Tag Archives: Of Life and Loss

Summer Slow Down? Never a Dull Moment for Photography@DIA


Detroit area high school students view their work at the DIA, May 2009

In the weeks leading up to summer, you might think that my desk would see a little bit less action – a few less phone calls and maybe a day with one less email. But the success of our current exhibition Of Life and Loss has kept me and many DIA staffers and volunteers busy with tours and special programs. In late May, I was fortunate to spend some time with the young minds responsible for the works on view just outside the photo gallery. I spoke with a group of Roeper and Dearborn High School photography students and discussed the exhibition with recent guest blogger Michelle Stamler, a dedicated instructor of photography at Roeper. In early May as well, the Detroit-area chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women toured the exhibition with me and more groups will visit later in June with the Jewish Federation. Our veteran docent and photo collector Barbara Goldsmith will be on hand to enrich their experience as well. Of Life and Loss has been a quiet yet powerful exhibition with its images speaking volumes to our audience. It has drawn many visitors to the DIA. The exhibition will be on view through July 12, 2009.

More summer news came recently in an email from Detroit-area photographer Bill Schwab regarding his upcoming Photostock 2009.   Bill has fostered the workshops and programs at Photostock for the last four years and envisions the event growing upcoming years. It’s great to see Michigan on the map with a weekend dedicated to the medium. So if you are heading north at the end of June and find yourself near Petoskey, there is an interesting evening lined up with photographer Shelby Lee Adams in conjunction with Photostock.shelbyleeposter

And the Richard Avedon exhibition continues to occupy everyone’s minds here at the DIA. Even though the DIA will take a brief break from special exhibitions in the upcoming months, DIA staff continues to work on programs and the research & installation of upcoming exhibitions. Although the public sees a seamless transition from one exhibition to the next, the planning and execution of our exhibition schedule often takes many months and sometimes even years. blog

I have been working for the past several weeks with architect and exhibition designer Frank Arvan to create an exciting presentation of Avedon Fashion Photographs this fall. Frank has been responsible for the design of several DIA exhibitions including Monet to Dali and American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell. We have plotted out the exhibition carefully with special attention given to Avedon’s work laid as it has developed decade by decade and with highlights that include a “Paris by Night” section as well as a gallery devoted to Avedon’s vintage engraver’s prints made from 1955-58.  It is just the start of a busy summer for photography@the DIA – I’ll be blogging soon on upcoming acquistions and other programs and events in the near future.

Photography@DIA – Future Programs & Exhibitions in 2009

Many thanks to Michelle Stamler for posting recently on her involvement with Roeper High School photo students and the DIA. I am looking forward to their visit later this month at the DIA to view Of Life and Loss and talk about their work inspired by this exhibition. I did not expect such an overwhelming response to this exhibition. There is a constant stream of visitors in our galleries everyday.  And it seems that this very powerful group of photographs speak to a very diverse group of visitors on so many different levels with great emotional impact and resonance. I was fortunate to have exhibition curator Karen Sinsheimer deliver the most-illuminating lecture on Of Life and Loss this past Sunday to over 100 people in the DIA’s lecture hall.

Penny Picture Display, Savannah, 1936, by Walker Evans

Penny Picture Display, Savannah, 1936, by Walker Evans

The DIA is moving forward with our other photo exhibitions and programs for the year. This past week I have been busy working with interpretive educator Madeleine Winslow on an upcoming exhibition Photography-The First 100 Years. Although the exhibition does not open until September 2, 2009, plans for installation and development of interpretative materials for the gallery take place months and sometimes years in advance. Madeleine and I hope to get some feedback from our visitors in the gallery with a reader response table focused on the work of Walker Evans one of the featured artists in the exhibition. We plan to set up some online opportunities to hear your thoughts as well.

Avedon Fashion preThe exhibition Avedon Fashion Photographs 1944-2000 will also open at the DIA on October 18. 2009. I was fortunate to get an advance copy on the catalogue with essays by exhibition curators Carol Squiers and Vince Aletti. The authors have given their undivided and thorough attention to this very productive and influential period of the photographer’s career in fashion editorial work that appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue  and in later years for the Versace campaign beginning in 1980 and eventually as staff photographer for The New Yorker. The exhibition opened last week at the International Center for Photography, New York, and a sneak peak of some of Avedon’s fashion work can be found at the New Yorker Online – Here at the DIA, the exhibition will get four-star treatment in our special exhibition space with an elegant installation and some exciting programs and events to soon be announced.

