Maisonneuve Magazine, September 2002.
Photo Gallery: Jewish North Africa
by George Sellers and Derek Webster

This is the full, unabridged transcript of a live interview conducted by Maisonneuve on July 7, 2002. Different cuts and edits of this material appeared in Maisonneuve (print version) and Maisonneuve Online, but the full transcript appears only here.

Azemmour Mellah, Azemmour, Morocco 1995.
Since the Second World War, spurred by political tensions, entire Jewish communities in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco - some with roots going back to antiquity - have emigrated to Israel or elsewhere. Morocco's 1950 Jewish population of 300,000, for example, has dwindled to some 3,500 today. Virtually no Jews remain in Algeria and Egypt.

For the past 10 years, D. R.Cowles (pronounced Coles) has been photographing historic architecture and cultural remnants in North Africa. Jewish sites have been his primary focus, though he has also photographed Roman ruins, historic, Islamic architecture, and traditional Moroccan architecture in landscape.

This July, the recently established Jewish Museum of Casablanca - the only Jewish museum in the Islamic world - formally opened its doors to the public with a major exhibition of Cowles' work. To help support the voice of multiculturalism, Cowles gifted the prints to the museum's permanent collection.The exhibit will be on view until July 2003. A travelling exhibition is also being planned by the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography.

Cowles spoke with editors Derek Webster and George Sellers earlier this summer.

Maisonneuve: What are your technical specifications? Why did you choose them for these photographs and what do you think this enhances in your images? Why not 35 mm?

DRC: When I first started photgraphing at 13 or 14, I used 35 mm... in the 80s I moved to 5 x 7. It's a big negative but not big enough that you can get away without enlarging it, at least not for a sellable print. The 5 x 7 negative gave me a lot of detail, it was very sharp and I could enlarge it if I wanted... The problem was that having started photographing so young, I developed an allergy to chemicals. So, I had to figure out a way to limit my darkroom time. That's what brought me to 8 by 10 contact printing on printing out paper. You expose the print outside the darkroom--either in direct sunlight or on machines with high UV lamps. And then you process them in a very simple system by toning, fixing, and washing. So this wasn't originally an aesthetic decision.

Maisonneuve: Is this system better for the kind of work you do than the usual developing processes?

DRC: It gives the most luminous and detailed kind of print you can make. It's an intimate kind of print. It's the highest quality print you can make. But when I started my North Africa work in 1993. I wasn't thinking "American large-format aesthetic tradition" - what Ansel Adams sums up for most people. I was thinking: make the document and get on to the next one while the going is good. I covered a lot of ground in a day. It was only later that I really developed my system of working and later still that I started to think in aesthetic terms- after I came back from my first trip and started printing the first portfolio. While I was there taking the pictures it was only- do I have the feeling in my head that this is a good picture- is this is what I want? Does it talk to me or not?

Cemetery at Iril Noro, Tallouine, Morocco 1995.
Maisonneuve: Why did you go to North Africa to photograph synagogues?

DRC: It began with my university studies in European and Jewish history. I was a library bug so I would nose through a lot of different books in the stacks and I became very interested in Jewish communities in North Africa who fled or were expelled from their countries after the establishment of the state of Israel- something nobody really talks about because it was eclipsed by the much greater historical disaster that befell the Jewish communities in Europe.

Maisonneuve: People may not have seen that migration as a problem but as sort of an historical inevitability.

DRC: Well, it's true there has been an ongoing process of voluntary migration from those countries as their communities diminished. But once Israel proclaimed itself a state in 1948, many Jews had to leave Arab lands because of the enormous rise in popular hostility against them. And many communities left with nothing, because they weren't allowed to take their possessions with them... Anyway, I became interested in this exodus. Remaining Jewish sites in Europe had already been widely documented but very little attention had been paid to North Africa and some of these communities were 2,000 years old. People had left and the evidence of ancient communities was disappearing at an extraordinary rate. In fact, I started very very late in the day to photograph them. I felt privileged to have been able to photograph the things that I was able to, and a lot of what I photographed has since disappeared.

