Weaving photos, telling stories
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Weaving photos, telling stories

JCC exhibition features a new technique

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In this show, Rachel Banai’s photographs weave disparate pieces to create an emotional whole. Rachel Banai

Photographer Rachel Banai of Teaneck is no stranger to the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades. Indeed, her current exhibition, “The Man Is a Tree in a Field,” is her seventh show at the Tenafly center.

“My first exhibition at the JCC was in 1988,” Ms. Banai said, pointing out that this year marks the 25th anniversary of her artistic association with the facility. “I love showing my photos there,” she said. “When I was putting up my new exhibition, at least 50 people stopped to discuss it. Everyone came and asked about it.”

Ms. Banai, who grew up in Kibbutz Sarid in northern Israel, moved here in 1985, when she was 37.

“I decided late in life to take up photography as an occupation,” she said, noting that it was only after moving to Teaneck that she made that decision. Her first job after graduating from the International Center of Photography was working for the Jewish Standard.

“Rebecca” – Boroson, who was then the Standard’s editor – “called me, and I began my life as a photographer at the paper,” Ms. Banai said. The following year, she mounted her first exhibition at the JCC, featuring pictures of a local Chabad rabbi.

“A lot of my photos are of people,” she said, adding that she is also interested in varying her technique, “exploring different ways to work with the photos.”

For her 2001 exhibition, “Faces of China” – for which she did a good deal of research – she worked with Polaroid transfers, a technique she no longer uses. Her most recent exhibition features a new process, photo weaving, which she developed herself.

One of her favorite JCC shows, mounted in 1999, focused on chairs around the world.

“I feel like chairs represent culture,” Ms. Banai said. “In every country, they look the way people want them to look.”

Israel has figured large in her work. A 1996 exhibition featured a kibbutz date plantation; in 2008 she presented “Israel at 60,” looking at the country through the eyes of both kibbutz residents and Arab villagers.

“My exhibition now is totally different, yet similar in showing portraits, people, and communities,” she said. For this show, she has developed her new technique, which involves weaving two pictures together.

The pictures were all taken in Kibbutz Samar, showing residents, dunes, date plantations, and flowers.

“Israel is in my blood,” Ms. Banai said. “It is a part of me. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been living in the U.S. for 30 years. My photographic language goes back to my roots.

“It’s a very innovative show,” she added. “It requires going from picture to picture. You have to stop and think.”

“Others have used Photoshop to weave two photographs together, but nobody has done it manually,” Ms. Banai continued. “I do it by hand, using two pictures and cutting them, slicing them, and weaving them together into one another.” In selecting the two photos, “I try to have a person in the place he works, or belongs to, or something he likes, or show his background.”

While each photo is manipulated differently , “I leave the eyes untouched,” she said. “The eyes are the mirror of the soul. That’s how it works for me.”

One of her students wrote her a letter after viewing the exhibition, demonstrating that she recognized what Ms. Banai had done.

“One could not have possibly imagined a more stunning group of people captured by the artist,” the student wrote. “They were from all over the globe and of different backgrounds. They were young and not so young. They were males and females. They were teachers and carpenters. They had pale complexion and dark skin. Yet, there was something special about their faces, something that made them all look alike…. It took me a while to realize what it was. As I was going back and forth from one portrait to another, I was desperately trying to find the source of this remarkable resemblance. And then, suddenly, I knew it. It was their eyes. There was something in their eyes that unified them and made them all part of one trajectory.”

While Ms. Banai describes herself as “very much a people photographer,” she makes her living mostly by photographing nature, concentrating on Teaneck Creek.

After working for several years as a volunteer for the Puffin Foundation, she developed photography classes there “that are still going strong after 11 years. We have about 50 people in the two classes over the weekend.”

As part of that program, students get to exhibit their work at Puffin, and the organization’s annual calendar is made up of their artwork.

In 2011, Banai took some of her students to Israel. In two months, she will take a second group, who will visit not only kibbutzim but also Christian and Arab sites. Her aim, she said, is for them to see and understand more about the culture, particularly how Israel is “mixed as a country.”

Each week, before students photograph Teaneck Creek, Banai gives them an assignment. Later, they discuss what they have done and what might have been done differently.

“They come week after week and start to see things differently,” she said, noting that some students have been with her for 10 years. “It gives them an opportunity to move beyond their routine.”

Banai’s exhibit will be on display in the JCC’s Waltuch Gallery until November 26.

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