Reprinted from The Large Format Journal fall 2006
Itineraries & Transitions
D.R. Cowles

Some artists develop one kind of picture that works and stick to it for the rest of their working life, essentially taking the same photograph repeatedly for decades--perhaps changing their camera, or changing from black and white to color or to digital. Others are incapable of taking the same photograph twice. Because of the expense and the organizational complexity of photography, photographers tend to acquire a system of cameras and stick to them for as long as possible; this system often defines the parameters of their work.

I see in my own work that I tend to slowly develop one form, and while I am still in the core part of this work, an offshoot occurs and I begin to develop a tributary form which will later either be discarded entirely, or supersede the first, or develop parallel to it and to any subsequent forms my work takes as it evolves over the years. I think of these changes in form as Itineraries, since they define the way in which I route the course of my day.

Between 1993 and 2000 I concentrated on a historical documentation: the architectural remnants of 2500 years of Jewish life in North Africa, specifically in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. Between 1948 and 2006 the population of 865,000 Jews living in Arab countries declined to less than 5,000. The work is historical because I was documenting one very small aspect of a much larger situation in flux, at a particular moment in time. It is documentary because I photographed things exactly as I found them at the moment of my arrival--literally, what was there to be seen when I opened the door. I minimized my own creative presence in the making of the pictures.

The work began with basic historical research: I studied maps that indicated Jewish communities and their sizes, mapped out various routes through the country in order to cover those places, applied for the appropriate permits for each route from the Ministries of Culture and Interior, and worked my way through them from beginning to end.

Typically, the largest communities continue to have some Jewish presence, but in others there was no one. Once there are no Jews remaining in an area, the cemeteries, the shrines and synagogues rapidly disappear; they fall to ruin, or are converted for other uses. The Islamic world is growing at an extraordinary pace with enormous energy and this growth threatens anything historic that is not anchored as a heritage site. It is the architecture of daily use which is most vulnerable to this growth.

(10631) Caraite

The next itinerary is to establish where a cemetery, a synagogue or a Jewish quarter might remain. Cemeteries were relatively easy to photograph, but getting into buildings where the last Jews left 20 or 30 years ago proved to be the most difficult part of the work.

In the countryside it was different. The Jews lived in small villages along the overland trade routes. Some places were very remote and none had Jews living in them any more. We would drive to a place, find an old man and ask: Are there any Jews here? and typically he would say, No, not in this village but I will take you to a Jewish village (or to another old man who had known the Jews.) When he would begin to sing the old Jewish songs with his Berber-accented Hebrew, we knew we had struck gold.

The old man, being of these people, would smooth things over with them. We were total strangers to them, and the image of Jews today is given to them by Al Jazeera, not by Jews they actually meet face to face as before. My translator would begin to warm things up, and eventually, we would be shown a door, or the fragments of a wall, or perhaps a room, or a synagogue--this is what remained physically of the Jews who lived in North Africa for more than 2000 years. It is no small thing when people who have lived in a region for this length of time suddenly leave en masse. The ramifications are so great that they are baffling, and this is the root of the work as a historical documentation. In the immediacy of our times we have very little perspective on the enormous changes to human culture that our times have seen, or the cost of the losses.

This itinerary, a cartological one, was very comfortable. One always knew what was next on the agenda, although what one actually found was often unexpected. At first I wanted to leave a testimony of documents, but later, I wanted the print itself to somehow stand in for the lost culture of these communities, the extraordinary culture of the Jews of North Africa and especially Morocco.

(10494) Tagadiert

Documentation will often yield things one could never imagine or create, and things that have a human weight and resonance that could never be contrived. For this reason, documentation, or drawing from life, is the foundation on which the visual arts is built. In painting, the early documentation is the mastering of drawing; it teaches the artist how to look. From learning to look, one learns to see in a muscular way. Modern media tend to bombard the viewer; one is less often given the chance to look or to see. This is the basis of the visual messaging in advertising, which by now has permeated the mainstream of art; it renders the viewer passive. For instance, these two tombs of saints: each has an entirely different story, each is such a different photograph, the Tagadiert so sharp and geometric, the Âit Yacoub so ancient and Biblical.

