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Norton photography exhibit offers fresh angles on Israeli life

New photo display "This Place: Israel" goes beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A Jewish-Orthodox teenage girl peers at a necklace under candlelight at a military academy in Jerusalem. A baker unloads a tray of freshly baked challah into a stall at the Mahane Yehuda marketplace in Israel. Male recruits take turns strapping on tactical backpacks at a military academy near the Dead Sea. A daughter welcomes her father home in the West Bank city of Habron, a district rife with conflict.

Intimate, candid portraits of the lives, religions and political turmoil of Israelis and Palestinians unfold in some 360 postcard-size photographs hanging on 12 custom racks at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. For her photo project titled "This Is Where We Live," New York photographer Wendy Ewald turned over her digital cameras to middle-school kids and adults dwelling in 14 communities scattered across Israel and the West Bank.

Ewald didn't snap a single photo. Instead, local eyes were behind the cameras for these portraits, which appear as part of the Norton Museum's new group exhibit, "This Place: Israel Through Photography's Lens," which opens this week. Over two years, Ewald paid visits to diverse groups of Israeli society — a Gypsy sect in Jerusalem, Arab-Israeli middle-schoolers from Nazareth — and taught them basic photography. Then, she gave them an invitation: Take portraits of your lives.

"People from those communities can understand better than the outside world what are the most important things to photograph," Ewald says in a video interview at the Norton Museum. "Their ideas on design and intimacy are all wrapped up in how they grew up."

Ewald is one of 12 photographers "This Place" curator and French photographer Frederic Brenner set loose on Israel and Jerusalem from 2009 to 2012, in an experiment to forge what he calls a "fragmented portrait, an essay on the human condition." Brenner handpicked and interviewed high-profile photographers with almost zero experience working in Israel, including Canada's Jeff Wall and New York's Rosalind Fox Solomon and Stephen Shore, who all seemed intrigued — and perhaps leery — about poking their lens around a conflict zone.

Calling Ewald's images "a microcosm of what the project is about," Brenner compares the resulting show to the sweeping portraits taken by Depression-era photographers. He says Israel is too often framed as "victim and perpetrator" in media headlines, but not enough attention is paid to "the richness of the country because of its people."

"When people hear 'Israel,' they hear 'conflict and propaganda,'" says Brenner, who also took photos in Israel. "I dared the other photographers not to understand the fabric of Israel so they could start asking their own complex questions."

In 48 aerial photographs taken from Fazal Sheikh's series "Desert Bloom," Israel's Negev desert landscape is shown scarred and pockmarked, with makeshift military embankments carved into the surface. The area, which a nearby info card calls a "live-fire zone," was built for military training.

Taking a different angle is Martin Kollar, whose "Field Trip" series of 15 bizarre images are drawn from visits to scientific research facilities around Tel Aviv. Photos show metal medical tubes protruding from the face of a young woman; a deserted military installation with a black tire standing upright on an oil drum; and a goat with a gaping red hole hollowed into its stomach.

Tim Wride, the Norton Museum's photography curator, says Kollar's spare portraits are meant to seem unsettling.

"You read these images left to right, and it looks like a whole sentence being diagrammed," Wride says. "You start with looking at these odd stage sets, and then it ends with a scientific procedure on a goat. He wants you to feel something for this culture, a sense of unease, a sense of things not being resolved."

"This Place: Israel Through Photography's Lens" is on view Thursday, Oct. 15 through Jan. 17, 2016, at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., in West Palm Beach. A separate Israeli film series will feature screenings during the museum's Art After Dark gatherings on Oct. 22, Nov. 22, Dec. 3 and Jan. 14. Admission costs $5-$12. Call 561-832-5196 or go to Norton.org

pvalys@sun-sentinel.com or Twitter @philvalys

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