Student Work Reflecting Memory and Loss

Early in September, I was contacted by Jennifer Williams from the DIA asking me if I was interested in participating in an exhibition that would include the work of my students. They would shot and print work that would explore the complicated ideas of memory and loss; a daunting prospect to students ranging in age from 14 to 18. If taken on, this project would be aligned to the exhibition called Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky that would open April 15, 2009. The guidelines set out at that time by Jennifer stated that “The project would use the photos in the exhibition as a catalyst to inspire students to explore themes of memory and place in their own work”. And while student work would not be inside the gallery with the work of Gusky and Vishniac, it would be given enormus respect when it was shown on a screen outside the exhibition.

The students were thrilled about the project from the onset long before they knew that inclusion in this show came in conjunction with a trip to the DIA to view the exhibition, discussion of images, general tour of the museum, and copies of the video and booklet of their work.

I can say without reservation that this project garnered more discussion of images, before and after they were shot and printed than any other assignment that I can remember. The students were engaged from the beginning but something palpable changed after we were visited by Linda Margolin and Jennifer Williams who showed the students the PowerPoint that I had seen in September. The intensity and power of the images and the discussion that followed took some of the students in a different direction; some asking if they could shoot again as they knew that only one image each would be submitted.

The students were humbled by the work they saw that day and felt honored to have their work juxtaposed to the images of Gusky and Vishniac. The fact that Jeffrey Gusky was an “amateur” photographer did little to mitigate their concerns that their work would be worthy of inclusion.

Over the next few months the issue that the students grappled with the most was how to tie their own “short” history, to the monumental history of war torn Poland and other ravaged Eastern European countries. I watched each student deconstruct this concept and reassemble it in their own visual vernacular. All the student interruptions were different and they all made the assignment their own.

Interrupting one’s own identity through the lens of a personal history is a powerful mandate and when explored fully can be a teaching tool that extends far beyond photography and the final image.

The students felt an additional connection to the exhibiting photographers as they all worked in the same medium — black and white film and darkroom printing.
We are now getting ready for our visit later this month. I feel that I can speak for all of us when I say that this will be a powerful and inspiring day.

Michelle Stamler

High school students share their perspectives

I jumped in to help out with the exhibition Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky during the last phases of development. I was immediately struck by the artists’ visually and emotionally compelling images that captured Jewish experiences in Poland at different points in time. Their photographs share the theme of memory—both how we remember the lives that once were and the void that remains when they’ve passed.

            The theme of memory applies to us all. Every time I see a photograph of my grandmother, I remember how she taught me to sew—with skill, patience, and a quiet persistence. She’s gone now, but her sewing machine remains—a durable reminder of her special talents. Her memory lives on in the stitches that help construct the garments I sew today.

We all have our own ways of thinking about memory, a fact evidenced by photographs taken by area high school students in conjunction with Of Life and Loss. I was moved by the images we received. As an educator, I’m constantly striving to find ways to make art relevant—searching for those kernels of meaning that will resonate. The results of the student photography project are those kernels – they are moving, insightful, striking, and evocative perspectives on how memory manifests itself in the everyday. Through the discerning eye of each individual student, the intricacies of remembrance emerge.

I was particularly intrigued by the fact that three different students (from two different schools) chose to take photographs of swing sets. Similar to the two photographers featured in the exhibition, the photographs by these three students focus on similar subject matter, but with distinct points of view.

In one, two swings sit empty in a black and white image of an elementary school playground. The student discusses her memories of “soaring through the skies” and her feelings of invincibility. The empty swings remind the viewer of more innocent days.

In another image, a single, broken swing hangs by a metal ring. The student recalls that “Unbroken playgrounds were scarce.” For this artist, the broken swing represents the memories that “children around Detroit hold.” The image captures the collective experiences of many urban youth.

In a third image, a series of swing sets cast linear shadows on the concrete and asphalt playground of a middle school. For this student the swings bring back memories of “swinging the shoes from our feet across the blacktop.” To her, these swing sets represent “the good ol’ days,” suggesting a loss of what once was.

These are just a few of the many student photographs that can be seen in conjunction with Of Life and Loss. Be sure to look for the students’ work when you come. A running slideshow presents the photographs accompanied by a booklet that contains artist statements. Thank you to the photography students and teachers from Dearborn High School, Renaissance High School, and Roeper High School. Your work is proof that art matters.

Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky

Nat Gutman's Wife, Warsaw, 1938, by Roman Vishniac, © Mara Vishniac Kohn courtesy the International Center of Photography

Nat Gutman's Wife, Warsaw, 1938, by Roman Vishniac, © Mara Vishniac Kohn courtesy the International Center of Photography

Late last week, DIA staff finished the installation for the exhibition Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky which opened this past Sunday, April 19.  Sometimes for me, looking at photographs can be like stepping back into the past – or stepping into a time machine – I witness people who may no longer exist as well as the places where they once lived. This was exactly the experience I had when crates arrived at the DIA several weeks ago filled with 90 photographs from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. I saw first hand the work of Roman Vishniac, who photographed Jewish communities in Poland in the 1930s along with the work Jeff Gusky, who photographed remnants of those communities in the late 1990s. The images are powerful transmitters of traditions and history.

