COLUMBUS, Ohio — It is possible — tempting, even — to view historical events through a gauzy filter, once which lends a layer of abstraction to the fact that they took place in the same reality as the one we currently inhabit. For an event like the Holocaust, this filter is often created by images exclusively presented in black-and-white film. Much like television of a bygone era, it’s difficult to imagine that those events happened, when they happened, in living color.
12 Nazi Concentration Camps, presented by Angela Meleca Gallery, is a body of work by photographer James Friedman who, in the early ’80s, took the largely unprecedented step of documenting post-Holocaust era Nazi camps in color photography.
“For the first time, photographs of concentration camps are brazenly passionate and ‘hot,’ rather than detached and ‘cool,'” wrote Friedman in his 1983 artist statement. Friedman began as a self-taught photographer, before attending the Ohio State University Honors Program to earn a BFA degree with Distinction in Photography. Later, while earning an MA degree in photography from San Francisco State University, he worked as an assistant to Imogen Cunningham, and also served as a studio assistant to Ansel Adams.
From 1981 to 1983, the Columbus-based photographer traveled between Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Flossenbürg, Fort Breendock, Majdanek, Mauthausen, Natzweiler-Struthof, Theresienstadt, and Treblinka, collecting unsettling images of the camps. His shots are peopled with workers at the camp, a coterie of tourists and visitors, survivors at a reunion gathering, and the artist himself — who was making the risky decision to travel while Jewish at a time when Eastern Europe was still mostly stripped of any trace of that population.
“He said he would be surprised if anyone he photographed at the time was Jewish,” said Angela Meleca, who engaged in long negotiations with Friedman on the subject of showing this body of work, which has never been presented in Friedman’s native Columbus, and rarely revisited since an initial showing at Ohio State following the 1983 trip. “He said at the time, this was still during the Soviet Union, and everyone stayed away. There were some camps that he attempted to go to, but in traveling between countries he encountered difficulties. In one place his passport was ‘lost’ for awhile.”
The pictures also sometimes include personal objects, inserted into the scene by Friedman, often small toys that he carried with him as a sort of psychic protection against the emotional strain of visiting a dozen Nazi camps. Alongside the images are some of Friedman’s notes and memories from the field, including an encounter he had with a security officer in the guard tower at Birkenau.
“In this photograph, in particular,” said Meleca, of “View from guard tower, Auschwitz II (Birkenau) concentration camp, near Oswiecim, Poland” (1983), “This guy [pictured] oversaw the guard tower, here, and let Jim up to photograph. And he said to Jim, ‘I would kill you today, if I could.’ You can see it in his posture, there’s an arrogance about it, that’s there.”
The exhibition also commissioned new works, printing two of Friedman’s 1981 images for the first time, at a much larger scale than he was able to achieve with the initial run of prints. In one of them, the photographer stands beside his car at the vanishing point of the photograph; in the foreground, signposts for a gas chamber seem to point in his direction. Just as Friedman brings the realities of the concentration camps into startling color, his journey was clearly an extremely vivid personal reckoning.
The work raises additional questions — both literally and figuratively — about the retention of these painful memories and historic sites. Alongside “Guard tower, entrance to Natzweiler-Struth of concentration camp, near Strasbourg, France” (1981), Friedman notes a new picket fence has been installed, freshly painted pink.
“It sparked my interest in the issue of what should be done to the camps as they decay,” he wrote, in his field notes. “Should they be repaired and prettified? Or should they be permitted to disintegrate and disappear?”
In some of Friedman’s images, we see graphic murals at Dachau, and other camps, displaying historic photographs of the camp’s conditions and its victims.
“I had someone come in, she went to Dachau four or five years ago,” said Meleca, “and said that these large billboard images no longer exist. I guess it’s been said that after the fall of the Soviet Union, that these have been sanitized, the camps — I don’t know what that all means, but they’re taking some references to the past away.”
This is just one highly impactful body of work, from a photographer who consistently managed, over the course of a long career, to merge the documental with the extremely personal. In presenting it, Angela Meleca Gallery offers Friedman a chance to revisit an important chapter of his history for the first time in his hometown, while showing challenging work that — in this case, sadly — continues to resonate with the issues of the day.
12 Nazi Concentration Camps: Photographs by James Friedman continues at Angela Meleca Gallery (144 East State Street Columbus, Ohio) through October 28.