Photographer who digitized Dead Sea Scrolls completes new Kirk Douglas archive
Israeli photographer Ardon Bar-Hama worked with the Dead Sea Scrolls, and now he can add Spartacus to his repertoire. Bar-Hama has made a career out of digitizing rare historical documents – from ancient Israel to the Golden Age of Hollywood – and recently digitized 10,000 items related to Jewish-American cinematic icon Kirk Douglas.
He did the work for the Douglas Foundation, a philanthropic foundation founded by the star and his late wife Anne Douglas, who had been in her husband’s archive of personal material for years.
Now, it’s all online for anyone to access for free. It was released early last month, around the third anniversary of Kirk Douglas’ death at the age of 103 in 2020. Anne Douglas died 15 months later, at the age of 102, in 2021. It has received over 1 million views the photos since they were made available to the photos. public.
“It’s a beautiful archive,” Bar-Hama told The Times of Israel. “It’s 60 years of his legacy. What could be more beautiful in the history of movies than Kirk Douglas?”
The photos are organized into different categories that reflect the multidimensionality of Douglas’ long life. There are pictures from his more than 80 films, including his most famous film, “Spartacus”, directed by Stanley Kubrick and released in 1960, with a cast that included Tony Curtis, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons and Peter Ustinov mix. Some of Douglas’ films deal with Jewish and Israeli history, including “The Juggler,” the first full-length US feature filmed in the new country of Israel, in 1953; and “Cast a Giant Shadow,” which brought other cinematic legends to Israel, such as Yul Brynner, Frank Sinatra and John Wayne.
“We all watched that movie,” Bar-Hama said of “Cast a Giant Shadow.” “He tried to show the birth of Israel.”
With the Academy Awards this past Sunday, many photos from the Tinseltown archives feel particularly timely – shots of Kirk Douglas receiving an honorary Oscar in 1996, presented by his friend Steven Spielberg, who has his share of Oscar wins he has achieved over the years, including this year for “The Fabelmans,” which was nominated for seven Oscars but failed to win any. The two legends exchanged correspondence for years, with Spielberg calling Douglas his second father and Douglas signing his name in Hebrew, along with a caricature.
But Hollywood is only one part of the picture. The opening images show the future star growing up as Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, New York, alongside his Russian Jewish immigrant parents, Harry and Bryna, and his six sisters – Betty, Fritzi, Ida, Kay, Marion and Ruth. Later in life, Douglas named his performance company after his mother. By then, he felt confident enough to hire blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo for “Spartacus.”
Despite his liberal views, he was bipartisan in the company he kept. Viewers can see Douglas meeting Democratic and Republican presidents – Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Henry Kissinger, who advised both the Nixon and Ford administrations on foreign policy, appears in many images. Kissinger’s correspondence with Douglas over the years, like Spielberg’s, contained a Hebrew signature and a caricature of the Hollywood star in 2019.
On the world stage, Douglas met with world leaders, including numerous Israeli prime ministers including David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Pope John Paul II in 1989. I other photos, Kirk and Anne Douglas travel abroad as goodwill ambassadors for the United States, aided by the fact that Anne — who was born in Germany and fled the Third Reich — spoke five languages.
The couple married in 1954, a union that lasted 66 years. Photos show family time with children and grandchildren – including Kirk Douglas’ son from his first marriage Michael Douglas, who has become a movie star in his own right. There are also beautiful scenes from Kirk Douglas’s second bar mitzvah in 1999, which took place as he reconnected with his Jewish faith after a fatal helicopter crash eight years earlier. Michael Douglas also reconnected with Judaism and was awarded the Genesis Prize in 2015 in recognition of his contribution to race, work for the United Nations, and his love for Israel and his Jewish heritage.
The younger Douglas has had a busy schedule lately, with projects including “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and the AppleTV+ series “Franklin,” in which he plays the Founding Father. He also appeared on “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” promoting the archive and giving a shout out to Bar-Hama.
