Picturing the past through a unique pair of eyes

  • 2006-12-13
  • By TBT staff
VILNIUS - Considering how Lithuanians tend to glorify their own, no matter how small their achievements, it's somewhat surprising that the photographer Israel Bidermanas remains such a relatively unknown name. Bidermanas (1911's1980) 's or Izis as he was popularly known 's was part of the golden generation of photographers that lived and worked out of Paris from the 1930s onward.

Izis left his Hebrew school in Lithuania when he was 13 to be apprenticed to a photographer. After completing his apprenticeship, he spent some three years travelling around Lithuania and taking pictures before turning up in Paris in 1931. Despite the fact that he was completely broke, didn't have a passport and barely knew a word of French, Izis somehow got a job in a photo studio.
Soon after that, the photographer set up his own studio and made a comfortable living through portraiture. In his free time he went around the abundance of Paris art galleries familiarizing himself with all the best photographers. For photography lovers there was no better place to be at that time.

When the Nazis invaded, he changed his name to Izis to hide his Jewish identity and went into hiding in Limoges.
Izis was among the large crowd that greeted the resistance fighters liberating the town and asked if he could take their picture. They agreed but Izis didn't like the way they formally posed for the picture, feeling that it was a wholly unsuited form of portrait for the situation.

He persuaded them to let him photograph them in the same way they'd appeared on entering the town: disorderly, shabby and thoroughly natural-looking.
The pictures he took of the fighters were to help make his name and mark the beginning of his career as a respected photographer.

When he returned to Paris he was introduced to Brassai, among others. With Brassai's encouragement, Izis gathered enough material to put on his first real exhibition in 1946.
The Lithuanian became close friends with the painter Marc Chagall, whose influence can clearly be seen in his many shots of Paris street life, and with the poet Jacques Prevert, who wrote the texts for several of his books.
Izis' first book was "Paris des Reves" (Paris of Dreams) in 1951. It's characteristic of much of the photography at the time, revelling in a sort of poetic realism that both sought to capture and distort the world.

His pictures are beguiling narratives, full of warmth and yet essentially voyeuristic. But much like his friend Chagall, there was a unique quality which helped set Izis' work apart from the many brilliant photographers of the time.
He produced a fascinating book of pictures from a visit to Israel in 1952-1954 which reveal the extremely mixed emotions of that country as it was effectively being created.

Izis also brought out a wonderfully evocative book of photographs that he collated from several visits to London during the 1950s.

Vilnius Picture Gallery
4 Didzioji Street, Vilnius
Open: Tue 's Sat: midday to
6 p.m., closed Mon
Until Jan. 14