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Brooklyn Museum unveils Frederic Brenner’s photos of Jews around the world

GO Brooklyn Editor

The Jewish Journey: Frederic Brenner’s Photographic Odyssey," is an exhibit of epic proportions now on view at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Canvassing the entire world from St. Lawrence Island, off Alaska, all the way East to Birobidzhan, an autonomous Jewish region formerly part of the USSR, Brenner has snapped the Jewish experience in seemingly every nook and cranny of the globe.

Brenner stretches the possibilities of portraiture, capturing a wide range of humanity, in a variety of social classes and in innumerable settings through his black-and-white photographs. They speak to the resilience and strength of people pushed to the brink, and of the power of faith.

Brenner, 44, was trained in social anthropology and has spent the last 25 years on this project. "The Jewish Journey," assembled by guest curator Dara Meyers-Kingsley, includes more than 140 of Brenner’s gelatin silver photos on fiber-based paper - culled from 80,000 negatives. (To coincide with the exhibition, HarperCollins has just published a two-volume book of Brenner’s work, "Diaspora: Homelands in Exile.")

Although he was trained in social anthropology, Meyers-Kingsley is careful to point out that Brenner is not a photojournalist and that he does "set up" or "construct" some of the compositions, rather than capture spontaneous moments.

"He researches a subject extensively before deciding what image will convey his idea. He then storyboards the shot, puts together a crew, assembles the subjects - sometimes numbering in the hundreds - and produces the image in a single day," explains Meyers-Kingsley.

One of those amazing "set up" shots was of cab drivers on the beach in Coney Island. The cabs are parked in a wide V - like migrating birds in flight - with their drivers perched on them. The caption offers the immigrants’ former occupations - air force pilot, mechanical engineer, etc. - which they left behind in their homelands.

On the opposite end of the spectrum of Jewish life in Brooklyn, Brenner photographs "Gay and Lesbian Families" in the desert room of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Steinhardt Conservatory. While the cluttered composition is less successful than his other works, it’s still an effective play on words.

Brenner’s photographs put a face on horrible atrocities such as his series of Argentinian "mothers of the missing," women whose children were kidnapped, tortured or murdered in the 1970s during the military dictatorship. These women with their naked, lined faces are posed in antiseptic tiled settings. Perhaps in a hospital or sanitarium, these grieving mothers are not coddled in warm, sunlight-filled sanctuaries, but shot in cold, hard rooms nearly 30 years after their children had been taken.

In Brenner’s series on Birobidzhan (an autonomous region of the former Soviet Union created by Josef Stalin in 1934 to house Jews), exhausted, dirt-smudged factory workers show in their wearied looks the failed experiment that drew Jews from the Ukraine, Russia, France, Argentina and America in the hopes of creating a Jewish homeland.

In a color video, "Excerpt from The Last Marranos," a family in Portugal demonstrates their Passover ritual. Held in secret ever since the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834), the "christianized Jews" utterly jumble their customs. The family no longer knows the true meaning behind the rituals, but they continue the traditions of making unleavened bread while secreted away in their attic and lighting Sabbath candles hidden in a cupboard.

While accomplishing the serious business of documenting a race of people who have been chased into exile, Brenner isn’t afraid to let a bit of levity slip into his frames.

In "Michael and Michelle Cohen, Purim," a young couple sporting snorkels pose near the marshy outskirts of Hong Kong as if they were actually thinking of diving into the muck and mire.

In a 1995 portrait taken in Commack, N.Y., Brenner photographs a suburban American family posing for another photographer against a backdrop of Jerusalem’s holy Wailing Wall as part of the Suffolk Y Jewish Community Center’s "World’s Largest Jewish Performing Arts Festival."

In one particularly absurd, incongruous shot in Johannesburg, South Africa, taken in 2001, a perky white woman with teased hair and a string of pearls is placed near two rows of decidedly unhappy black women with papers in their hands. A large sign reads, "Let me teach your maid Jewish cooking. Call Brenda." Did we mention the numerous mounted heads of dead animals in the composition?

Brenner does not limit his subjects to the Jewish Everyman. His Diaspora includes portraits featuring dozens of Jewish celebrities, which reminded me of Adam Sandler’s "Hanukkah Song." A photograph of a labyrinth on Ellis Island shot in 1996 is populated with Roy Lichtenstein, Lauren Bacall, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Philip Glass, Ralph Lauren and Isaac Stern!

The sheer number and variety of the photographs wears on the viewer, and soon the exhibit is no longer about what makes these subjects Jewish, but what makes them and everyone in the exhibition hall the same. We’re all only human, and we’re everything that is noble, funny, strong, nurturing and weak about being human. Thanks to Frederic Brenner for bringing all of us together to experience a palpable sense of our global community.

 

"The Jewish Journey: Frederic Brenner’s Photographic Odyssey" is on view through Jan. 11 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, 200 Eastern Parkway at Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights. Admission is $6, $3 students with valid ID and seniors, free children younger than 12. For more information, call (718) 638-5000 or visit the Web site at www.brooklynmuseum.org.

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