Shimon Attie

Galerie Claude Samuel

“Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows,” wrote Maxim Gorky nearly a hundred years ago in his celebrated account of an early Lumière brothers film projection at the Nizhni-Novgorod Fair. If the image comes to mind in connection with Shimon Attie’s exhibit of 15 color photographs from his “Finstere Medine” project, 1991–93, there is more than a metaphor at work. In fact, the project began as a series of outdoor projections in a run-down Berlin neighborhood that once housed poor, unassimilated Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. (Finstere Medine means “disreputable quarter” in Yiddish.) Superimposed onto the houses and storefronts of the Scheunenviertel, not far from the Alexanderplatz, were photographs taken in the area, and often on the very same sites, fifty or sixty years ago.

In these haunted, haunting photographs that record the projections, the “former residents,” as Attie clinically identifies them in the exhibition captions, resume their former places in a postwar, post–Berlin wall world. Like black and white ghosts from Gorky’s Kingdom of Shadows, they pause, or sometimes pose, on the sidewalk, sit on stoops, tend their shops, nearly always as oblivious to the camera as they are to their impending fate. One “former Jewish resident” with beard and yarmulke sits on the stoop in front of a shop window full of hats (1930); another stares out of a window next to a Torah reading room (1929–31); a woman and two children exude their poverty on the sidewalk in front of a window marked “BOOKS” in Yiddish (1931). Two men with their backs to us enter a “former Jewish cafe” (1933); outside of a “former Hebrew bookstore” (1930), another man is similarly seen from the back as he surveys the books in the window.

But no matter how perfectly, and uncannily, the projected images coincide with the present sites (in one photograph, the current street number is even repeated by the projected one), there is always an equally uncanny contrast between past and present. In Former Religious Books Salesman (1930), 1991–93, a ghost with a long white beard and a huge pile of books stands in the doorway of a building no less rundown today than it was 60 years ago, but right next door is an aseptically modern facade that inserts present-day Berlin into the image. In Former Jewish Residents (ca. 1932), 1991, a woman and child on their stoop are literally projected into the urban landscape of the ’90s, complete with the protest graffiti (“What the war spared did not survive under Socialism”) and the vacant lot and scaffolding that spell redevelopment; looming in the neon-drenched sky is a space-age TV transmitter.

For Attie, a Bay Area photographer who went to Berlin in 1991 with the idea of working on the Jewish community in Germany and the Second World War, the projections were a way of giving visual form to an invisible, obliterated past, of affirming “the singular presence of the absent.” But consciously or not, he has done more than that. Through the deliberate juxtaposition of past and present (emphasized not only by the choice of sites but also by the way he has photographed them), he has avoided the ghetto of nostalgia and sentimentality and given his subjects an immediate, universal dimension. New ghosts are being created in the new Germany (not to mention the new ex-Yugoslavia and elsewhere) every day, and “Finstere Medine” is their portrait as well.

Miriam Rosen