Table of Contents

Brush-Toned Still Lifes

Jewish North Africa


Vestiges of Rome

Re-Visioning Antiquites

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

About the Prints

About the Artist



Order Prints

Contact Us


Wash Basin, Elyahu HaNovi Synagogue PAST CONTINUOUS:

September 4-October 21, 2009

Milton J. Weill Art Gallery
92nd Street Y
1395 Lexington Avenue
New York, N.Y.

Revitalizing a century-old photographic process, D. R. Cowles has spent the last fifteen years on an artistic journey that began with his documentation of remaining Jewish sites in North Africa, as well as decorative traditions in Islamic architecture. He then moved to the figurative, reinterpreting Roman art antiquities found in small museums of the Arab world; and from there to the semi-abstract, in still life meditations that explore an "architecture of light". The exhibition concludes with examples of Cowles' current large photographic composites. Human history, art history, and the history of photography come together in this body of work that discovers a spectrum of hidden colours in black and white.

Image: Wash Basin, Elyahu HaNovi Synagogue, Alexandria (Egypt, 1994) by D. R. Cowles

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Introduction     Wall Text     Further Reading

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1. JEWISH SITES OF NORTH AFRICA: A Historical Documentation

I minimized my own creative presence in the making of these pictures. I photographed things exactly as I found them-whatever was there when I opened the door... In documenting the end of 2,000 years of Jewish communities in Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt, I touched on the nature of our current age, when more people have been set adrift from their traditional communities than at any other time in human history. As such, I have made a document of the present.

Sukkah, Etz HaÔm Synagogue 01: Sukkah, Etz Haïm Synagogue Cairo, Egypt 1994

Unused since 1967, the Etz Haïm Synagogue was built in Cairo by Italian Jews. This is a view across the garden courtyard to the arched bower structure of the Sukkah. The courtyard is now a chicken run, and I had to chase off the chickens so that they would not appear as distracting blurs in the photograph.

Wash Basin, Elyahu HaNovi Synagogue 02: Wash Basin, Elyahu HaNovi Synagogue Alexandria, Egypt 1994

The Elyahu HaNovi is a complex of Jewish community offices, a school which is no longer used, and a large synagogue built in the 19th century, though parts of it predate Napoleon's campaign in Egypt. It is a tradition to wash the hands before praying; synagogues normally provide a place to do this, near or just inside the entrance.

The Synagogue Etz Haïm 03: The Synagogue Etz Haïm Cairo, Egypt 1994

Under the British Mandate, the key cities of Egypt were a melting pot of Jewish communities from the Levant as well as from Europe. They prospered and built synagogues like this one in the well-to-do suburbs of Cairo. The Etz Haïm or Temple Hanan was built in 1900 and last used in 1967. When I arrived, the building was shuttered and it was too dark inside to photograph. I paid to have the shutters opened and the dust-caked windows washed.

Keter Torah 04: Keter Torah Bet Ha-Knesset Assayag, Tanger,
Morocco 2002

Tanger is the bridge from North Africa to the Iberian coast and Europe. The Jews here speak with a Spanish accent. The dwindling community dates from the 1740s. European influence can be seen in this synagogue built around 1840, especially in the theatrical painted canvas with wooden crown and tablets that hangs above the ark. I made the photograph holding an umbrella over the camera to keep off the rain dripping from the ceiling.

Ark, Rabbi Y'hoshua Berdugo Synagogue 05 : Ark, Rabbi Y'hoshua Berdugo Synagogue Meknes, Morocco 1993

Amid stray cats and piles of debris, broken tile, plaster and earth, the ark of this abandoned synagogue in Meknes glowed with a transcendent purity and dignity. The Torah scrolls had long been removed, along with the silver ritual objects, memorial lamps, and embroideries. Built in 1927, the synagogue was last used in the 1960s. Three or four years after I made this picture, the unmaintained building collapsed in winter rains.

Mellah 06: Mellah Azemmour, Morocco 1995

A mellah was a special walled and gated quarter for the Jews of Morocco. It could be closed off to make a self-contained domain on the Sabbath and festivals. As communities grew, the mellahs became overcrowded and were often impoverished. They became a form of containment, restricting the growth of communities, but they also preserved a Jewish way of life. Today, the cemetery in Azemmour is untended. Only parts of the mellah have been occupied, and much of it is falling to ruin.