Carving Exercise, Bou Inania Merdersa, Fes, Morocco 2000.
Maisonneuve: What years did you do it?

DRC: From 1993 and I finished by about 1998-9.

Maisonneuve: Several trips?

DRC: Several to Morocco, one to Egypt, one to Tunisia. In those years there was a window of opportunity and I see very clearly looking back, that I sensed this. I felt: these places have to be photographed before they disappear, but I didn't fully realize this was a historic moment when you could still go to these Arab countries and get a permit to photograph Jewish sites. Even then it took me 3 years to get a permit to do this work in Tunisia. And, after the 2nd Intifada began in September 2000, the window of opportunity just closed. ...and I don't see that changing in the next decade. It was a historic moment when you could work that way and those countries would actually extend help for you to work and it's finished- it's over.

Maisonneuve: Go now or don't go at all.

DRC: That's right. And in fact, I applied for funding- I applied for grants to do this work and was refused- and I realized that if I let myself be dependent on grant deadlines and bureaucracy, I might lose my moment... that the sites would be gone. So I didn't wait. This is something photography is very good at... it documents what is real and present at a moment that will then disappear, and its strength is in the preservation of that... So in fact what I am doing is in a way the opposite of Ansel Adams, who photographed things as if they were outside of time, who photographed the monumental. I photograph a moment--the moment as monument. This separates me entirely from the American tradition of large format photography.

Cemetery, Shrine, Rabbi Amram Ben Diwan,
Quazzane, Morocco 1995.
When I went to North Africa my aim wasn't to make aesthetic documents, it was simply to document whatever I could as fast as possible. Aesthetically I had very little choice. We would show up in a little town, hunt down the woman or the old man with the keys to the synagogue (or the shrine) and maybe we had a half an hour or an hour to photograph it and then we had to leave, either because of our own time constraints or those of the people who opened the doors for us. Sometimes we had to keep people talking in order to have time to photograph. I had to learn to work very quickly with a cumbersome and slow medium--there was no moment in which to meditate the aesthetics of the image. I worked by intuition.

Maisonneuve: That strikes me as very surprising because the images have an Ansel Adams "studied" quality to them- a stillness- they don't feel planned- but they do feel timeless.

DRC: I think what you're referring to is a quality of inevitability. And this is what I mean by working from intuition. The way my Moroccan guide describes it, he says it's like I have a bell in my head, if the bell rings, I can take a picture, if not, it's not worth the labour of setting up my equipment, so we move on. When I come into a building or a site, invariably what I do is set up what I call a master shot- it merely describes the physical space. While it's going- maybe the exposure is 5 minutes- I walk around to get to know the place, and then take my 2nd setup. By that time I have my exposure, I know where I want the camera to be, the technical problems have been figured out. Almost invariably my 2nd is the best shot. But, I do not meditate the picture- it's very, very quick when I take it. What takes the time is the exposure, if it's dark, because I use natural light only.

Bet Ha-Knesset El Fessaine, Fes, Morocco 1999.
Maisonneuve: What role do you see documentary realism--if that is what you would call your kind of work-- as playing in the art of photography?

DRC: Unlike the pure arts (painting, music, literature, poetry)- where the subject is born in one's mind, in photography the subject is actual and is immediately in front of you at that moment- separate from you. You can't make it up. I think now with digital- it's becoming a different thing but this is what it was in the days of classical photography, which is the tradition I work in. Photography as we used to know it is over.

Maisonneuve: Haven't people been altering photographs almost right from the beginning?

DRC: Sure. But it isn't the core. The power of a photograph over us is ultimately rooted in the same emotional relationship we have to a snapshot. The artistic aspect builds from that bottom line. It's an emotional connection with time that you do not have, for instance, in music. The melancholy force of a photograph is that it reminds us of our mortality at some level. If we take a picture of our kids when they are 5 and we look at it when they're twenty- that movement and its effect on our mind is what's the key- the core of what I call classical photography- what we're now in a process of losing to digital technology which manipulates everything.

