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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, July 12, 2002

Jewish geography Jewish geography (July 12, 2002)

A new photography exhibit at the Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery profiles lives 'far from Zion'

by Rachel Metz

Documentary photographer Jason Francisco is at home among a panoply of black-and-white photographs lining the walls at the Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery. Walking slowly from one part of his exhibit to another, Francisco culls depth and meaning from images that seem, at first glance, full of surface beauty.

A ripple-laden pond hugged by a wall of leafy trees stands out on the back wall of the gallery, evoking serenity and romance. This is the site of a mass grave, Francisco explained, detailing the events surrounding what turns out to be a print of a Holocaust-era shot of Birkenau, a Polish death camp. Francisco calmly described how this particular camp was built on a swamp, and the pond is a solemn, beguiling reminder of the atrocities behind the photograph.

Entitled "Swamp Grave," it is part of Francisco's latest exhibit, "Far From Zion: Time in Jewish Homelands," which runs through Sept. 30. The gallery, which reopened in May 2001 after renovation and retrofitting, displayed Francisco's exhibit of Holocaust photographs, "The Shoah Scrolls," in 1998.

But "Far From Zion" is Francisco's first extensive exhibition, which examines places of Jewish origins, both in Europe and America, and investigates Jewish identity and history. It has naturally evolved from Francisco's earlier projects, "An Unwritten Epic: Rural India at the End of the Twentieth Century," which was shown in 1997 and 1998 in India and Amarillo, Texas; and "Time in San Francisco: Pictures and Words From an American Chinatown," the latter still in its unpublished portfolio phase.

"It's just an honest thing for me to do as an American and as a Jew," Francisco said. "Intellectual honesty is a real motivator for me."

Numbering 157 pieces, the exhibit includes contemporary photographs taken by Francisco during his travels over the past four years through the United States, Ukraine, Poland and France. Intrigued by the opportunity to see first-hand vestiges of Jewish life in different communities worldwide, Francisco was also curious about his own cultural past and wanted to understand the breakdown of communities and, specifically, Jewish communities.

"The project is an effort to take on a lot of myths about Jewish life," Francisco said.

Such myths, he said, include ideas about the continuity of Jewish tradition and the trauma of the Jewish experience over the past century. As Francisco tries to communicate through his images, Jewish history is much more complex than just these two perceptions.

The mixture of faces, places and lucid signs of Jewish life coaxes viewers into examining issues that lie behind the prints. In "Apparitions," Francisco presents photographs made in the Jewish section of Stetsenko Cemetery in Kiev, Ukraine and in the Jewish Cemetery of Chernigov, Ukraine. The prints show gravestone portraits in varying states of decay -- some quite detailed and others peering from the display like ghostly negatives.

On one gallery wall, entitled "East," Francisco shares views of Polish and Ukrainian Jewry, such as in "Arkady," a photograph of his guide in Vinnitsa, Ukraine. The man gazes hesitantly at the camera lens, a shadow of the child who survived the Nazi massacres in Vinnitsa in Sept. 1941 and who now works at the local Jewish welfare office and leads one of the town's two remaining synagogues.

Another portrait, "Klara," was taken in Shargorod, Ukraine and shows a white-haired woman in a flowered dress. Klara is a lifelong resident of the shtetl (Jewish village) and is one of the only remaining members of its Jewish community. Following the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, many Jews emigrated to Europe, the U.S. and Israel. Klara now lives alone in the house in which she was born.

"West," another panel in the gallery, follows the disappearance of Jewish life in certain parts of Western Europe and the U.S., as depicted through photos such as "Dry Grass," a corner of an overgrown field which used to house San Francisco's Jewish quarter, and "Night, Former Synagogue," which also unearths traces of Jewish roots in the Mission District.

Unlike other parts of the exhibit, "Recesses" allows Francisco to illustrate the endurance of many Orthodox Jews. With "Bus, Well," he has captured the neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, home to the ultra-Orthodox Satmar Chassidic community. Other shots show Jews engaging in prayer and synagogue interiors still vibrant with services and activities.

The back wall of the gallery, entitled "Trees," is the most striking -- a shot of the overgrown Babi Yar gorge in Kiev, where approximately 100,000 Jews were massacred in Sept. 1941. In "Trapped Animal, Mass Grave of Sept. 1941," a long-horned white goat stands with its head stuck between iron bars, looking in at the site of a mass grave in Myena Ukraine.

The exhibit showcases only black-and-white photography, which, according to Francisco, suits him best. People tend to associate black-and-white photographs with history, and consider it more authentic, he explained, whereas color currently dominates more commercial markets.

"Photographing is the same to me as talking. It's a very active, integrative part of my life," Francisco said.

As a child growing up in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, Francisco's father gave him a camera during the summer of his bar mitzvah -- possibly to get the 13-year-old boy out of his father's hair, Francisco mused. He began taking photographs and taught himself the basics of photography.

Though Francisco never envisioned his passion for shutter-bugging as a possible career path, he began to realize how important photography was to him after graduating with a philosophy degree from Columbia University. He applied to Stanford's graduate photography program in 1996 and kept honing his skills as a documentary photographer. He is currently an assistant professor at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University in New Jersey and also serves as an art lecturer in Stanford University's Continuing Studies program.

Despite being an accomplished photographer and teacher, Francisco said he has received little outside funding for his project, adding that "Far From Zion" was funded mostly by money he and his wife, artist Sheila Ruen, saved. Through his position at Rutgers, Francisco managed to get a grant last year that financed his trip to the Ukraine.

He said he is not really done with this project, but conceded that it does satisfy his aims -- to give visitors examining the images starting points, from which they can continue fleshing out the stories afterward. Though Francisco thinks there is an intrinsic value in the completion of work, he also recognizes the importance of the process itself, and is prone to start, stop and restart his work.

His focus on time lapses is evident in "Far From Zion," as the positioning of pieces eschew linear chronology in favor of depicting the gamut of Jewish pasts, presents and futures, from inner-city scenes to peaceful pastoral views.

"I think that Jews continue to struggle, and some struggle on the side of affirmation and some struggle on the side of negation," Francisco said.

There is clear evidence of these feelings in his work, as Orthodox communities remain in some areas like New York City but have vanished or remain only in quirky vestiges in cities such as Philadelphia and parts of New Jersey. While some Jews tend to congregate, many also want to assimilate into the cultures around them, spurring the breakdown of many traditionally Jewish communities. The stark images Francisco captured hold these different pieces of 20th-century Jewry captive, inviting viewers to take a close look.

E-mail Rachel Metz at

What: "Far From Zion: Time in Jewish Homelands," an exhibit by photographer Jason Francisco

Where: Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery, 419 Lasuen Mall, situated on the Stanford Campus (across from the Main Quad)

When: Through Sept. 30. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Cost: Admission is free.

Info: Call (650)


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