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In a Twilight World

May 8, 2008 By:
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Seven years ago, photographer Neil Folberg published his ravishingly beautiful book of photographs called Celestial Nights: Visions of an Ancient Land that seemed, singlehandedly, to redefine the entire terrain of Israel. Now Abbeville Press, one of America's premier art-book publishers, has reissued the volume to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Jewish state's founding. This new version is in a somewhat larger format, I believe, that makes the photos pop out at you, their majesty and mystery even more enhanced.

Back in 2002, I said of Celestial Nights that it's the type of book that famed photographer Ansel Adams -- the great chronicler of the early 20th-century American West -- might have created if he'd been let loose at night in the Israeli landscape. Like Adams' silvery images of our grand open spaces, the rich, varied black-and-white tones captured in Folberg's photos have the texture of paintings by the masters or of some of the compositions captured by the world's most inspired film directors, like Carl Dreyer or Michelangelo Antonioni. The texture of these photos is so varied, and they are compositionally so unusual, it's as if you can feel the surface of the stones, the silkiness of the sand, the overwhelming enormity of the night sky flecked by countless millions of stars that burn with remarkable intensity.

It was not surprising back in 2002 to learn that Folberg had studied with Adams. That seemed almost an inevitability. Born in San Francisco and raised in the Midwest, Folberg made aliyah with his wife and three sons in 1976 and now lives in Jerusalem, where he founded Vision/Neil Folberg Gallery.

Composed only of night shots taken all over Israel,Celestial Nights came as a surprise to me, since I knew Folberg then only through his color work in And I Shall Dwell Among Them. That book provides a wide-ranging survey of synagogues throughout the world, the majority of them no more than battered, but still somehow beautiful, reminders of what they had been in their bustling heydays.

It's fundamental to this more recent project that Folberg stuck to black and white, since the deep silver and black hues seem to effortlessly project the sense of spirituality that's so much a part of the fiber of the land of Israel.

The photos, while capturing a specialized reality -- a night world -- also seem to be dreamy reimaginings of what they've captured -- an olive grove bathed in the whitest possible moonlight, the rustle of wind through a clutch of trees somewhere in the Golan -- that you hardly question the fact that they exist in a time frame that's rarely been the subject for photography or for landscape paintings, for obvious reasons.

As Timothy Ferris, the highly respected science writer, points out in his introductory remarks, "To judge from landscape photographs, you would hardly suspect that the land spends half its time in darkness. Daylight and twilight abound, but with scant exceptions -- Ansel Adams' 'Moonrise, Hernandez' comes to mind, as do Richard Misrach's night clouds, and some of Akira Fuji's wide-angle constellation studies -- few photographs convey the scene in which we find ourselves when we're outside under the stars."

Folberg's work is enhanced by the quality of the reproductions here. Seven years ago, Aperture was the publisher of this work, and I've always admired the purity of their publications. This new volume from Abbeville seems to exceed that level of excellence, which is truly saying something. Celestial Nights, filled with exquisite images, is, as a book, a splendid object in itself, the perfect gift for a lover of Israel or a devotee of fine art photography.

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