Portraits of Survival at the Sydney Jewish Museum

 

My catalogue essay Portraits of Survival about Katherine Griffiths for the Sydney Jewish Museum’s exhibition ‘Closer’

Touch and vision are closely intertwined in photographs. The super-sensitive surface at the tip of each finger is intimately linked, perceptually if not physically, to the sensitive retina at the back of each eye. Just look at Katherine Griffiths’ photographs, as you look your fingertips will begin to almost tingle at the touch of the objects the survivors are holding. Recently this interest in ‘haptic vision’ has burgeoned amongst artists. In his widely influential book The Eyes of the Skin, Juhani Pallasmaa argues for the primacy of touch over all the other senses. ‘Touch’, he says, ‘is the sensory mode that integrates our experience of the world with that of ourselves.’ But not only does touch filter the outside world into our bodies, it also connects us directly to other humans, and to history:

The skin reads the texture, weight, density and temperature of matter. The surface of an old object, polished to perfection by the tool of the craftsman and the assiduous hands of its users, seduces the stroking of the hand. … The tactile sense connects us with time and tradition: through impressions of touch we shake the hands of countless generations.

Touch and the act of holding have long been integral to the history of photography. In early photographic studio portraits sitters were given leather-bound books or other items of social or religious significance to hold. These objects held symbolic power, but they also enabled the sitter to ‘perform’ their hands, their firm grip expressed the solidity of their place in the world. If touch connects us to identity, it also directly connects us to memory. In the nineteenth century bereaved mothers were frequently photographed holding photographs of their deceased children. Part of the emotional impact of these strange images is the paradoxical multiplication of time. The time of the child and the mother were split apart by death, but they are brought together again in the frozen instant of the photograph, which we, as viewers from the future, look mournfully back into. But their power also comes from the tragedy of touch. Instead of cradling the soft warm flesh of her child the bereaved mother can only grip a cold hard frame propped on her knee. In our contemporary mass media it is commonplace to see all types of victims gripping photographs of the dead, the missing, or the imprisoned in public acts of commemoration, mourning, or defiance. Some clutch their photographs protectively to their chests, others hold them up high and proud. Even in these press images it is the act of touching which again becomes the fulcrum of the image, pivoting between inner personal experience and outer public declaration.

It is therefore a rich tradition Katherine Griffiths has entered. But her photographs are not mournful, not defiant, and not ‘heavy’. Instead they are warm and even friendly. The survivors are photographed against an ordinary portrait studio backdrop, with ordinary portrait studio lighting. These are not stark mug shots of monumentalized faces, nor are they gritty evidence of the pathos of elderly people. Instead we see a rapport and collaboration between photographer and subject, all of whom look comfortable, neatly dressed, and … well … nice. They have been through a famously unrepresentable period in history, and hold objects freighted with an unbearable weight of pain, yet they look … well … ordinary. But it is a marvelous, rich, wonderful ordinariness.

Eddie Jaku delicately uncurls a thin, crumbling leather belt — the belt he wore through four prison camps — as though it was a timorous animal curled up in his hands. The viewer’s sense of the texture of the belt’s splitting tongue against his fingers, and the weight of its buckle on his palm, powerfully reconstitute the experiences he endured and the now absent trousers the belt once held up. Egon Sonnenschein looks directly into our eyes as he holds out to us a postcard whose surface is covered with the coloured marks and inscriptions of its ricocheting around Europe. The wings of this ephemeral butterfly appear to have been delicately caught in mid-flight by the tips of his fingers.

When they are held in the birdlike hands of survivors, the yellowing passports, certificates, and identity papers from the past — the slips of paper that enabled the wheels of historical fate to turn — take on a higher charge. This is especially so when a photograph is found amidst the bureaucratic hieroglyphs. Helena Goldstein, aged 97, looks straight down the camera at us as she presents her identity card. Amongst the inky stamps and smudged signatures we find her ID photograph where, aged 24, she once again looks straight at us with a clear-eyed smile. The same looks travel to us in close parallel, though separated by oceans of time. In a reversal of the normal roles of mother and daughter Ilse Charny cradles a tiny image of her mother in the form of an identity photograph within a Shanghai Jewish refugee document. She holds more than just banal data but a direct, even fleshy, connection to history as we recognize family resemblances in both faces.

George Gronjowski holds up his concentration camp tunic for us to see, but his red-rimmed eyes are looking off into the past. This faraway look is also in the eyes of John Gruschka as he fans out, between the parchment-like skin of his fingers, the desiccated pages of the letters his mother wrote to him from Prague, as he sheltered in England, before her murder in Auschwitz. Joe Symon stares frankly ahead as he confidently flips up for us a photograph of his fifteen year old self, while Lotte Weiss, wearing her hair done elegantly in a salon, freshly applied lipstick, golden earrings, pearls, and a warm, open expression, holds her shaven-headed mug shots from Auschwitz across her chest while matter-of-factly displaying the identification number tattooed on her arm.

Peter Rossler gazes into our eyes as he shows us his Aunt’s Jewish star, clasped by its topmost point. It’s a badge, now a tentative emblem of pride, which perfectly plays off the school-crests stitched across his neatly tied neck-tie. In a similar way, Jaqueline Dale holds a model of a wooden ship, an incongruously bulky internment camp souvenir, against her pink top and pearls.

Although they are all humble, not all these precious objects come from the dark days of the Holocaust. Some contribute to other narratives, such as the broader history of migration to Australia. For instance Yvonne Engel ‘brings a plate’ to the exhibition, it was brought from Woolworths in 1949 as a humble wedding gift for the first marriage of child survivors on Australian soil. The weight of the decoratively cut glass Yvonne’s holds out to us makes us think of all the savouries and sweets this plate has carried to social functions over the subsequent decades as the couple put down their roots in Australian society.

The touch and feel of the domestic is a powerful thread throughout these survivors’ lives. Paul Drexler cradles the blanket which comforted him during the war over his knees as he looks off to one side in quiet, inner contemplation. Olga Horak also holds a blanket, this one made of human hair. Here we once again experience the transforming power of touch. Typically, human hair is beautiful on the head, but abjectly disgusting when detached from the head. But under the transformative power of Olga’s soft touch and equally soft eyes the blanket is no longer just a curious museum object, or historical evidence of cruelty and suffering, it becomes a beautiful warm, comforting, familiar thing.

In these portraits a photographer has collaborated with her subjects in the safe, respectful space of the studio. The photographs, although dealing with memories of historical cataclysm, approach the subject through touch — the most ordinary, the most intimate, and the most marvellous of all the senses.

Martyn Jolly

Katherine Griffiths, George Gronjowski, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Gerty Jellinek, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Ilse Charny, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Jack Meister, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Lena Goldstein, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Lotte Weiss, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Olga Horak, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

Katherine Griffiths, Peter Rossler, from the Sydney Jewish Museum exhibition ‘Closer’

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