Maisonneuve: I see what you're saying.

DRC: Kind of central to it- the passing of time and our vulnerability to time. I guess I think that what I would call the classical arts- painting and sculpture- have become lost- have lost their clear path. Photography, for a period, had a very clear path when painting no longer did. Do you know what I'm saying? It had a kind of mandate.

Maisonneuve: It had an unexplored continent- just to walk in to, in a sense.

Saint's Shrine at Tagadiert, Morocco 1993.
DRC: Yes, the first photographers looked at the world with absolute awe- they were in awe of photography as a form and that awe translated itself into their work and gave it a direction. But photography is an industrial art form- it's changed now- it's gone. It is itself a moment in the history of art- it is passing- it is passed. I think there will probably always be people who putter with alternative photographic processes. But the fundamental... you know, the basis of that is finished- that's what I mean.

Here is an example. The materials I use- everything except my paper- is off the market. In 1994 the negative I use, which is a very contrasty graphic arts negative that I need for the paper I print on, was taken off the market by Eastman Kodak, and I had to buy up the remainder of the roll. Otherwise at the very beginning of my documentation I would have lost the materials on which I depended to complete it. Six months later the company making the paper, Guilminot in France, went into receivership and I had to buy up a freezer full of that paper also to ensure I could finish this project. Last year Agfa decided to discontinue the negative I use to replace the Kodak negative-- which had very different characteristics but which I was able to work with. So this year I had to buy up the entire last cut of Agfa's production of this film. The line of machines that manufactures that film is being torn out of the building and that film will never be made again. It's finished. So I'm staying one step ahead of the dog biting at my heels. The digital dog. Not only are the sites disappearing, not only is the window of opportunity closing, but the very medium in which I am working is being discontinued.

Maisonneuve: There seems to be a metaphoric relationship between "Carving Exercise" and your technique: learning to see detail, work in patterns, and create depth where there were only two dimensions...

DRC: When I photographed the "Carving Exercise" I was at a medersa which is an Islamic religious school, built in the 1300s. I found this plaster carving exercise fastened to the wall and it captivated me because it detailed the process, step by step, of how that kind of 14th century carving in plaster was done. I like to photograph layers of things... the layers in a single image- it shows a process but it's not filmic- it's photographic because it's still.

Maisonneuve: Yes, and it captures the idea of that movement and progress.

The Etz Haïm, Ghamrah, Cairo, Egypt 1994.
DRC: That's right. For instance, in pictures I did in Egypt I made them so that you could see in the layers exposed by the decay of the building the distinct stages in the construction of that building. It's not because I'm romantically inclined towards buildings falling down. I show how a building is crumbling because this unveils the under-faces of its construction, it tells you the entire story of the building.

Maisonneuve: Well, there's such an incredible capturing of detail in so many of your photos, it seems to be a part of your basic definition of what a photograph is.

DRC: I love detail. I don't know why. That's my personal need- detail.

Maisonneuve: Other photographers want movement.

DRC: Like Cartier-Bresson. He's an absolutely wonderful photographer but he works in a very different way- it's a completely different kind of work but it's absolutely true to photography, what he's doing.

Maisonneuve: Do you alter anything in a photo? How much effect did you directly have upon these images?

DRC: I change nothing. I consider the moment of making a photograph as one of historic revelation and beyond my judgement or comprehension. So, when I walk into a building- exactly what I see is what I believe I should be photographing. I don't move things around. If I move things around I will move the historical evidence of the moment. Even if it's garbage- as long as it is not something that presents a problem- I leave the garbage there. That said, if there is a white plastic bag in the middle of the picture- and that's what you're going to see because the film will go right for the white- well, I will move the white plastic bag.

Maisonneuve: That seems an aesthetic consideration a little bit- a technical consideration more than anything else.

