Matrix No. 52 Spring 1998
The Ghost in the Frame Photographs by D. R. Cowles
by Terence Byrnes
In 1993, Montreal photographer D.R. Cowles travelled to North Africa to document the disappearing Jewish presence in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. The Jewish communities were emigrating to Israel, western Europe and North America, sometimes abandoning their centuries-old towns and districts as a group. The architectural heritage they left behind--stores, synagogues and homes--was sometimes put to other uses and sometimes ignored. In some locations the mud brick the buildings were constructed with began to melt and, in time, they will have literally disappeared.
Cowles threaded his way through North African bureaucratic mazes to obtain permission to photograph, but was still held to a tight--sometimes government-mandated--shooting schedule. Adding to the difficulty of photographing in terrible heat (to 55º C), among people whose culture regards uninvited photographers as intrusive (a feeling Cowles shares) was Cowles' choice of equipment. He uses an 8" x 10" view camera, mounted on a tripod, with a film that requires a typical exposure of 20 minutes in the dark interiors where he often works.
The tight schedule and extremely difficult working conditions often find Cowles setting up his camera and opening the shutter before he even takes a light reading. Then, wearing a dark coat so as not to have his image caught on the film, he scrubs down the scene he's photographing while the exposure is being made.
Curiously, Cowles disavows working from a visual aesthetic, saying that he merely photographs "what catches my eye" and that his goals have been primarily documentary. Despite the disavowal, he knows he doesn't want to achieve what he regards as the "overdramatization" of American landscape photography. He also avoids the nineteenth century style of representing these sites as singular and whole; he wants instead to present them in the context of their present and historical uses.
Cowles' prints are entirely singular, though. He uses a nineteenth century style of printing which results in very long-scale images on printing-out-paper. Each of these prints has a distinct colour (slightly purple) and represents the tonal scale in a slightly different way.
Cowles regards his photography of North African Jewish sites as complete. His next project will involve landscape photography in the Middle East and North Africa.
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Portfolios Index | Images of Jewish Morocco I '93 |
Jewish Sites of Cairo and Alexandria '94
Images of Jewish Morocco II '95 | Tunisia '97 | About the Jewish North African Portfolios
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