Shrine of Rabbi Amrane Bendiwane 07: Shrine of Rabbi Amrane Bendiwane Ouazzane, Morocco 1995

No one today knows why the stones are arranged in a fanned-out circle around this tree by the shrine to the Rabbi, who was renowned for working miracles and for his mystical knowledge. Since his death in 1782, his gravesite has also been associated with miraculous happenings. It is the site of the largest of thirteen pilgrimages in Morocco, where Jews gather at the graves of famous rabbis and healers on their yahrtzeits or on certain festivals.

Tomb of Rabbi AÔt Yacoub 08: Tomb of Rabbi Aït Yacoub Ouarzazate, Morocco 1993

The tomb of AÔt Yacoub has for centuries been associated with cures for physical and mental ailments. When Jews lived in the local village, they would come to the shrine twice a week to light candles and pray, often inviting their Berber neighbours to join them. My guide and I spoke with an old woman who remembered the last seven Jews who lived in the village. When the Jews left in the 1950s, they told the Berbers that if they would maintain the tomb and continue the tradition of pilgrimage, the rabbi would bless their lives. Since then, the Berbers regularly visit and care for the shrine and what was a Jewish holy place has now become a Muslim one.

Saint's Shrine 09: Saint's Shrine Tagadiert, Morocco 1993

I photographed this shrine after a seemingly endless drive through barren terrain bordered by a bleak, spined escarpment. We were told of this route by the rabbi of Inezgane. No synagogues remain, only a cemetery and this tomb.

Jewish Cemetery 10: Jewish Cemetery Tetuan, Morocco 2003

In Morocco, the tradition of solid stone carving with stylized quasi-figurative motifs is associated with the Sephardic Jews who arrived as refugees following their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Gravestones like these can be found in the coastal towns of the Mediterranean and Atlantic.

Bet Ha-Knesset El Fessaine 11: Bet Ha-Knesset El Fessaine Fes, Morocco 1999

Built in the 1640s, this was one of the major synagogues of the Fes mellah. Now Muslim-owned, it functions as a sports center. The Jews have left. Their house of study is now an arena for the physical, in an age that glorifies culture of the body over the life of learning. The bimah, where the Torah was once read, has become a boxing ring. It brings to mind Israel's struggle with the angel... the bimah is where Jews have wrestled with the word of God for millennia.

Moussa Dar'i 12: Moussa Dar'i Synagogue Abbasiya Quarter, Cairo, Egypt 1994

This is the main synagogue of the Caraite Jews, built between 1925 and 1933 in one of the new Europeanized suburbs of Cairo. Dust lay thick on the bare floors. Small birds had flown in through broken windows. The chair in the picture came from the office upstairs. The keeper, one of the last remaining Caraite Jews in Egypt, sat in it and read his newspaper while I worked.


The carving and painting of plaster, wood, and tile in intricate geometric patterns is not considered a tedious menial labour, as we would see it in the west, but rather, 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. Technological change and the current world economy are erasing them from the face of civilization.

Column #1, Attarine Medersa 15: Column #1, Attarine Medersa Fes, Morocco 2000

In Morocco, the first medersas (Islamic houses of study) were built in Fes under the Marinids (1196-1549). This column is carved marble, rising to hold arches of carved plaster and cedar. The walls behind are tile, in geometric patterns at the base, rising to script etched in the surface of black glaze. Above this, another layer of script is carved out of white plaster. The interplay between the materials shows an aesthetic genius that only a civilization of artisans could support.

Carving Exercise, Bou Inania Medersa 16: Carving Exercise, Bou Inania Medersa Fes, Morocco 2000

Built between 1350 and 1355, the medersa was just beginning to be restored when I came, and this detail of a carving sample was leaning against the wall. The carvers are often itinerant, like the artisans who built the cathedrals of Europe. The tools are rudimentary: a compass, a carving tool similar to a sharpened screwdriver. Coal ashes from the brazier used to make tea are daubed through a stencil, transferring a charcoal pattern of the design onto the soft white plaster, which is then carved out.