DRC: Some people make setups of things and I would never do that. If you start orchestrating it and moving things around- you've dispelled the real moment- it's become like stage props. It's become artificial for me... When I studied film at NYU, I was deeply influenced by something Roberto Rosselini told us, that the medium of the dramatic film no longer worked for him because he felt now a great urgency to describe the world exactly as it is, almost scientifically, rather than to dramatize it. He awoke in me a great interest to study history and philosophy. Rosellini's statement served as my guiding principle for this work: to see what was really there and to record it just as it was, without dramatizing or striving for effect.

Maisonneuve: Do you see your photographs as having a purpose that lies beyond mere beauty?

DRC: I never photographed anything for beauty's sake. There has to be a reason to photograph it. Art for me is very closely connected with the spiritual- art dies in a non-spiritual society... Today you have a highly secularized society in the west and art has become very sterile. I mean, it's become, like, the cult of shocking- the cult of the ugly, and it's lost its way. One of the things that has been lost in art is the concept of borders. In the West we are bombarded with images that purposefully target our own mental space, our spiritual space. People are always trying to infiltrate it in order to convince you to buy a product. And that system of values is now completely entrenched in the art world- which is to violate people's borders to get their attention- and that is considered good art, or serious art.

Maisonneuve: I see, the process of being shocked- feeling violated is then turned almost into a measure of quality of what the art is.

DRC: And I don't accept that. I don't believe that's the way for art to go. I think art is based on something much more substantial... Serious art- it's like good music- you can go back to it, every time you look at it- it has a different face- it has a, what I would call, a mysterious dialogue with you. It's the dialogue that you're able to have with, I don't know- Anna Karenina- you don't read Anna Karenina again and again because it's shocking- do you see what I'm saying?

Maisonneuve: I'm thinking that shocking people or getting their attention is sometimes used by serious artists as a way to get them to engage in a dilemma or issue or ethical/moral contradiction...

DRC: I don't think that's the business of art though. I don't think it's political. Art has its own realm.

Maisonneuve: There is a social aspect to it though. To take it back to your own work...some viewers looking at these images will say, "These are important sites- it's been brought to my attention that they are beautiful- and there may be something worth protecting there."

Moussa Dar'i, Abassieh, Cairo, Egypt 1994.
DRC: I don't think you can protect these places though. That wasn't the point when I photographed them ... how can you protect them in a destabilized world, and where the communities have themselves disappeared from those places. When I photographed them it wasn't because I found them beautiful but because I wanted to note them. But there were times when I felt a high energy in a picture- like with the Karaite synagogue- there's something in those places- There's a meaning to these pictures that is beyond my understanding. I'm not sure what it is. Like, I don't find the Karaite synagogue an attractive building - but something moved me there- it might be the way Mr. K was when I went in there, the old Karaite Jews who let me in, one of the last Karaites left in Cairo, whose health was failing- he seemed to me to embody the Jewish community with his presence- the shards that were left in Egypt and the dust on the floor- that heavy dust.

Maisonneuve: He's almost an icon himself.

DRC: Yes. I actually took a picture of him in that chair, sitting reading the newspaper... I know art can discuss social issues but I don't think they're central. I think the central issues are human issues- which are a different thing. There's an idea, a misconception in modern art that I think started with Surrealist art- they've gone down a path...but where is it going? Painting's going to have to go back before it goes forward. I think that's true about all the arts in Western society.... I think we're in a period of de-civilization, and modern art is in the forefront of that along with the whole capitalist movement to use images to sell products to people.

The eyes are like any other organ, if you abuse and violate them they will lose their sensitivity and refinement and their ability to take pleasure in what they see. Images are very, very powerful and when we are accosted by them everywhere we go... Like any kind of violation, it numbs us as people. If art is to last- it will last through different historic periods, and it will last because we find it in some way essential to maintaining ourselves as civilized people.

Copyright D. R. Cowles         Articles

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