When Michael Douglas sought to create a photographic tribute to his father and stepmother, he contacted Bar-Hama, who has made a unique name for himself over the past 20 years. In a February 4 article, Deadline quoted Douglas as calling Bar-Hama “a remarkable Israeli photographer… who developed a technique and camera that allowed him to capture stunning high-resolution images of the most fragile artifacts.”
Bar-Hama has digitized the Dead Sea Scrolls in a 2011 collaboration between Google and the Israel Museum, along with the oldest Hebrew and Christian versions of the Bible in their complete forms — the Aleppo Codex in 2002 and the Codex Vaticanus in 2005, under instead. For the final project, he went to the private vault of the Vatican to do the work.
“You have to be perfect at what you do, how you hold the manuscript, process the image, to get the best and most accurate image made of the original,” said Bar-Hama. “As close as possible to the original to keep it intact for many years.”
In more recent vintage projects, Bar-Hama has digitized the archives of luminaries such as Sigmund Freud and Nelson Mandela, as well as the collection of the New York Philharmonic. Although Bar-Hama grew up admiring the photographic art of Ansel Adams, he modestly describes his own work as more technical. He does it with a Swiss-made Alpa camera, which incorporates UV light for digitization.
“Even Michael [Douglas] he said he couldn’t believe how fast I worked,” Bar-Hama said. “There was no need to remove a photo [from an album]put it on a scanner and wait forever.”
Michael Douglas met Bar-Hama thanks to their mutual friend George Blumenthal, a businessman who has known the star for 47 years and had a memorable cameo in one of Douglas’ most famous films, “Wall Street.” Over the past two decades, Blumenthal has worked with Bar-Hama on multiple projects, many of them related to preserving Jewish history.
“He’s the only person in the world, to my knowledge, who does what he does,” Blumenthal said, calling it “the digitization of photography” and crediting Bar-Hama as its inventor.
The “aha” moment occurred at the Ben-Zvi Institute in Israel when Blumenthal realized Bar-Hama’s ability to digitize a large number of artifacts in a short time — first, documents related to Sabbatai Zevi, a self-declared program from the 17th century. Jewish Messiah in the Ottoman Empire, and then the Aleppo Codex. From these successful efforts, the two moved on to other projects, including the visit to the Vatican, where Bar-Hama digitized the Vatican Codex.
In addition to Bar-Hama’s extensive portfolio, another factor worked in his favor, according to Kim Morey, administrator of the Douglas Foundation. Unlike US based companies who did digitizing work, Bar-Hama was willing to do it on site rather than having the materials sent to him.
“He was the perfect person to do the archive,” Morey said. “He had such respect and mastery of his craft.”
Bar-Hama flew out from Israel to Los Angeles, where the Douglas Archives is based. Arriving at LAX, he showed up at the archive’s headquarters in Beverly Hills, toting his equipment in a wheeled bag. He did the work at Kirk Douglas’ old desk, sifting through boxes of material Anne Douglas had collected over the years. Staying at an Airbnb, he worked long hours, turning down Morey’s offers for water breaks but accepting offers from nearby kosher restaurants.
Not only were photographs to be digitized, but also film posters, press clippings and even school yearbooks. These documents are also worth looking at: From the Douglas St University yearbook. Lawrence, we learn that Issur Danielovitch of Amsterdam, New York, was an unbeaten wrestling champion as well as a young actor.
Douglas turned to journalism in 1953, writing a newspaper article about his experiences filming “The Juggler” in Israel, including meeting Ben-Gurion; being welcomed by an Arab mukhtar, Ibrahim Abdul Abed, in the village of Tamra; and farewell to Tel Aviv, ending with the words “Peace be with you.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever get the kind of ovation I got when I closed my short notes with that fervent wish spoken in Hebrew last night in Tel Aviv,” Douglas wrote.