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Jewish Journal

Wagner’s Visual Symphony

by Michael Aushenker

November 4, 1999 | 7:00 pm

Israel is the ultimate survivor, having transcended centuries of Roman conquest, Arab rule, and British occupation to blossom into an advanced civilization and a formidable global power.

None of this has escaped the photographic eye of historian John Wagner. In the next few weeks, the British artist/author will tour North America promoting "Testaments of Israel: Words of Yesterday, Images of Today," a handsome coffee table edition he created in an attempt to bottle the spirit of the Land of Milk and Honey that has so nurtured him over the decades.

"Testaments" juxtaposes quotations from the Five Books of Moses with scenes of contemporary Israeli life. The images -- captured by Wagner and a group of renowned photographers -- are equal parts posed and candid shots. The obligatory scenes of boisterous Hassidic families, Jerusalem architecture, and military mise-en-scène are all present. But so are slices-of-life not readily associated with the Holy Land: rock concerts, white water rafters, paragliders. One print features a confrontation between Jordanian and Israeli soldiers with a twist -- they are not wielding weapons but saxophones, serenading each other as onlookers pass by.

Wagner, who has spent most of his adult life running companies, stumbled onto photography during his tenure as president of Victor Hasselblad Inc., a Swedish camera manufacturer. Based in New York throughout the 1980s, he fell under the spell of advertising photography and the influence of artist friends such as the late Andy Warhol. Once again a resident of his native London, the semi-retired 66-year-old finally caught up to the idea for his photographic essay on the former Palestine; an idea he had harbored for nearly two decades

"In 1982, I went out to Israel and I had this idea to link Biblical quotations with pictures," Wagner told the Journal. "My son said, 'Do you want to have a book of only your work or would you like to create a really wonderful outstanding book.' So I decided to open it up to other photographs."

Two years ago, Wagner embarked on his dream project. With two research assistants, he went on a tear throughout London, Paris, Tel Aviv and New York searching for the right images to include in his volume. They whittled down some 7,000 candidates down to the 73 prints that made the final publication (of those, Wagner's own work accounts for only four compositions).

"I could have a book ten times the size of what it is," says the author. "We always knew what we were looking for. What we tried to do is to create a balance... Every photograph had to stand on its own."

In March, 1999, Wagner's Photo Publishing Distribution released "Testaments" in London, where it has sold well, and the book made its American debut with a Sept. 15 launch at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. "We had quite a good turnout despite Hurricane Floyd," says Wagner.

Allied with the Israeli Embassy in London, Wagner recently mounted a full scale exhibition of prints from "Testament" at Worchester Cathedral. He is currently touring the United States supporting "Testaments", which includes a stop Nov. 7 at Sinai Temple in Westwood.

Wagner believes that the art aficionados and cultural anthropologists in all of us will find "Testaments" very relevant. He points to a subtext of his collection -- the tightrope walk between the civilization perched on the shoulders of antiquity and the hi-tech modern society that is today's State of Israel.

"In a way," concludes Wagner, "it's nicely timed for the millennium."

Photographs from "Testaments of Israel: Words of Yesterday, Images of Today" will be on display at Sinai Temple's Gallery Hallway through Nov. 21. John Wagner will conduct a presentation about his book at Sinai Temple's annual "People of the Book Breakfast" on Sun., Nov. 7 at 9:15 a.m. Sinai's Director of Library Services Rita Frischer and her husband, Library Computer Consultant Jerry Frischer, will also be honored. For more information/reservations, call (310) 474-1518, ext. 3217.

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