San Francisco

Leon Borensztein

Leon Borensztein, who was born in Swidnica, Poland, and came to California from Israel in 1978 at the age of 31, makes contemplative documentary photographs that take off from his journeyman’s work as a portraitist for a commercial agency. The job allows him to be, as he says, “an observer of a variety of people”—westerners who, singly or as couples or family groups, have sought out the agency’s services or responded to its promotional campaign. Having finished taking a custom color portrait, Borensztein will often ask his clients to stay on for additional black-and-white shots, adjusting their poses only so far as requiring them not to smile (which some do, regardless).

Here the props and stage machinery of the makeshift studio setup are confidentially laid bare: Borensztein uses the rather wan accoutrements of an impersonal photographic genre as devices for taking the measure of .a subject at hand. Thus, the social situation is doubled. The pictures have a dual shock of intimacy and dislocation, a commonplace formality that catches the sitters midway between their private and public selves. This neither-here-nor-thereness puts each one’s identity teetering on the line. Their persons are exposed in the noncommittal, studied moment of having their pictures taken in more or less familiar environments—at home, or a corner of a hotel or shopping mall—first neutralized, then made lumpily theatrical by the dim trick of cloud pattern on a portable paper backdrop. In such refractive isolation, everyone, though completely in character, looks unusual as well as a little bit the wrong size.

Borensztein sees ordinary people plainly, with a straightahead, blessedly unsardonic focus that jogs across the frontal, mostly full-body views. His format, consistently higher than wide (the images are all 20 by 16 inches), acts as a kind of proscenium, as perfect a frame for the glowing, lithesome Young tap dancer, Fresno, 1986, as for the heavy-duty, imperious Black woman with fox fur, San Francisco, 1983. Within this well-regulated middle distance—give or take a few raggedy edges where the screen ends and you get glimpses of the room or corridor beyond—Borensztein intensifies the camera’s lapidary advantage with contrast and detail. In Military family, Fresno, 1985, a way of life seems to hinge on the lay of the wife’s tanned hand over the white of her husband’s parade-dress glove. In Newlywed couple, Madera, CA, 1985, the flash has fixed on the bride and left the groom beaming in halftone shade; she’s sitting, he’s standing, and you can tell she’s the taller of the two (many of Borensztein’s marrieds are of markedly unequal physique).

Impeccable as such details are, there’s something consistently out of sync about them, just as there is about the people whose stations in life they serve to represent. Borensztein seems devoted to the idea of searching out an unmasked, essential Americanness, but he isn’t greedy about the point and his people don’t look especially American in any generic or contemporaneous sense. If anything, they embody a feeling of American previousness (of being leftovers from the fabled melting pot, perhaps) or of an allegorical realm for which “America” is just the name that comes readiest to mind. Perceptual mismatches notwithstanding—or is it Borensztein’s instantaneous good will to respond to the incongruous facets of just about any soul?—it’s the heartfelt, emblematic sociability of these likenesses as they hold your eyes that makes them memorable.

Bill Berkson