Reprinted from The Large Format Journal fall 2006
Itineraries & Transitions
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.'
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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Jewish Sites of Cairo and Alexandria '94
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