Cupola, Tinmal Mosque 17: Cupola, Tinmal Mosque Tinmal, Morocco 2002

Now a walled ruin, this is the earliest mosque in Morocco, built in 1153-1154 by the Almohads. (This was an ascetic movement which spread up through Morocco to the Maghreb and into Spain.) While the style of their architecture was austere and simple, the carving of the cupola ceiling has an extraordinary beauty and delicacy.

Glaoui Kasbah Window # 2 18: Glaoui Kasbah Window # 2 Telouet, Morocco 1999

While not old, the upper hall in this unfinished palace in the Atlas Mountains is a masterpiece of Moroccan artisanal work. The Glaoui was an Atlas tribe that facilitated the unification of the country under the French. Construction on the the palace stopped the moment news arrived of the return of the Sultan to Morocco, ending the Glaoui reign of power. Since 1955 the palace has been left to slow ruin. Today the roof is leaking and the ornate wood ceilings are buckling.

Dar El Basha #1 19: Dar El Basha #1 Marrakech, Morocco 2003

This was the residence of the Basha Glaoui in Marrakech. It has recently been transformed into a museum. The building was run down when I made this picture in a corner of the inner courtyard. I wanted the image to contain the elements of symmetry, the sense of proportion and balance, that the place itself embodies.

Painted Doorway, Dar El Baroud #1 20: Painted Doorway, Dar El Baroud #1 Taroudannt, Morocco 2000

A small doorway opens onto an entranceway which opens in turn onto an inner courtyard. The image captures a series of juxtaposed planes exquisitely decorated: dark woodwork, intensively painted, contrasting with the pale-tiled floors. None of this is accidental; all is carefully configured to delight the eye.

Glaoui Kasbah Hall #2 21: Glaoui Kasbah Hall #2 Telouet, Morocco 2007

[See 18]

III. RE-VISIONING ANTIQUITIES: A New Work of Art from an Old One

In the vitality of some of these overlooked classical pieces from North Africa, I found 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 an earlier artist-working in antiquity and for quite different purposes-left off, and continue the vision onto a contemporary plane. This work is not a documentation; rather it is taking an existing object of art, made in another world, and re-creating it in a medium that did not then exist-extending it into the dimensions that photography makes possible

Vespasien, Musée du Bardo 22: Vespasien, Musée du Bardo Tunis, Tunisia 2005

In photographing this Roman artist's likeness of Vespasian, emperor of Rome from 69 to 79 A.D., I wanted to bypass it - to make my own portrait, not of the sculpture but of the man. I framed and toned the image to be dark, brutal - the face of the killer he was, but also a human face. The early Christians knocked off the noses of virtually every sculptured head in Tunisia, but something about the mutilated nose and its clumsy repair adds to the humanness of this bronze depiction in which there is already so much raw human energy. It was Vespasian who began the destruction of Judea, and his son Titus finished it. From the spoils Vespasian began the coliseum and Titus completed it.

Tête de la Déesse Junon #2 


Tête de la Déesse Junon #4,


23, 24 : Tête de la Déesse Junon, Musée archéologique Rabat, Morocco 2002 Triptych and Single Head

This 2nd century Roman caryatid (figurative carving incorporated into a structural column) reminded me of the charcoal heads Picasso drew at Boisgeloup-as if it were a portal from the classical to the contemporary. In photographing it, I wanted to build on the historic vocabulary of art and extend that vocabulary. But with this piece, my working model of a single and perfect image to encapsulate what I was seeing fell apart. There was no single vantage point, no single image. The woman held in this stone was plural in her complexity. To make her portrait required multiple images.

Juba II, MusÈe archÈologique 25 : Juba II, Musée archéologique Rabat, Morocco 2002

The sculptor of this 1st century bronze bust caught something sullen and melancholic in the face of Juba II, whose life story is a metaphor for the passing of North African independence into subservience to Rome. Juba I, King of Numidia, allied himself with Pompey and was defeated by Caesar. He killed himself, and his son Juba II, heir to the throne, was carried back to Rome, where he was raised in the household of Julius Caesar and then of Augustus. Romanized, he was sent back as an adult to rule over Numidia and later Mauretania, bringing them firmly into the Roman fold. It was the emotional weight and complexity of this history that I sought to convey in the angle, framing, close focus, and toning of Juba's face in my photographic portrait.

