New York

James Friedman

Bertha Urdang Gallery

By going to the sites of various Nazi concentration camps—Auschwitz, Majdanek, Treblinka, and others—and photographing them as they appear today, James Friedman opens issues of memory and narrative, as well as of the real horrors of the Holocaust. These pictures show not so much the banality of evil, in Hannah Arendt’s phrase, as the banality of ’’the past”—the set of stories, necessarily semifictional and self-justifying, that we as a culture construct from historical events, no matter how horrendous, to explain how we got where we are today. Predictably, these sites have been turned into tourist stops—theme parks of evil, complete with visitors’ centers, mural-sized photos of the camps in operation, and polyester-clad tourists.

The urgent purpose of this transformation, of course, is to keep alive the memory of the terrible facts of the Holocaust. One of the things Friedman’s photographs suggest is how inadequate to that task are the physical devices—display cases, wall plaques, illustrated maps—usually employed to memorialize historical sites. The people who come to the camps, including German tourists, Polish workmen, and camp survivors returning for a reunion, seem remarkably ordinary. The land itself, green and sunny, appears indifferent, even opposed to a memorial purpose. Nearly everything refuses to take on the dramatic proportions we believe it should have, given the dimensions of the tragedy we know was enacted there. Only small details, like the blood gutter in a photograph of a crematorium’s operating table, bring bak the reality of the camps’ operation in its full horror.

The strength of these photographs lies in their ability to accentuate the contrast between how these sites appear today and our awareness of what occurred there. Unfortunately, Friedman seems not to trust that this contrast will be apparent. By using a short lens that doesn’t cover the full negative of his large-format camera, he vignettes each scene, framing it with black corners. In the work of Eugène Atget or Walker Evans—or D.W. Griffith—this device could suggest the distance, and sadness, of the past, but it’s become an art-photography cliché. In Friedman’s pictures it seems like mood music, a sentimental sign which substitutes for real emotion, like the twirled mustaches of melodrama.

Such an approach is especially problematic in dealing with the Holocaust, which is already in danger of being sentimentalized to the point where the real facts of its occurrence are obscured by fictional stereotypes. It’s important to tell the story of the Holocaust over and over; the danger is that, told poorly, it will become banal, or simply entertainment. Fiction, and memory, are really the only means we have for keeping the events alive in their full emotional intensity, as time closes over them. The difficulty, though, is to avoid turning crucially important occurrences such as the Holocaust into stock stereotypes, cozy metaphors that merely confirm us in what we think we know. The events of the Nazis’ attempt to destroy the Jews have provided a wealth of stories that illustrate the strength of human endurance—from The Diary of Anne Frank (book, play, film, TV drama, and used by Philip Roth as a central image in The Ghost Writer), to William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice (book and movie), to Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List (the movie rights of which have been bought by Steven Spielberg). Fortunately, we haven’t yet had a situation comedy about the Holocaust—Hogan’s Heroes was about a prisoner-of-war camp, not Auschwitz.

Charles Hagen