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Diaspora Pictures: Photographs By Chrystie Sherman

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Lost Futures: Journeys into the Jewish Diaspora:
Photographs by Chrystie Sherman. 92nd Street Y:
Milton J. Weill Art Gallery. Lexington Avenue at 92nd Street. (212) 415-5500:

Call for Gallery hours. Until October 24, 2003.

 

There are Diasporas and then there are Diasporas. We Jews in the American Diaspora are fortunate to be exiled in the freest country in the world, with full religious freedom and the benefits of an affluent society. Our Torah communities are strong, healthy and growing in the midst of the majority of Jews who still identify as Jews, even as tragically large numbers of our brethren drift into the allures of assimilation and Jewish annihilation.

Other Diasporas struggle with a starker reality and simply hope to survive in any form. This “Other Diaspora” is the subject of Chrystie Sherman’s powerful photographic essay, Lost Futures: Journeys into the Jewish Diaspora at the 92nd Street Y until October 24, 2003.

Sherman’s powerful compositions and compelling subjects make a strong case for the use of the portrait as a narrative medium in one of the strongest exhibitions of contemporary photography in recent memory. Her images engage the viewer with an unsentimental honesty
that elaborates upon the portrait format of modern masters such as Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. Both these artists utilize eye contact and emotional engagement of the subject against a neutral modernist background as the foundation of visual communication. Sherman expands this vocabulary with the introduction of an engaging social context. Each of her subjects is
situated in an environment that, by means of composition and potent symbols, narrates the individual image into the complex fabric of Jewish life often poised at the very edge of survival.

Chrystie Sherman is a professional photographer with 25 years experience in photojournalism and set photography for public television. After working on portraits of Holocaust survivors on the Lower East Side through Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, she became intrigued by the idea of the forced dispersions and suffering of the Diaspora. Exploring the backwaters
of the Diaspora, she photographed in the former Soviet Union in 2000, Cuba in 2001, then Uzbekistan in 2002, and this year in India in what has become The Diaspora Essay, to be published in 2005.

She sought out dwindling Jewish communities ravaged by oppression, poverty and emigration of much of the younger generation. In spite of this diminution, there were those Jews who choose to stay behind and maintain a Jewish life in their homeland. They are her subjects in
the 27 black and white prints shown here.

Holocaust Survivor, Teplik (2000) stands alone in her garden. She lost most of her family during the war and has lived alone since in a small wooden house. The photograph’s composition shapes the subject’s staunch determination to survive in the face of unremitting
suffering. Her figure is pushed to the right of the frame, assaulted by the curved wash line and the leaning overgrown plants. It is as if nature itself conspires to topple her. And yet, her determined eyes and steady glance at the camera tells us that she will persevere. Indeed, she is rooted to the earth by the dark shape of her dress, clinging to her homeland in spite of all odds.

Explicitly Jewish content in these powerful images is frequently submerged in subtle allusions. Woman with Bullock, Alibag (2003) is typical in its disarming impression of an Indian rural scene. This illusion begins to evaporate as we notice how the line of the rope carefully winds its way from the lower left foreground (our visual entrance to the image), through the young
woman’s hands, up through the beast’s horns and finally to the sky at the top of the image. This motif echoes a far more ancient Jewish reality of taking a prized animal up to the Temple in Jerusalem for sacrifice. The finely dressed maiden, tenderly posing with a valuable beast,
ennobles a banal reality and allows it to resonate through the corridors of Jewish time.

Symbols, strikingly simple in Sherman’s photographs, provide a narrative background in Samuel the Butcher, Old Havana (2002). The Magen David clearly identifies the shochet just as the rooster creates an ample allusion to the vicissitudes of the Jewish year. Perhaps it is the extreme verticality of the composition that makes the handsome rooster seem a likely candidate for Kaparas just before the Yom Kippur. Surely the butcher himself seems strong and determined to work for at least another year in the only kosher store in Cuba.

The Biblical narrative itself arises in Sarah and Her Indian Servant, Kochin (2003). The startling contrast between the European face of Sarah and the darkly beautiful Indian servant brings to mind the distinction we can imagine between Sarah our matriarch and her Egyptian maidservant Hagar. How well did they know each other in middle age, before Hagar bore Ishmael? The gestures of their hands and tilt of their heads echo their closeness. Was there originally a bond of affection and trust in that distant past as we see here in these two beautiful women? Sherman’s photograph plunges us into complicated relationships of today even as it reveals the complexities of our familial ancestry.

Chrystie Sherman is exploring in photography what it means to be a Jew on the edges of Jewish existence. Her photographs of the graceful Bukharian housewife Erev Shabbos, the hands of a Jewish bride in Bombay intricately decorated with henna, and even aged resistance fighters in the Ukraine all touch on issues of self-identity in a foreign environment. These communities are barely holding on, and yet the strength of the people, expressed in the power and sureness of her images, lends a disproportionate hope for the future of this Diaspora. Each portrait expands into an engrossing narrative and in the hands of this artist; each narrative
implies not only a past, but a future as well.


Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.

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About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


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