Everything and Nothing: Kazimierz 1999/2014
On a cold afternoon in March 1999, on my first visit to Kraków, I set up my tripod on the corner of Bożego Ciała and Meisela Streets in the Kazimierz district, in front of an antique shop called “Wszystko i Nic,” “Everything and Nothing.” I suppose I could say I was looking for both of those things: for Jewish traces as shreds of my people’s survival, and for Jewish tracelessness as confirmation of the truth of annihilation. That the Jewish should persist as both trace and tracelessness, as both clearly recognizable and profoundly mixed with ambivalence and suggestion is, from one point of view, a problem of doubt. From another it is precisely an indication of a people's strength in history and in the human heart. I was at the beginning of years of looking into my camera for what I would call dialectical truth about the Jewish––the truth of Jewish presence as it stands with the truth of Jewish absence, each being an aspect of the other. I was looking for seeming facts as they solicit severed facts. I was looking for the Jewish something as it keeps petitioning the Jewish nothing, and Jewish memory as it keeps wringing out the contradictory verdicts of Jewish loss. On that early spring afternoon, I made several long exposure photographs. As I composed them, Everything and Nothing is bracketed by a wrecked car and the urgent business of a cut-rate fruitseller selling straight from cardboard boxes on the curb. In the image I liked best, there are five figures in various states of evanescence. The unpredictable changes of split seconds (much less epochs) have strangely decapitated one pedestrian, leaving his head to be replaced with the English word “HEADS” scrawled on the wall.
In subsequent years I returned to Kazimierz over and over, watching it undergo gentrification, self-commodification as a Jewish historical district, and authentic Jewish renewal. These changes have been the subject of insightful books by Monika Murzyn (The Central European Experience of Urban Regeneration / Kazimierz, 2006) and Erica Lehrer (Jewish Poland Revisited: Heritage Tourism in Unquiet Places, 2013), and of a extended piece of mine from 2010, “Interrogating Place: Kazimierz, Kraków, Poland.” In November 2014, I created a new set of images of Kazimierz with the intent of testing them against the first pictures I made in 1999. I used the same camera and the same lens: a Hasselblad 500 C/M fitted with a chrome-barreled f/2.8 80mm Zeiss Planar. Where I shot in black-and-white in 1999, using Kodak’s T-MAX 100 film, I shot in color in 2014, using Kodak’s Ektar 100. The sequence of diptychs here joins selected pictures from the two periods of work. Each diptych contains one older and one newer image.
To photograph as I do is generally not to use photography to clutch at conclusions, to grasp or possess or “capture” some moment in time, or some experience of time. It is not to seek truth as it stands against falsity, or proof as it stands against disproof. Mostly it is to do the reverse: to loosen conclusions, to release the world from the clutching mind and to release the mind from the clutching impulse, to try to exceed the limits of one's own understanding. It is an open-ended, searching practice that approaches the surfaces of things as the visible tip of a deeper not-altogether-visible reality. My hope with these diptychs of Kazimierz is to discern the interiority of a place in time, which is not straightforwardly a social scientific or a historical phenomenon, though connected to both. Kazimierz has certainly changed in ways that can be studied, and given shape as narrative. At the same time it has persisted as an enigma of time and loss, which is not well understood when framed as an object of knowledge. Describing Kazimierz to me means finding a space between story and poem, between fact and feeling. Photography is one name for this in-between, near-and-distant, approachable-and-shifting space.
Kraków, December 2015