On this day, the former prisoner of three Nazi concentration camps was being honored by Poland as a heroine during a nationally televised event. She wore her uniform with her prisoner number and a red triangle with "P", indicating she was a Polish political enemy of the Third Reich. The onlookers on this photograph seemed more interested in my large, unusual camera, tripod and dark cloth and my odd photographic machinations than in her.
The soldiers had been assigned to Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of their tours of duty. Standing under the entrance gate that displays the Nazi slogan "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("work sets you free"), they were delivering picture frames to one of the camp's exhibits.
As I made this photograph on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I thought of August Sander's pictures of Germans from his series "Citizens of the Twentieth Century", and how this family looked as if they had stepped out of one of Sander's photographs from the 1930s. I sensed the ghosts of Margaret Bourke-White and George Rodger, whose photographs (including ones at Bergen-Belsen) revealed the death camps in the May 7, 1945 issue of Life Magazine, lurking nearby.
Except for a concrete marker indicating a concentration camp had once existed been on the site, Bisingen showed no other signs of its past. Sheep were grazing on the grassy site as a shepherd spoke with a local resident. I remember looking across the lush valley and seeing a Hohenzollern castle built in the 15th century and wondering what it might have meant to the prisoners.
I set my camera in front of the wall where Jewish prisoners were shot. I saw an East German man and his son nearby and immediately decided to include the boy in the photograph because the color of his sweater nearly matched that of the numer "37" on the wall. Though I didn't speak German, somehow I was able to gain the father's permission to photograph his son.
In five languages, the sign on the wall describes how the barracks were used by the Nazis. A yahrzeit candle and flowers had been left on the dissection table as an expression of remembrance for those who had been murdered here.
I made this photograph on the second day in Dachau. Adjacent to the camp was a parking lot that was situated between a restaurant and a soccer field. From the restaurant I saw a boy playing with a remote-control toy car in the empty parking lot. Rather than use the tripod with my 8"x10" folding field camera as I typically did, I composed the photograph by lying on my stomach and positioning the camera on the gravel surface until everything looked coherent and I took the picture.
I had read that Jews were gassed at Natzweiler-Struthof and their cadavers given to physicians at the University of Strasbourg, who wanted to create a Jewish Skeleton Collection to demonstrate racial inferiority of Jews. But I saw no acknowledgement at Natzweiler-Struthof that Jews had been murdered there, and Christian symbols dominated the site.
I came face to face with enormity of the camp when I was in the guard tower. The barracks below seemed unchanged since the end of the war. As I looked down on the train tracks, I thought of the climatic scene in the 1982 movie "Sophie's Choice", in which Meryl Streep's character is forced to choose which of her two children to send to the gas chamber. I realized thousands of prisoners were sent to the gas chambers by Nazis such as Josef Mengele and Rudolf Höss, merely fifty feet below where I stood.
Since the end of World War II, local residents of Oświęcim, Poland, had been assigned small plots of the 17 square-mile former Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi concentrantion camp site to tend and maintain. During my photographing there, this man was using a scythe to cut the grass on his plot. Through an interpreter, he told me he had helped prisoners escape from the camp during the war.
The Dutch survivors of Natzweiler-Struthof, now living throughout the world, told me they returned to the camp frequently for reunions. When I asked if Jews had been imprisoned there, they said yes and told me they did not know why there was no mention at the site that the Jews were murdered there. I remember thinking that the survivor on the left looked dashing and elegant wearing an aviator's jacket and paisley ascot.
12 Nazi Concentration Camps has been called “the most significant body of photographic work on concentration camps in the post-Holocaust era”. More than 30 years after he completed the project in the 1980s, James Friedman is exhibiting at the Cincinnati Skirball Museum and talks about his photographs again.
I was inspired to make the photographs for 12 Nazi Concentration Camps for a number of reasons. For one thing, I thought it would be a way to drive out some of the anger and powerlessness I had felt about anti-Semitic acts perpetrated against me and my family. Many of these events occurred in my childhood and they have been a pernicious influence in my life. I grew up in an upper-middle class, Midwestern neighborhood in the 1950s and ‘60s, where one would not expect to find overt racism or anti-Semitism, but it was there in large and small instances. When I was four years old, I saw German-American teenage neighbors in our backyard gloating as they stood next to my family’s pet dog, whom they had just lynched. Later, other neighbors set our house on fire and damaged it with gunshots. My parents, perhaps fearing retribution, chose not to prosecute any of the perpetrators. I often wish that my parents had expressed outrage at these despicable acts, involved the police, pressed charges, done something other than be silent and passive. Of course, I too was silent. I was moved to photograph the camps, in part, as a way not to be silent or passive any more.