After proofing the work, and living with it for a while, it became clear to me that there were different classifications for valuing these pictures. Many do not rise above the level of strict documents: an image of a pile of rubble that is the remains of a synagogue, a rock-strewn field that was once a cemetery. The value of these prints is limited to scholars and those with some particular interest in this place.

(12114) El Fessaine

Others, however, transcended mere documents. They have an enduring presence. These pictures warrant being well printed, they are more sellable, and they hold up to having a story and some history woven around them.

The basic image size in my work is always 8x10 inches, since this is the size of the original negatives and since POP prints can only be contact printed. A whole new process opened up when I began to make enlarged negatives in order to have larger prints. There is an inherent beauty to a well-printed contact print of the original negative--it has a quality and sharpness that is pristine, intimate, and luminous as well. But from a presentation point of view, there is the drawback that an 8x10 print is viewed comfortably at a distance between 16 inches and three feet, so that one is obliged to come up close to them, much as with viewing an etching, in order to properly appreciate the print. An entire wall of 8x10 prints can become monotonous, since the standing distance from the work remains always the same. A second problem is that some images have such intense detail that it cannot be properly responded to unless the image is enlarged.

(10077) Tomb of Âit Yacoub

It is primarily for this second reason that I began to make larger prints--to take a negative with very condensed information in it and open it up so that the subject matter can be properly appreciated. My system of enlarging is to enlarge image according to what works best for the particular negative. I keep the image its original size unless something pushes me to enlarge to the next size, and I keep it at that size unless pushed again to make it larger. Because a larger print means making a new and enlarged negative with its own character, the contact print that is made from it often has a very different feel from the original 8x10 print. The image itself is the same, but its printing qualities have now changed. Enlarging the original negative often improves its printing quality by adding both density and contrast.

As soon as one begins to select key pieces to print as 'art,' one enters a whole new world, leaving the relatively rational world of documentary realities and entering into the much less rational world of 'art.'

(12991) Column #2, Attarine Mederssa

I only began to develop a sense of what the Jewish documentation was really about when I had already moved on into another large work. This move was imposed on me: the Second Intifada came, I could no longer obtain the necessary permits to photograph Jewish things, and so I began a work on the nature of Moroccan Islamic decorative arts, for which there was no problem obtaining permits and for which I could use my established contacts in Morocco. I could have moved on to other non-Islamic countries, but the inherent tension of the visual documentary work had played itself out. Moving on to other subjects in North Africa made sense: it produced a more cohesive story. I did not want simply to replay the old work in new places. There are only so many ways to photograph a synagogue, a room, a pile of stones or mound of rubble, an alleyway, as a document; there were constrictions to growth in this work, and I was grateful for a change. I wanted more lightness, something less burdened by the weight of history and loss and the inherent sadness of the remnant--something more playful, more surface and decorative, leaning towards the visually imaginative.

(12924) Painted Doorway

In the process of doing the synagogue work, I had seen things I would have liked to photograph, but could not spare the time or the film. I was especially struck by the complex incorporation of different materials into a unified aesthetic architectural whole, as found in the Islamic work of the 14th Century. I became fascinated by the artisanal trades and their connection to the spiritual side of Islam. For instance, the intricate carving of plaster into geometric patterns is not considered a tedious menial labor, as we would see it in the west, but rather, as a meditative and spiritual assertion of Islamic values--an aesthetic obedient to the injunction to make no graven images, so expressing itself in pure decorative forms. I began to realize that the artisanal arts are one of the extraordinary disciplines that humans have evolved: they are life-affirming to the mind and spirit. Technological change and the current world economy are erasing them from the face of civilization. The cultural forms which keep us connected to what is truly human are being torn apart, rendering us undeveloped servants to a technology which itself has no spiritual or cultural depth. The artisanal trades, like the high arts, fall casualty to this process.