IV. STILL LIFE: An Architecture of Light

I became interested in shape while photographing architecture. But in architecture the shape is fixed, you can't do anything with it, and the same with the relations between shapes. With the still lifes I am able to assemble shapes and create relations for my own purposes. These are purely photographic, inventive meditations: borrowing something of the artisanal aesthetic, they are a kind of architecture built out of light, darkness, sharp and soft focus.

Oranges with Bowl, Musée archéologique 26 : Oranges with Bowl, Musée archéologique Rabat, Morocco 2003

On impulse, as a break from the intensity of photographing art antiquities in the museum of Rabat, I made this still life. The rough-hewn stone table from the Roman period drew my attention because it was beautifully lit, being placed on a landing beneath a skylight. The chipped bowl, which I requested permission to move from its cabinet, is from the tenth or eleventh century and is Islamic. In juxtaposing these ancient things with the oranges of a current season, already beginning to soften from the heat of the car, I was saying something about the nature of time.

Still Life #72 


Still Life #39


27, 28: Still Life #72 and Still Life #39 Van Horne Studio, Montreal 2004

In MontrÈal I set up a studio in a spare room of a metal worker's shop. Using pieces of metal from the shop, crockery I had brought back from Morocco, and fruit as a jumpstart and traditional reference, I began to experiment in a freeassociative way, building still lifes in planes of focus, light, and shadow to create a compositional tension. Within one negative, I wanted the effect almost of a collage rather than a single image - something that the eye would accept as a whole, even though it experienced the image in discrete, slightly mysterious or disorienting planes. I wanted this series to occupy a space somewhere between the figurative, the decorative, and the semi-abstract - something of the aesthetic of Matisse in Tanger.


These constructed images, collaged of multiple individually-toned photographic prints, extend the idea of portraying a subject in multiple views and interpretations. Each composite is one in a series of variations, putting the subject together in different ways, to see how far this multiplicity can be taken before the eye will rebel.

Melons #3 29: Melons #3 Van Horne Studio, Montreal 2007 - 2008

In Morocco I bought this ceramic bowl with painted floral designs and metal overlay, and back in Montreal I filled it with melons (they had to be replaced periodically), photographing the arrangement in sections, at different times of day and from different angles, over the period of a summer. My intention was to break up the still life into visual planes, then reassemble the multiple negatives into a mosaic of prints, each individually toned as a fine print in its own right. I wanted to combine "tiles" of different views and different tonings, but in such a way that the eye would still accept the subject as a unity. For each variation in this series, cropping and toning of the individual prints is a little different, as is the way in which they are assembled.

Salakta Lion 


Salakta Lion #7

13, 30: Salakta Lion #5 and Salakta Lion #7, Musée romain de Salakta Tunisia, 2007 - 2008

The two lion composites, are from a series of 12 variations. The subject is a 2nd century Roman floor mosaic that covers the entire wall facing the entrance of the one-room museum. (The exhibit label, visible in the bottom right hand "tile" of the composite, gives an idea of the scale of this mosaic.) I broke it down into 8 negatives, photographing it in sections that I intended to reassemble - a mosaic of a mosaic. But printed and reassembled, the parts did not create a whole that was psychologically true to what I remembered of the lion's aliveness and power. A breakthrough came when I realized I did not have to assemble the parts "straight" - I could take liberties in the composition, elongating the lion and giving it kinetic energy. This series (for it quickly became clear there were multiple ways to recreate this lion) was an offshoot of my work on art antiquities, and the beginning of my work with composites. The demands of the lion are what led me to experiment with brush toning on printing out paper, thus discovering tonal possibilities of the medium that had never been explored before.

A more detailed account of the photographic journey represented in this exhibition can be found in my essay "Itineraries".

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
Images of Jewish Morocco II '95 | Tunisia '97 | About the Jewish North African Portfolios
About the Prints | About the Artist | Articles | Exhibition | Order Prints | Contact Us | Links