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Photography Review

Weighed down by past burdens

Griffin exhibits present images of Nazi camps, Hebrew books

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / October 3, 2009

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WINCHESTER - Each of the three shows currently at the Griffin Museum of Photography is problematic. Taken together, though, they make for inspired, and instructive, programming. They run through Nov. 1.

The title of Susan May Tell’s “A Requiem: Tribute to the Spiritual Place at Auschwitz’’ has the awkwardness of a translation from a foreign language. That could be intentional. These 15 black-and-white images present a very foreign place. They show the Nazi death camp as grim, stark, and otherworldly. We see no people, only ominous artifacts: padlocks, fences, chimneys. The humanizing elements are few: a bit of graffiti (a lighthouse and sailboat), a wilted bouquet on a fence, displays of confiscated possessions of inmates.

Unframed, unmatted, and untitled, the photographs are poster-size (6 feet by 4 feet) and aim to elicit posterish responses. The pictures are moving and powerful. How could they not be? These are solemn and noble images that are surpassingly aware of their solemnity and nobility. They betray a moral insecurity masquerading as aesthetic chasteness. They don’t trust the viewer to arrive at individual interpretations or feelings. “This is Auschwitz,’’ they say, “shrink with horror, view with despair, congratulate yourself on being serious and humane enough to do so.’’

The problem is such injunctions carry an implicit coda: And now it’s OK to move on to the next gallery and get on with your life. How much more challenging and thought-provoking to see these terrible sites in color, with people, and situated in the 21st century. For the enduring terribleness of Auschwitz is that it wasn’t a discrete universe, monochrome and remote under a sunless sky. Rather, it was a place on the same planet we all live on. So long as Auschwitz is treated as a special, separate case - instead of what it was, perhaps the most horrifying instance on a continuum of human barbarism that touches us all - it somehow absolves us all.

The dozen pictures in Jessica M. Kaufman’s “Panopticon’’ are related to Tell’s in content and form. They show the grounds of Nazi concentration camps and are black and white, untitled, and large (most are about 3 feet by 4 feet). They are, however, wholly different in approach.

“I sought to dispose of most recognizable clues to the specific places and surviving environments,’’ Kaufman writes, “in order to recast them as sites for new meaning.’’ She also used a technical process that softens the images.

At first glance, they look like landscape photographs. Trees and foliage are the prominent features. Several images look as though they were shot through a rain-covered window. A barbed-wire fence is just barely visible in two of them. You have to strain to see it and need to know the show’s back story to realize what it is you’re seeing. In another, a set of barracks-like buildings are visible in the background; in another, a crematorium.

Kaufman’s approach manages to be both inspired and bogus. It provocatively reimagines the problem without really doing so. That is, the meaningfulness of “Panopticon’’ depends on a viewer’s awareness of what the sites are. Intellectually, it’s a jump into the void that comes with its own parachute. Where Tell directs us how to respond, Kaufman doesn’t at all - except that she does. The organizing principle of “Panopticon’’ informs the viewer’s gaze.

Where Tell’s images demand pity and reverence, Kaufman’s demand pity, reverence, and irony - i.e., “Yes, how ironic. These monstrous sites now look so nice.’’ Again, though, there is a perceived need to set apart these places, to divorce them visually from the reality of everyday human existence. Such a perception is understandable. It may even be correct (“human kind/Cannot bear too much reality,’’ Eliot wrote in “Four Quartets’’). But it’s also an easy way out.

Zeva Oelbaum’s “Hand to Hand’’ takes elements implicit in the other shows - the burden of the past, the passage of time, the fragile status of Jewish culture in a Gentile world - and looks at them via the endpapers on old Hebrew books, covered with marbling and readers’ scrawls.

Growing up in Missouri, Oelbaum found herself drawn to the volumes in a foreign alphabet that she found in her family’s basement. “I imagined how they had traveled from hand to hand for centuries, like portable identities,’’ she writes.

There are 19 photographs in the show. Half are positive (these look like old ink drawings), half negative. Some are extremely attractive. Others, much less so, look like pre-mechanical Aaron Siskinds. Oelbaum has shot them all up close, so there’s little sense of words on a page. Instead, the markings look like bits of ornamentation (swirls and curlicues) or even DNA. Surely, the latter resemblance is by design. These books are the genetic code of Jewish culture, Oelbaum is saying. As if to underscore that fact, the title of each photograph includes a year and the name of a place in Germany or Poland - “1764 Karlsruhe, 2,’’ “1855 Warsaw 1.’’ As objects, Oelbaum’s books are rooted in time and space. As vessels, they’re timeless and universal.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

A REQUIEM: Tribute to the Spiritual Place at Auschwitz - Photographs by Susan May Tell

PANOPTICON: Photographs by Jessica M. Kaufman

ZEVA OELBAUM: Hand to Hand

At: the Griffin Museum of Photography, 69 Shore Road, Winchester, through Nov. 1. Call 781-729-1158 or go to www.griffinmuseum.org.

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