On Monday, November 6, 2017, with generous support from the Greenfield Lynch lecture series, we hosted a panel about James Friedman’s striking series, “12 Nazi Concentration Camps.” The panel included James Friedman, Gary Weissman (University of Cincinnati), and me. For the month of November Friedman’s series was on display at the Illini Union Gallery via projections. I would like to thank Deborah Lynch for making all this possible, the staff at the Illini Union for being wonderful to work with, and especially Sarah Elder for the considerable work of putting the visuals of the exhibit together. What follows are some reflections on Friedman’s work.
The counterintuitive and diverse titles of James Friedman’s photographic projects tell a story all their own: “Self-Portraits with Jewish Nose Wandering in a Gentile World,” “Hypersalivation,” “Almost Never Before Seen Portraits of Remarkable People,” “1,029, 398 Cigarettes,” “Dogs Who’ve Licked Me,” “My Face Looks Like An Ansel Adams Landscape.” And many other magnificently odd titles! His photographs are, above all, about people and their emotions. The Holocaust is not his main theme, people are. And yet Jewishness, nomadism, displacement, and the Holocaust consistently return in Friedman’s work. In “12 Nazi Concentration Camps,” a parade of tourists interact with the spaces of trauma. Recorded with a large format 8 x 10 camera, these memory tourists in their bright colors often stare directly at us, making us uncomfortable and curious all at once. In the 1980s when Friedman took these photographs, there was not yet a Holocaust tourism culture in the way it has subsequently become established. These photographs offer an inventive way of interacting with these fraught landscapes. The difference between the story told by photographs and the reality they supposedly depict can be seen in Friedman’s work where the jarring juxtaposition between past and present manifests so potently. As his subjects stand, sit, and stare they are keenly aware of their locations and yet they are also some forty years removed from the trauma of the spaces of the 12 Nazi Concentration Camps.
An American, Ohio-based photographer, Friedman’s experiences with antisemitism fueled his desire to travel to and record the experiences of other people who toured former Nazi concentration camps. Antisemitism and Jewishness shape much of his work even though its themes vary widely. Friedman studied with Imogen Cunningham and has taught photography at Santa Fe Community College, Ohio Wesleyan University, Antioch College, and Ohio State University. His photographic projects have been included in solo and group shows at the Skirball Museum, Cincinnati; the Maurtiz Gallery, Columbus; The National Exhibition Center, Canada; The Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe; The Visionary Art Museum, Maryland; and many other places as well. His work is included in photography collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; the Jewish Museum, New York; The University of Colorado Art Museum; and other collections. Articles about Friedman have appeared in such venues as Art Forum, Afterimage, View Camera, and Arts Magazine.
I have been able to view “12 Nazi Concentration Camps” in multiple formats and each time I have a different experience. I first saw them online after being invited to discuss the series on a panel at Hebrew Union College along with Friedman and Gary Weissman, a fellow Holocaust Scholar. Then, I was able to spend some time in company of the images as carefully mounted and presented large photographs at the Hebrew Union College gallery. Finally, we brought them to the University of Illinois but, due to budgetary constraints, we projected them onto the walls of the Union Gallery here. The projected version heightened the sense that these images were doubly relics of the past: the 1940s past of the concentration camps themselves and the 1980s past of the moments of photographing. During the month-long exhibit at UIUC the photos advanced through slideshows all day long and visitors could choose how to interact with them—one could watch one screen at a time like a slow-moving film or one could circle the gallery and view multiple screens. I had the impression that these tourists from the 1980s, many of them likely no longer alive, were watching us watching them. It was unnerving and very effective. Like Proust’s magic lantern, it allowed us to gaze at an ever-changing kaleidoscope.
One of the first, obvious, but still shocking things one notices about Friedman’s photographs are that they are in color. Some survivors, such as Jorge Semprun, have noticed the stark contrast between their memories, in color, and the images that circulate, largely in black and white well after the wide distribution of color film. Friedman has remarked that it is the saturated colors of his images that often irk viewers—as if it were not possible to take color photos in the 1980s, as if the sun were not allowed to shine between 1939 and 1945, as if the sky could not have been clear blue. For me, it was not so much the color that I found striking, but rather the direct address offered to the viewer by many of the subjects—as they stare at us, it is so direct, it feels like a challenge. In the case of photography, there is always, as Roland Barthes so beautifully found, at once what is within the photograph and that which must necessarily be excluded from the frame. The photograph’s ability to represent, like any given space’s ability to bear witness, is also always circumscribed.
The landscapes in which traumatic events happened, or where perpetrators dreamed up violent scenarios, can bear only unstable witness. On the one hand, visible traces of the past remain; on the other hand, an inevitable covering up of these traces by the progress of the landscape as nature either reclaims it or human desires reshape and repurpose it occurs. Friedman’s photographs and the interactions they reveal between inert space and the living images of his subjects, remind us of the vitality of things, of their call to us to remember that remembering is a vital thing and that it never reaches conclusion.
See more of James Friedman's work here.