The perception of photography as a documental form is based on a simple premise: you cannot photograph something that isn’t there. In his latest project, photographer Stephen Berkman turns this idea on its head by claiming to document what is no longer there … and maybe what never was. On this point, you won’t get a straight answer out of Berkman.
“Creating the book, I never thought about it in terms of classification,” he said, in a phone interview with Hyperallergic. “I hope this book looks to the future as it exhumes the past.”
Berkman conveys a deep understanding — and even fetishization — of the mechanics of analog and chemical photography, but has still managed to capture a speculative bit of history with Predicting the Past—Zohar Studios: The Lost Years, a book just published by the Los Angeles-based Hat & Beard Press. The expansive collection of images presents the colorful cast of characters in attendance at the mythical Zohar Studios, a 19th-century Lower East Side photographic establishment of the eponymous Shimmel Zohar — an Eastern European Jewish immigrant who came to the United States in the 1850s (according to detailed archival materials included in the book’s back matter).
The hefty tome of some 200 images is accompanied by an afterward by Lawrence Weschler which, in the spirit of the project, obscures the nature of the photo archive — which he terms “a work of slippage” — as much as it illuminates. Zohar Studios is an inside joke of sorts, but one that has been taken so seriously that it becomes a kind of pocket reality.
“I think it’s the idea of telling the whole story,” said Berkman. “To me, the book is about how we’ve come to this point in time, and how we’re the victims and the beneficiaries of history, and how history has shaped our lives in ways we can’t begin to comprehend, which forms the foundation of our existence.”
From an aesthetic perspective, Predicting the Past is faultless, capturing both the feel and the detail of a past so occluded that it exists in the Brigadoon-like territory of lost world. There is an old-timey aspect to the subjects that goes beyond dress or setting; the attitudes and expressions are carefully composed and subtly blurred, in the manner that earmarks the long-exposure era of collodion photography.
“Long exposure penetrates the resistance that subjects have towards the camera,” said Berkman. “The collodion almost feels like an ectoplasm, a conduit, for spirits and energy from another time to communicate.”
The Zohar Studios archival materials include film stills, photographs, newspaper clippings, and political cartoons, as well as a buffet of 19th-century interest and textures: Spiritualism, Eastern European immigration, theosophy, homunculi, craniology, medical oddities, and world exploration at a time when the world was a little more mysterious. The first half of the book presents these images with little context, aside from titles and section headers (my favorite being “Merkin Merchant” under Forgone Conclusions), but the back matter offers a matching page count brimming with annotations, historical ephemera, and threaded with a kind of sly wordplay and unmistakably Jewish humor that at least hints at the presence of hindsight — or perhaps prescience.
For example, page 29 presents an image titled “Shtetl Shtick” featuring a Hasidic man and his Hasidic ventriloquist dummy, set against a physical cabin façade and a painted backdrop of an old-country village (shtetl, in Yiddish). The annotations reveal this to be Moishe, a legend of Hasidic ventriloquism, and one half of the duo “Menachem and Moishe.” A historic silver chloride print documents Moishe recording his memoir onto wax cylinders — one of which is physically presented in the Contemporary Jewish Museum exhibition that runs in concert with the book’s release (for reasons of public health, the CJM is currently closed, but the exhibition can be accessed in virtual form). This layering of media and detail plays out across nearly every image presented in Predicting the Past, and the delight in this detailed realization of Zohar Studios is conveyed on every page and instantly communicated to the viewer.
But the real bait-and-switch is not the provenance of these images, but their purpose. For Berkman has not, in the end, assembled the history of Zohar Studios; Schimmel Zohar’s storied existence is merely the framework for an examination of the history of photography as a form, practice, and act of transubstantiation. Berkman speaks of the medium in no less than mythic terms, and his devotion to its preservation and practice bring legitimacy, truth, and overwhelming beauty to the speculative history of Zohar Studios.
Predicting the Past—Zohar Studios: The Lost Years (2020) is available from Hat & Beard Press and your local indie bookstore. The exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (736 Mission Street, San Francisco) is currently closed but can be accessed in virtual form.