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Robert Capa. Margaret Bourke-White. Alfred Eisenstaedt. Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Pioneering figures of the golden age of photojournalism whose names are familiar to anyone with even a tangential interest in the subject. Vancouver’s Yosef Wosk makes a convincing case that Tim Gidal deserves to be added to that pantheon.
Born in Munich in 1909 to Jewish-Russian parents who had fled the pogroms for the perceived safety of Germany, Nachum Narcys Ignaz Gidalewitsch started his career as a press photographer in 1929, just as new developments in portable camera design were revolutionizing visual storytelling.
Gidal went on to shoot for pioneering publications such as Picture Post and Life; later in his career he wrote the seminal Modern Photojournalism: Origins and Evolution, 1910-1933 and spent 16 years teaching “The History of Visual Communication from the Stone Age to the Television Era” at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
In spite of all that, Gidal is little known today. Wosk is on a mission to correct that. In 2020, he curated and wrote the preface to Memories of Jewish Poland, which offers a rare and precious glimpse at everyday Jewish life in prewar Europe through a series of photos Gidal took in 1932.
Last year, Douglas & McIntyre published Gidal: The Unusual Friendship of Yosef Wosk and Tim Gidal, edited by Alan Twigg.
In an interview with the Straight, Wosk recalls that his part of the story began in 1992-93, when he was on sabbatical in Jerusalem. He carried with him a picture clipped out of the pages of Hadassah Magazine and a diminishing hope of meeting the photographer whose camera had captured it.
The photo in question was Night of the Cabbalist, a striking image of a man reclining atop a low building with a domed roof, a full moon in the sky directly overhead. Gidal took the photo in 1935 at the Meron mausoleum of second-century rabbinic scholar Shimon Bar Yohai in what was then still known as Palestine.
“When I saw that photograph it was a visceral experience, as if I was looking at a photograph of myself taken decades before in a place that I knew,” Wosk relates. “I had spent time there, and it’s an incredible location dedicated to Jewish mysticism, and Tim was able to get that photograph at a very rare moment.”
Wosk explains that the man in the photo was a mystic on a quest for knowledge, and by sleeping on the tomb of the rabbi reputed to have authored the foundational Kabbalist text known as the Zohar, he was trying to get as close as possible to the source of inspiration.
“It’s just a physically and spiritually intimate photograph, and it just captured my imagination,” Wosk says. After a number of fruitless months of intermittently searching for Gidal, Wosk by chance spotted a poster on a lamppost, advertising a gallery exhibition of early 20th-century Israeli photography.
“I took the information, got in touch with the gallery, and the owner happened to know him,” he says. “She introduced me to him. We made an appointment and went to his house. It was interesting; she warned me before going over that he could be cantankerous, ‘So be careful.’ But he and I and his wife Pia, we hit it off pretty much immediately, and as we relaxed around one another, and I had a number of private visits to their home, we just connected as friends, even though there was a 40-year difference between us and he lived in a whole other universe that I could only read about in history books.”
Indeed, as documented in Gidal, both in words and in images, Gidal was blessed with the eye of an artist and had a Zelig-like (or Forrest Gump-like, if you prefer) knack for getting a front-row seat to world-altering historical events.
“He lived through the First World War, through the Second World War, through the Holocaust, through the re-establishment of the state of Israel, through the Cold War,” Wosk says. “He was an active participant as a photographer, as a historian, as an academic, as a collector, as a teacher. He was almost killed a number of times during the war, shot at by different forces as a frontline war photographer.”
Gidal also captured some of the most influential figures of the first half of the 20th century, including Mahatma Gandhi at the All-India Conference in 1940, Winston Churchill in a postwar appearance at London’s Albert Hall in 1948, and even a rare (and totally unauthorized) candid snap of Adolf Hitler at a Munich café in 1929.
As of this writing, Tim Gidal doesn’t even have an entry on Wikipedia. He does, however, have a lovingly crafted book with his name on the cover and his astonishing photographs inside. He also has a tireless champion in Wosk who, in 1996, wrote a letter to Gidal’s wife, Pia, upon learning of his friend’s death at the age of 87. That letter, reproduced in the book, reads in part:
“Nachum Tim Gidal knew how to look where others only glanced incomprehensibly. He knew how to see where others only gazed without genuinely embracing the encountered object or historical moment. As such, he became the eyes for those who knew not how to look; he became a conscience for those who did not take notice.”
As part of the JCC Jewish Book Festival, Yosef Wosk and Alan Twigg discuss Gidal: The Unusual Friendship of Yosef Wosk and Tim Gidal at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver on February 14. Register here for free admission.