ARTIST STATEMENT: I have always thought of the cantor standing in front of his congregation and singing as the voice of God speaking to the congregation. God speaks through the cantor. The cantor is the medium, and his song gives the congregation hope. Thatâ€™s how it has always seemed to me. As a boy, I was around music and musicians all the time. My father opened a teen music club, and as a teen I created light shows for the performances and made friends with the musicians. But I did not have the gift of music myself, nor was I a person of words.
Instead, when I was 15, I discovered photography. I was struggling in high school and in danger of not graduating when the school set up a darkroom for some of us to work in. After I turned a discarded negative into a prize-winning photo by using cropping techniques I had just learned, a spark became ignited in me and photography became my medium. From that moment on, light became my voice.
Photography is drawing with light, and taking photos is my way of voicing something about the mysteries of human existence. It is my way of looking into and beyond human experience and locating that place of hope that I can hear in the cantorâ€™s song.
Over the past 20 years, I have turned my lens to the Jewish experience. I have used my camera to explore places of great despair within Jewish history and draw out light.
With â€œDarkness into Light,â€ I spent six years photographing the reemergence of Jewish life in modern-day Germany. Begun in 1994 when I was an artist-in-residence in Germany, the project not only helped me understand how survivors could go on with their lives, but how some could do so in the very land soaked with Jewish blood. In trying to understand how Jews could return to live in Germany, I grew to believe that todayâ€™s Germany might provide clues to comprehending and overcoming racism. I also began to gain a deeper understanding of my own Jewish identity and heritage.
The seeds for â€œDarkness into Lightâ€ had been sown much earlier in my life by two incidents. When I was 13 years old and growing up in Oak Park, Michigan, outside Detroit, a kid at a skating rink called me a â€œkike.â€ It was the first time I encountered anti-Semitism, and it made me realize that being a Jew also meant being differentâ€”and even being hated. Years later, in 1983, when I travelled from New York City to Washington, DC to document the first American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, I ran into family friends I had known all my life, but who had never spoken of the fact that they were survivors. This revelation also struck me deeply.
As my work on â€œDarkness into Lightâ€ progressed, I visited Poland and the death camps. There I began working outside the photojournalistic conventions of documentation and took shots of abstract images that evoked human faces or a human presence. At the same time, I started to ask myself, â€œWhat could have saved the Jews? What could have saved the world?â€
I began to think that perhaps the 36 Tzaddikim, or 36 Righteous Ones, of Jewish legend may hold the key. It is said that the presence of these 36 keeps the world from destruction during times of peril. Still, no one knows who these 36 are, not even they themselves. Any stranger could be one of them, and it is partly for this reason that we are taught to treat each stranger with kindness.
The abstract images I was creating in and around places of remembrance and my interest in the 36 came together and I created the group â€œThe 36 Unknown.â€ By photographing images of human faces and gestures that I saw in stone and metal and glass, in shadows and fragments and stains, I found my own way to address the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust.
Since then, I have felt a need to continue to delve into Jewish tradition and its stories of hope and redemption. In my most recent work, I have once again created images that blend abstraction and representation to express my fears and hopes. With my camera, I capture the face of a prophet that I see in a group of rocks and a twisted scrap of cloth, for instance, or the image of Moses and the tablets that I observe in the patterns of a broken piece of marble.
Taking rock fragments or scraps of cloth and paper and shooting them in such a way as to evoke a face or a foundational legend seems to me to fit into another Jewish concept: Tikkun Olam or â€œhealing the world.â€ According to the Jewish mystics, Godâ€™s light became scattered into shards during creation. Human beings help to heal the world by gathering these shards of light together into one whole. For me, it has always been important to work without a plan. I practice my craft by watching the world around me closely and learning to see. I then turn my camera on what I see to bring it to light for others. It is my hope that in this gathering of light I am contributing my part to the work of healing the world.
A Note on Influence and Tradition:
Just as a cantor stands in a lineage of distinguished cantors who preceded him, I, too, have been influenced by my forbears. In particular, I have had the privilege of knowing two exceptional artists who became mentors to me. The first was the renowned color photographer and photojournalist Ernst Haas, whom I assisted for 14 years beginning in 1972. Haas was known, among other things, for his ability to meld documentary photography with personal expression. My second mentor was the artist Ben-Zion, whom I also met in the early 1970s. Ben-Zion was a poet, painter, and sculptor whose work I came to photograph over many years. Ben-Zionâ€™s work was distinguished by an expressionist style that captured human emotion and spirit, while highlighting the power of the natural world. I am indebted to Haas and Ben-Zion for helping shape my sensibilities as a photographer and the approach I take to my craft.