a foil, so that light becomes concentrated more toward the center, stimulating your gaze to jump among the objects—the jeweled colored lemons, the little blue book, the old camera, a red onion, a pear and a peach, then up to the full-blossomed rose, allowing you finally to glimpse the almost-camouflaged moth that’s settled on top of it. “Because I play the flute,” Ben Dov says, “for me this process is connected to music. I think there’s something similar between the way you concentrate breath into sound and light coming through the lens.”

Safari Still Life, 2023

Much of Ben Dov’s work is a kind of creative play. With the leopard-pattern textile functioning as a visual pun, the Safari photograph represents the kind of scavenger hunt that children do to enhance their make-believe, collecting miscellaneous objects that become a scaffold for the meaning of their play. Lately, she’s been taking photographs of her mother’s belongings. Her mother, who died a year and a half ago at the age of 94, left her imprint on the things that were part of her daily ritual, ordinary objects that carry her story. So, the little cut-glass vase and the tiny blue tehillim (book of psalms) were selected for the photograph. The jug-shaped vase at the center once belonged to another photographer who moved her studio ten years ago and invited friends to take some of the things she no longer needed. Then an old camera came into her possession, just by chance, on the day she had planned to take the photo. It was a Saturday, and her husband was walking their dog at a park when a man he’d never met came over and said, “Well, I know your wife is a photographer, so please give her this camera.” Neither Ben Dov nor her husband know who the man was. But when she saw the camera she thought, “good, it’s coming on the day I’m making this photograph, I’ll put it with my other things and that way I have my mother’s objects that belonged with me my whole lifetime, my friend’s vase which I’ve had for ten years, and the camera that’s just arrived.” Of course, the purpose of a safari is to hunt animals and that’s literally what happens as your eye tracks the miscellaneous objects, landing at last on the moth perched atop the rose, bringing surprise—though a controlled surprise—into the picture.

At the beginning of the COVID pandemic, Ben Dov realized she was noticing everything differently in her house. As she puts it, “Suddenly, even a fly had meaning. You are thinking you’re alone at home, but, no, there is a fly.” Then a lot of insects came into her photographs. When I ask what the insects mean to her, she says, “You can’t control the moth that’s landed on the rose, it will only be in the photograph if it’s willing. I think for most of us, we’re looking for stability or safety, that life will be stable. But life isn’t stable and something, a surprise, is always coming. That’s what makes life, the movement of things. And the balance between the stable things we’re looking for and the movement of life is what makes it interesting.”

Polaroid of a Dried Flower in a Tall Bottle, 2023

It’s fortunate that photographs, unlike paintings or drawings, can be reproduced. Ben Dov was able to duplicate almost all the pictures that were destroyed at Kibbutz Be’eri and her exhibit was re-installed at the Janco Dada Museum in Ein Hod, north of Tel Aviv. For her and many Israelis, this felt like an affirmation of a belief in humanity and a belief that art should be able to breach gaps. Just by chance, three of the images, small ones, only 4” x 5”, had been made with the Polaroid film she stored in her refrigerator 17 years ago. The Polaroids, all of them studies of flowers in containers, were overlit because the film was so old. But the exhibition curator felt they added another level of depth to the meaning of the still lifes—they were survivors of time. Unlike her digital photographs, these were unfortunately one-offs, and when Hamas burned the exhibit, they were gone forever. Miraculously, because a kibbutz member had asked to buy one of the Polaroids before the tragedy of October 7, Ben Dov had made her a close reproduction, using her digital camera, even reconstructing the soft pink glow. Today, that image of the tall stemmed dried flower in a glass bottle stands as an emblem of the dynamic opposition of the hope for permanence and forces of transience.

Top image: ” Apricots and Plums,” 2013. By Osnat Ben Dov.

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