Let Us Now Praise Damaged Photographs | Christoph Ribbat | Wednesday, 21.03.2018

Not from Stone

At first I just wanted to find out what it feels like to write on analog photographs. Not about/on. Actually on. On the prints themselves. For some of us that's routine. Say you're the 1994 Winter Olympics Gold Medal Winner in the Men's Normal Hill Ski Jump. You've probably been signing autograph cards with your photo on it for a while now. But we don't all enjoy that privilege. And it's a bit different, anyway, to actually take a pen to photographs of other human beings.

So I turned to American photographer Jeffrey A. Wolin. For decades now, he has run the risk of damaging the sanctity of the portrait. He photographs people and conducts video-taped interviews with them. He prints the photographs. His fingers then hold a rapidograph with carbon ink or a chrome marker. And he uses longhand to copy passages from these interviews onto the photographs until the interviewees' words fill up the spaces next to their faces and bodies. Wolin has produced books on Holocaust survivors in the United States, on veterans from both sides of the Vietnam War, and on the tenants of the Pigeon Hill housing project in Bloomington, Indiana. He has also photographed (and interviewed) Jadzia Strykowska. Which is a slightly different story.

Wolin started our exchange by saying that his permanent markers "don't harm the photographs." It sounded as though he wanted to defend himself against any potential charges of damaging sacred objects. Not that too many people will accuse him. He bends over the prints. His writing is clear, legible, regular. And he writes the same text six times, for editions of six photographs. The words combine with the sitters' bodies. He feels "like a medieval scribe," he tells me. And the bottom line is to create empathy with his subjects. "I empathize with them," he says, "and hope in so doing, that the audience will too."

If Wolin's method seems to protect rather than damage the portraits, it's because he knows what his fingers are up to. He doesn't let them go do their own thing. That is what makes me trust him. There's nothing the documentary process needs more than a documentarist willing to hold back. The handwritten accounts do indicate, that, yes, the project is very much about him, Jeffrey A. Wolin, and his response to people's stories. But he doesn't go all the way from self-control to self-expression. He strikes the balance. You see this reflected in the lettering, when he fills those gaps that need to be filled and leaves other places empty.

In Wolin's Written in Memory, Jadzia Strykowska appears as the last sitter. She's holding up these two small frames. In one of which you see an oval cutout of a photograph. In the other there's a group photograph and a face that has been cut out. Damaged photographs. She tells her story, in Wolin's handwriting, chrome marker over dark rectangular space to the left of her body. The story covers her experience in the Holocaust. It also addresses a late 1970s Nazi march in her home town of Skokie, Illinois, and how she, Jadzia Strykowska, helped organize her community against that march. Her conservative clothes and demeanor don't suggest activist leanings. But that is secondary.

Damaged Photographs, detail of Rose (154641)From Jeffrey A. Wolin, Written in Memory. Portraits of the Holocaust (Chronicle Books, 1997), 93; by permission.

Jadzia Strykowska from suburban Chicago tells us how she got out of the ghetto and lived underground in wartime Poland. She had a small tube in which she kept "a poison pill" and "some valuable stones" her mother had given her. She had also taken some photographs. After her capture she turns to them:

"I was sitting in the cattle car cutting out my pictures, the faces of my mother and the faces of my father. I also cut out a little picture of myself because I wanted to remind myself how I really look. And I had a picture of my brother and me and we were in a summer place the year before the war started. Then I also cut out a picture of my Zionist platoon leader, Icek Rosenblatt and I cut around the picture of my platoon, Beit-Shan, that we made before we left and I rolled them up all tightly, I left the poison pill, I took out the stones and I put in the pictures…

We arrived on a very freezing January evening to Bergen-Belsen. So we went in to get a shower and right before we went in I took my tube and I put it in my rectum. They searched you again in your hair and you had to open the mouth and some of the people they even checked internally, whether they didn't hide any valuables. I was lucky - I passed… It was miserable there. They had us schlep stones from one place to the other just to wear us out so they wouldn't even have to use a bullet on us. And so every day the circumstances got harder and harder. My solace were my pictures. When I came in in the evening I used to unroll them and look at them and I said, 'My goodness, I am not from stone. I am from people. I am from a family.'…"

Obviously, it's not enough to get weepy now, even if, as a photo person, it's impossible not to. Wolin and Strykowska provide more information. Only two people in that group photograph survived: a man named Jumek Wald and Jadzia Strykowska herself. In the Holocaust context any sort of sentimental praise of photography's power seems out of place. Forget about emotional hermeneutics that would liken the value of the pictures to the value of the stones given to her by her mother, or would read the photographs as counterparts to the poison pill. Because who knows how many of the dead had similar beliefs in their photographs, performed similarly creative practices and just didn't make it out to tell about it? Anyone using this story to praise analog should get their head examined.

Damaged Photographs, detail of Rose (154642)From Wolin, Written in Memory, 92; by permission.

But the story Jadzia Strykowska chose to tell Jeff Wolin hinges on the power of photography. She unrolled the pictures at night. She was not from stone. She was from people. And if we refused to read her account as a photography story, we'd be turning her into stone after all. So we should see her as a curator with intense beliefs in photography's flexible significance for human self-definition. ("I wanted to remind myself how I really look.") Or as a collage artist with all her own inscrutable reasons for removing Icek Rosenblatt's likeness from the group photograph and for holding on to his picture as if it were an individual portrait. We should listen to her as a storyteller who insists on the significance of objects. Who hones in on things and how they organize lives. Who moves from the poison pill to the celluloid tube to the pictures and from the bullets available to the camp guards again back to the pictures. Who highlights the valuable stones and the stones they carry in the camp and the stone that she isn't made from.

In his afterword to Written in Memory, Jeff Wolin states that he was looking for "small, intimate details" in the narratives of the survivors. That sounds innocuous. But we all know how much easier it is to stick to the general than to address the specific - all the more so if a traumatic experience revolves around our unprotected body. From that knowledge, however far removed from Jadzia Strykowska's memories, we can draw some conclusions about the precision, the courage, and the generosity of her storytelling. How could we possibly write on/about photography and ignore what this theorist has to tell us.