Yaakov Israel's The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey is a thoughtful meditation on the relationship between land and social history in his home country of Israel. Traveling by car and inspired by the American photo road trip, he assembled and collected these images from his chance meetings with the land and its people. While the background and context of this work is necessarily of a highly political nature, the path Israel follows is of a more mundane, personal, and poetically meditative tone, giving his images descriptive philosophical access to questions about land and history.
The backbone and strongest aspect of Yaakov's book is his keen eye for describing land in such a way that illuminates its relationship with human artifice and history, while at the same time preserving what is wild, untamed and suprahistorical about it. It is precisely this suprahistorical perspective which Israel captures beautifully.
In one of the opening images we see a place, primarily 'natural,' that is, only minimally populated with evidence of the human world. Sharply jutting into the bottom left of the frame is the termination of a wall, which sputters out into a flaccid wire, signaling the haphazard and exhausted border of some construction project. While elements of human building are indeed prominent, the overall content is not of industry, but desert land, barren and bleak, while holding the scattered remains of some aborted human endeavor. It sets the tone well for the images to follow.
The majority of the landscapes are sharply rendered, with depth of field reaching to the horizon. This meticulous level of detail is further enhanced by Israel's use of large-format cameras (mostly 8"x 10") and adds to the weight and stillness of the images. The viewer's eye is left to wander through these historically liminal spaces, seeing the depicted land saturated with enduring strength and at the same time made weary by human development.
Using the land as touchstone, Israel weaves in numerous portraits, adding to the poetic and meditative depth of this project. The portraits are technically quite different from his images of land. Compositionally, the majority of the images place the subject directly in the center of the frame, and using shallow depth of field, Israel abstracts them from their context. Mostly the subjects are directly engaging the camera, calmly and seriously. The neutral expressions and detachment from any immediate activity render the subjects as somehow out of step or disjointed; they seem to be waiting with some question in mind. The majority of Israel's portraits are of young people (I would venture between 25-40), and the juxtaposition between the land, weighed down by detail and focus, and the somewhat free-floating portraits of the current and future generation, suggests looking forward. The subjects stare expectantly at the lens, partially drawn out of their context by the photographer's technique, drawn out of the historical weight of the land. Their posture and expressions touch on the question of what is to come, the possibilities and responsibilities of an unknowable future.
Other narrative threads are woven into the portraits and landscapes, a handful of beautiful observations that point, perhaps, to a more personal significance for the photographer. The book is well sequenced; when you have lingered with a set of photographic themes long enough, an image that changes the direction in surprising and often interesting ways, even if all of the tangents do not feel well resolved.
Israel's most excellent images are the ones depicting how the land bears the weight of the historical presence of human history. His urban landscapes, and some of his portraits, lack the confidence and direction of his landscape images, but nevertheless, they provide an important element of contrast and depth through which to appreciate his strengths: seeing land as the intimate, troubling, and silent foundation of our culture and history.