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The Adventure of a Jewish Photographer: Miriam M?rsel Nathan’s Photo-Paintings

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“Miriam M?rsel Nathan: Memory of a time I did not know…”

Curated by Steven Cushner

Through Dec. 17, 2010

Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery, Washington D.C. JCC

1529 16th Street, NW, Washington, D.C.




In Italo Calvino’s short story “The Adventure of a Photographer,” part of his collection Difficult Loves (1985), the “non-photographer” and bachelor Antonino Paraggi, finds himself increasingly alienated from his married friends who go out with their families and cameras each Sunday and “come back as happy as hunters with bulging game bags,” their photographic catch of the day.


A philosopher by “mental attitude,” Paraggi loves discussing current events with his peers. He has no particular anemic reaction to the here and the now, but he annoys his more sentimental friends by insisting that photographing events-particularly when those photographs are staged-inevitably sacrifices the true present for the possibility of enjoying the photographs in the future.


Paraggi notes that photographing children is one of a parents’ first instincts. “Given the speed of growth, it becomes necessary to photograph the child often, because nothing is more fleeting and unmemorable than a six-month-old infant, soon deleted and replaced by one of eight months, and then one of a year; and all the perfection that, to the eyes of parents, a child of three may have reached cannot prevent its being destroyed by that of the four-year-old,” Calvino observes. “The photograph album remains the only place where all these fleeting perfections are saved and juxtaposed, each aspiring to an incomparable absoluteness of its own.”


This is precisely what confounds Paraggi, who cannot realize that his bachelorhood places him in far graver danger of being forgotten than his married peers playing the amateur photographer capturing their children.


Eventually, Paraggi takes the photographic plunge, but he decides his craft must represent a throwback. He scavenges for an old camera (the kind with a bulb to squeeze) and accessories in flea markets and other “cemeteries of objects no longer serviceable” and manages to create an anachronistic studio, where he photographs a particular model, who becomes his wife. In the end, Paraggi can find just one photographic project that is not contrived and staged-photographing a pile of torn-up staged photographs, a deconstructionist composition if there ever was one.



Portrait of Miriam M?rsel Nathan by David Nathan


Since photography was popularized in the early 19th century, it has had many opponents who, like Paraggi, have viewed it as a destructive medium. Several chassidic masters were rumored to have shunned having their pictures taken for fear of violating the Second Commandment, and there are Muslims today who make faces when posing for their driver’s licenses for similar reasons. But Jewish artist Miriam M?rsel Nathan, whose work is on exhibit at the Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery in Washington, starts from the opposite premise.


Where Calvino was troubled by photography’s artificial response to life and prescribed destructive photography to overcome that design problem, M?rsel Nathan’s project starts with a single posed photograph of her aunt Greta and tries to create Greta’s world.



Miriam M?rsel Nathan. “Greta in green.” 30″ x 22″ monotype. 2008



M?rsel Nathan, a former director of the Washington Jewish Film Festival, created all the works in the Bronfman Gallery exhibition based on a series of pre-World War II family photographs she found in a small box.  She has been fascinated by these pictures her entire life. “I have become an interpreter of these images, piecing together a story of people who look like me and my children and my grandchildren,” she says.


Making monotype prints of a photograph of her aunt Greta, M?rsel Nathan realized she had no idea what color dress her aunt was wearing in the black-and-white picture. “In fact, I didn’t know what colors she liked-a detail that points to a much larger issue, which is that I don’t know much about my aunt at all,” she says.


In a series of screen prints of the photograph-each of which includes a different colored dress-M?rsel Nathan imagines the content of the image in a manner reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s series on Marilyn Monroe, self-portraits and Campbell’s soup cans.


“The series of screen prints is of the same dress but in many different colors, as if to say to my aunt Greta-which of these do you like?” she says.



Miriam M?rsel Nathan. “Which One?” 15″ x 11

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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