(12980) Carving exercise

But it is the artisanal that trains the eyes much more than the high arts. I have always been amazed at how much more sophisticated the North Africans sense of design and beauty is than the American, for instance, where the artisanal trades have largely disappeared and the arts are now dominated by a cult of brute ugliness. We do not realize this, but the eyes are very sensitive, and just as listening to loud booming music will make you deaf, so being accosted by billboards and the psychological manipulations of advertising will degrade your eyes. The west, which has had a strong tradition of art, has lost its way in part because the artisanal trades have disappeared and in part because the spiritual dimension of daily life has been replaced by a corporate consumer dimension. In Morocco, that has no real history of art but a rich history in the artisanal trades, the artisanal is still intact, though imperiled by a government interested in foreign investment culture and tourism without buttressing its own heritage. Today, with tourism and the mass market, there is little incentive for the young to enter the artisanal trades, as older artisans are quitting and becoming wage workers or taxi drivers.

Interestingly, the more I interviewed artisans, the more I began to understand the very complex relationship that once existed between Jews, Berbers, and Arabs in North Africa. Two things came together during this phase of my work: I began to record artisans and ask questions, and at the same time, working on the Islamic work began to set the previous work that I had done in perspective.

(13822) Dar El Basha

At the start of the North Africa project I never intended for it to be anything other than a pile of documents to be contained in boxes in various archives. But when I began to realize that I had witnessed something very special, virtually the end of a world that had endured for two millennia, I felt a responsibility to tell a story and for this I would need to write a book. This was reinforced by those who told me I would never establish this work properly without a book behind it.

This opened up yet another itinerary. Rather than have famous scholars write dry essays, or rely entirely on academic texts, I decided to take advantage of the many people I had met while doing the work and return to interview them and write from primary sources. I went back and interviewed people and found out more about what the pictures I had taken actually represented. I may have photographed a building, but what did I know of the community that built it or the specifics of its decline? I began to spend a few hours of every day tracking down the old men, Jews, Berbers, Arabs, and asking questions, and then returning with more questions. So the itinerary was becoming increasingly layered, increasing weighted; while travelling similar routes in Morocco, I would interview old Jews about Jewish life and Muslims about Moroccan artisanal trades and arts, while also photographing. By the time I began the interviews on the Jewish work, I had already finished with the photographic part of it and moved on to photographing decorative things. About those, I had very specific questions: how does a people from such a barren desolate land produce such extraordinary beauty and richness of invention in its art?

(13009) Venus Pudique

Yet quite rapidly I felt the artisanal was not enough. I thought of expanding the work to include Morocco as a geographic entity--landscapes, prehistoric carvings, layers of history. But this lacked something as well. I began to feel increasingly claustrophobic. I felt increasingly a lack of substance in reference to my own culture.

One day after an exhausting morning's work in the crowded, noisy Medina of Rabat, I took the afternoon off and went to the archeological museum--a run-down, under funded museum filled with unexpected treasures. I noticed a small Venus pudique from the 4th century CE, missing its head and right arm but extraordinary in its sensibility. At this moment I felt so hungry for the figurative, as if I were starving, and here was this piece, so perfect, delicate, precise. I spent the afternoon photographing it, applying the same guiding principle that I had been using in my architectural work: namely, that there exists one exact position, height and angle, arrived at by specific camera placement and adjustments, that gives the best image to stand for all the multiple views we have of a place or building when walking around randomly looking.

Three Heads

The following year I returned to this museum for an entire day. I became fascinated by a large marble head of a woman, a caryatid, in whom I felt I saw heads similar to those made by Picasso at Boisgeloupe--a leap from the Greco-Roman up to the modern--not derivative, but building on the historic vocabulary of art. I spent six hours photographing this head, no longer using the model of my architectural work, but evolving a new principle: one of re-working the piece of art left us by this unknown artist of the 2nd century, using multiple angles to create my vision of it through twentieth-century eyes, with twentieth-century aesthetic hindsight. Eventually I took the five images that I had made of this head and mounted them side by side in a single large frame because I could not take away any single image from the group. At this point I began to realize that there were some things I would like to photograph that could not be contained in a single image.