Extended interview with the Cincinnati exhibition organisers and James Friedman, recorded by the WMKV radio station.
Another very early experience that led me to this project came when I was only three years old. I happened to be in the neighborhood movie theater, eating buttered popcorn and waiting for a Technicolor comedy to begin, when a newsreel showing murdered Holocaust victims was played. The black-and-white images of piles of cadavers made a vivid, horrifying and enduring impression on me. But as an adult, and a professional photographer and professor of photography, repeated viewings of images of the Holocaust began to deaden my emotional responses, to desensitize me. Still, – like everyone, but particularly Jews – I was acutely aware of the events of the Holocaust and of the lasting impact of its images. In 1981, I determined to experience directly some of the very places where the Holocaust happened.
The pictures from 12 Nazi Concentration Camps may be surprising to you. They probably will not match your expectations. I made photographs that are very different from the somber, black-and-white images from which most of the world has learned about the Holocaust. I used an unwieldy and non-journalistic 8” x 10” field camera and color film to make pictures that are counterpoints to the personal archive of black-and-white Holocaust images housed in my head, starting with the newsreel footage I saw as a three-year-old. I wanted my photographs to revive my responses that had been numbed from repeated exposure to Holocaust imagery. I want viewers who see these photographs to consider what images are in their own internal Holocaust archives, the inventory of images all of us carry in our heads. I think many viewers still expect that even contemporary photographs of Nazi concentration camps should be in black and white, and devoid of people or any reference to the contemporary world.
Particularly memorable on the 1983 trip to Poland were the photographic murals used to illustrate events that had taken place at Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. Startling in their sizes - some were 10 by 15 feet - these black-and-white enlargements were part of the public archive of the Holocaust and ubiquitous reminders of the images against which my photographs would always be compared.
My color photographs include self-portraits and images of tourists and survivors, schoolchildren on field trips, people sitting at cafes, workers tending the grounds. These elements bring the modern world, or at least the modern world of the early 1980s, into these horrific historic sites. In my view, the horror in my pictures surfaces because viewers overlay onto these sometimes mundane scenes both their knowledge of what happened in these places and the images that are in their own internal archives. My photographs have inspired visceral responses in many viewers.
During a lecture I gave at the International Center of Photography in New York, an enraged audience member screamed, “You can’t photograph Nazi concentration camps in color, on sunny days. Don’t you know that the Holocaust happened in black and white? There weren’t any deep blue skies or puffy white clouds during the Holocaust.”
The color photographs close the distance between past and present and may challenge some viewers’ longheld perceptions. I’ve been gratified to have had many positive responses to this work, from critics and academics. The response I probably cherished the most, though, was when Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote that he was deeply moved by my photographs.
The pictures are in part a visual diary of my journeys to these sites that were, in many ways, psychically perilous for me. I recall feeling psychologically disoriented and off-balance at the camps. It was unsettling to see brightly clothed, raucous tourists at these locations. And it was hard to know how to behave. For example, would it be disrespectful to wear sneakers at such sites?
In Europe I learned that for me as an artist, intuition and heart are more important than intellect and rationality. It was challenging to spend a day photographing at Dachau and then go have dinner at a German restaurant in Munich. I found it impossible to put aside what I had experienced earlier in the day. It took weeks, if not months, after I came home for that trauma to dissipate. And in some ways I still live with it, all these years later.
James Friedman, fragments of the speech at the Skirball Museum Opening Reception, Cincinnati, USA, October 13, 2016.
All photographs and their descriptions: © James Friedman
12 Nazi Concentration Camps at the Skirball Museum is a part of FotoFocus Biennial 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio, October 13, 2016 – January 29, 2017.
James Friedman is a teacher, curator, picture editor and a fine art, portrait, architectural, commercial and personal documentary photographer. His work has been exhibited internationally and been published in numerous books and discussed in Artforum, Arts, Afterimage, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice and The New York Times. The works included in 12 Nazi Concentration Camps toured in the United States and Canada from 1988 to 2002 but had not been seen as a group since then.
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