Before World War II, over 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland – their traditions, religion, and customs evolved and were preserved in the country for nearly five centuries. By the end of the 20th century, these communities had nearly vanished with their population diminishing to about 20,000 in recent years. Creating a very large visual record of this life, Roman Vishniac photographed the ghettos in Warsaw and Kazimierz as well in other cities in the 1930s. Gusky, although initially unaware of Vishniac’s extensive work in Poland, returned several decades later in the 1990s to capture the former ghettos, abandoned synagogues, and desecrated cemeteries, many which have been subject to neglect or vandalism. Although taken sixty years apart, their images share themes of memory, life, and loss. The photographs are evidence of people and places that once were, and what remains in their absence.

Corridor in Kazimierz, Former Jewish District, Cracow, 1996, by Jeffrey Gusky, © Jeffrey Gusky

Corridor in Kazimierz, Former Jewish District, Cracow, 1996, by Jeffrey Gusky, © Jeffrey Gusky

Photographs like those in Of Life and Loss preserve historical moments, memories and life experiences for future generations. This is largely due to the dedication of individual photographers who capture in-depth ordinary moments or nondescript places. In a photograph these encounters are transformed by personal perceptions, and we acquire the ability to see and experience life through the eyes of a photographer. We grasp some aspect of the world that had somehow escaped our attention.

To further enhance our audience’s experience at the DIA, there are listening stations in the gallery, where visitors can hear personal stories by individuals who have survived the Holocaust in Poland. The audio is courtesy of the Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Campus, in Farmington Hills, Michigan. In addition, just outside the gallery is a monitor and brochures where visitors can view photographic work made in response to this exhibition by local high school students.

Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky is on view through July 12 in the Albert and Peggy de Salle Gallery of Photography at the DIA. The exhibition is organized by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. In Detroit, the exhibition is sponsored by *Bill and Karen Davidson. 

*In blessed memory.

In the Company of Artists – Last Chance to See the Exhibition


Jean Michel Basquiat, 1987, by Ari Marcopoulos
Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1987, by Ari Marcopoulos

Sunday, February 15, 2009, is the last day to see In the Company of Artists at the DIA. During the run of this exhibition, I had the good fortune of spending time with some of the photographers who, through their wonderful portraits, helped make this exhibition such a success.  If you’ve been reading this blog in past weeks, you will already know that Ari Marcopoulos was in town for a lecture in January. He was absolutely thrilled to see his entire portfolio of artists’ portraits  in the exhibition. This photograph of Basquait is a particular favorite of mine. Whenever I see photographs of this artist, it sends me back in time to New York City and the East Village art scene that was so vibrant during the 1980s. Although I never had an opportunity to meet the artist, I almost feel as if I’ve been in his studio when I look at Ari’s work.

Yesterday, Detroit photographer Brad Iverson stopped by the DIA to see the exhibition. We had lunch in the cafe, and I absolutely love hearing him reminisce about his conversations and memories of Detroit artists, their work and exhibitions from the Cass Corridor era in the 1970s. When I visited Brad back in the summer, he had been digging through his archives, and we looked through his many photos of Detroit. I found out during my visit, that he had spent quite a bit of time photographing painter Allie McGhee over the years and one of these portraits is in the exhibition. Apparently, the two met when Detroit collector Gill Silverman commissioned Brad to create a series of portraits of Detroit artists. Brad and Allie became fast friends and jogging partners over the years. I was excited to get the news that Brad has a few book projects in development, and hopefully, I’ll be seeing his work compiled in a publication soon.


Artists' Club, Ionia County, Michigan, ca. 1870-85, by an unknown photographer, from the Leonard and Jean Walle collection.

Although the portraits of contemporary artists have fascinated our visitors, a number of people have remarked to me about the interesting selection of works on view from the 19th century. I am indebted to Len in Jean Walle for sharing a few treasures from their collection with the DIA.  They have been kind enough to invite me to their home where we have spent hours viewing their rare photographs. I remember one visit with the Walle’s last summer, when I first saw this photograph of group of women artists from Ionia, Michigan. I still wonder who these women were, and I’m sure their paintings can be found in the homes and attics of their relatives and friends.

Plans for our next photography exhibition are taking shape and on April 19, 2009, Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky will open in the Albert and Peggy de Salle Gallery of Photography.

Vishniac, Isaac Street, Kazimierz, Cracow, 1938, gelatin silver print, Collection of Mara Vishniac Kohn

Isaac Street, Kazimierz, Cracow, 1938, by Roman Vishniac, Collection of Mara Vishniac Kohn