(13525) Juba

There is a vitality and aliveness in many of the overlooked classical pieces from North Africa that one does not find in the Italian works of the same period. They contain aspects of an ancient sensibility, analogous to distinct words in the evolving vocabulary of the visual arts. The fragment is a jumping-off point, a stage in the recycling of images across the history of figurative representation. I saw that one could pick up where the earlier artist, working in antiquity and for quite different purposes, left off, and continue the vision onto a new plane, using a contemporary art form, that of photography, in this case. This work is not a documentation, rather it is taking an existing object of art, made in another world for very different purposes, and extending it into the dimensions that photography makes possible. Almost by chance I had embarked on a new itinerary.

The artisans of antiquity had a particular genius for expressing an energy that is at the core of life, a kind of animal aliveness that one sees in mosaics of animals but also in faces. This depiction of life force energy was lost in the transition from pagan to Christian iconography. Christianity downplayed the competitive in our nature and the vital energy of humans in favor of a more civilizing ideal of mutuality, portraying Christian themes rather than this innate and pagan life energy. Paganism had an interest in this kind of energy whereas it was what Christianity sought to curb. With the Antiquities work, I began to realize that warm toned prints would not convey the force required in these images and I began to extend the palette of gold toning, first to dark purple, then charcoal, then to black.

Salakta Lion

In Tunisia, I found a large and beautiful mosaic of a lion that covers the entire wall of a sleepy summer sea town museum. Immediately I felt this could not be conveyed as a single negative and so I spent the day photographing it broken down onto 8 negatives, later to be assembled into a large composite. The prints, pinned roughly onto a board, sat around my studio for a year--somehow the image did not work and could go no further. I felt it did not fit in with the antiquities work. But a breakthrough finally came this spring. I was toning a pile of old prints and some prints from the lion came up. I decided to brush the gold chloride onto the image rather than float it in a tray, and this began a technique where I would paint on different strengths of gold in order to have multiple tonings on the same print. When I found this technique I was suddenly interested in the composites again. The method of composite photographing and brush-toning fit together because there is a lot of creative license in this particular work, whereas it would be unsuitable for the earlier documentation work.

(14410) At Raphy's

(14496) Still Life #39

Periodically I would get stressed out with the problems of so much working in public areas. In the outskirts of Marrakech one day I found a pottery and just began to work in the back room. Taking yellowing fragments of old newspapers, cardboard cartons, and discarded pottery, and using some fruit as a jump off point, I began to construct still lifes and photograph them. Later, I would just put still lifes together with whatever I happened to have, wherever I happened to be. These were a kind of meditation on light and happenstance, and the beginning of yet another itinerary.

Later, in Montreal, I began to work in a spare room in a metal worker's studio, taking odd pieces of scrap metal and working with planes, shapes, light and shadow. These are purely photographic exercises, not painterly--using depth of field, the ability to adjust shape, techniques of exposure and development to create areas of strong blacks and white. They are a kind of architecture built out of light, darkness, sharpness and soft focus, assembled in planes--literally using these things as building blocks and split planes--but using entirely photographic qualities. Borrowing something of the artisanal aesthetic, they are inventive meditations with light and focus. When photographing architecture one must adapt to what has been constructed by others for purpose of use, but in the still lifes I am able to construct, myself, for purpose of exercise and play.

I have outlined a number of different trajectories that my work has taken over the past 15 years. None of these could be described as completely finished. They are ongoing, and this is taxing. I dream of finishing the book on Jewish North Africa and freeing my mind for other things, but relinquishing it is like casting off my own child to a stranger. At the same time, the antiquities work is beginning to show signs of being connected somehow to the Islamic work in ways I had not foreseen. And the still lifes are a continuum of their own.


Table of Contents | Brush-Toned Still Lifes | Jewish North Africa | Morocco | Vestiges of Rome | Re-Visioning Antiquites
Portfolios Index | Images of Jewish Morocco I '93 | Jewish Sites of Cairo and Alexandria '94
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