THE CONTEMPORARY JEWISH MUSEUM PRESENTS A NEW EXHIBITION
An original photography installation by artist Stephen Berkman
March 12–August 23, 2020
(San Francisco, CA, January 21, 2020) The Contemporary Jewish Museum (The CJM) presents Predicting the Past: Zohar Studios, The Lost Years, an original immersive photography installation by Los Angeles–based artist Stephen Berkman. The exhibition is a tribute to Shimmel Zohar, a nineteenth-century Jewish immigrant and photographer who founded the enigmatic Zohar Studios in New York City. The name Zohar also refers to the collection of writings that form the basis of Kabbalistic study—a historic text that is full of subtexts, obscurities, and tangents. Berkman’s project, spanning more than twenty years, mirrors the complexity and density of this mystical text as he builds upon the layers of Zohar’s story.
The exhibition presents over thirty uncanny photographic prints that address both Jewish life and the state of scientific understanding over 150 years ago. The images, featuring a wide range of dreamers, eccentrics, and malcontents, seek to engage with and embellish upon the conventions of nineteenth-century studio photography. The resulting photographs bear intriguing, often allusive titles such as Victim of a Practical Joke, The History of Dread: A Guide for the Perplexed, Wandering Jewess, and A Luddite Gazing into the Future. The photographs are accompanied by a cabinet of curiosities containing ephemera related to Zohar’s story, various artifacts featured in the photographs, and a pair of large-scale installations featuring arcane optical viewing apparatuses.
An extraordinary artist book titled Predicting the Past: Zohar Studios, The Lost Years will accompany the exhibition. The book will contain thorough annotations for each photograph, a chapter on the studio, and a specially commissioned afterword by acclaimed writer Lawrence Weschler. The 368-page book will be available for purchase in The CJM Shop.
“Berkman’s work falls into the tradition of the artist-made museum, much like the famous Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles by the artist David Wilson,” says Lori Starr, Executive Director, The CJM. “It’s a fascinating art practice that moves beyond binary questions of fact and fiction. We are so pleased to be presenting Stephen’s first exhibition in a museum setting.”
In addition to his art practice, Berkman, who was raised in the Bay Area, also creates historical photography for large-scale Hollywood films. Obsessed with Victorian culture and technology, he has perfected the rare and extremely difficult chemical photographic process known as wet collodion, which entails coating one side of a clean glass plate with ether, grain alcohol, and nitrate cellulose, and then dipping the plate in silver nitrate. The plate is exposed to light while still wet, and must be developed and fixed immediately after making the exposure. Berkman uses a large-format view camera with a Dallmeyer lens from 1864, whose glass is covered with nineteenth-century dust. The resulting albumen prints are rich with an unmistakable archaic quality: beautiful, detailed, and strangely unsettling.
“I appreciate the visual code of the nineteenth century, the formality of it, the way things looked, and the mix between art and science,” says Berkman. “What intrigues me is getting inside the minds of people from another time and feeling that their time, what we now consider the past, was at one time contemporary. We are both the beneficiaries and victims of history.”
Both the photographs and the various objects included in the installation create an idiosyncratic vision of Victorian life in the United States, revitalizing bygone technologies and themes within a twenty-first-century context. Through his work, Stephen Berkman shows that history is malleable and contains a multiplicity of meanings.
Predicting the Past: Zohar Studios, The Lost Years has been co-curated by Justin Limoges, Chief Preparator and Exhibition Designer, and Heidi Rabben, Senior Curator of The CJM.
Based in Pasadena, California, Stephen Berkman’s work revolves around the use of antiquated photographic and optical processes. Working with the wet collodion process since 1997, Berkman’s work was featured in the definitive compendium on the revival of historic photography, Photography’s Antiquarian Avant-Garde, published by Abrams in 2002 and authored by New York Times contributor Lyle Rexer. In addition, Berkman’s photographs have been featured in Blind Spot; Art in America; i-D magazine; and the book The Journal of Contemporary Photography: Strange Genius; to name a few.
His photographs have also been included in solo and group exhibitions: The Museum of Photographic Arts (MoPA) Laband Gallery; University of Southern California, Cepa; and the Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York. His photographs are in the permanent collections of MoPA and Portland Art Museum. In addition to his fine art work, Berkman has been commissioned to create historic photographs for many films and documentaries, including Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay; The Assassination of Jesses James by the Coward Robert Ford; and Cold Mountain. Berkman currently is on the film faculty at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California where he has taught since 1995.
With the opening of its new building on June 8, 2008, The CJM ushered in a new chapter in its twenty-plus year history of engaging audiences and artists in exploring contemporary perspectives on Jewish culture, history, art, and ideas. The facility, designed by internationally renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, is a lively center where people of all ages and backgrounds can gather to experience art, share diverse perspectives, and engage in hands-on activities. Inspired by the Hebrew phrase L’Chaim (To Life), the building is a physical embodiment of The CJM’s mission to bring together tradition and innovation in an exploration of the Jewish experience in the twenty-first century.
Major support for The CJM’s educational programs for youth, young adults, and families with young children comes from Jim Joseph Foundation. The Museum thanks the Koret Foundation for major support of Jewish Peoplehood exhibitions and programs. Additional major support is provided by an anonymous donor; Bank of America; The Covenant Foundation; Suzanne and Elliott Felson; Gaia Fund; Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation; Grants for the Arts; Walter and Elise Haas Fund; The Hearst Foundations; Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties; Wendy Kesser; Maribelle and Stephen Leavitt; Nellie and Max Levchin; 706 Mission Co LLC; The Bernard Osher Foundation; Lisa Stone Pritzker; John Pritzker; Dorothy R. Saxe; Seiger Family Foundation; Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture; United States Department of Homeland Security; and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
Major support for The Museum’s Helen Diller Institute is generously provided by The Helen Diller Family Foundation.
The Museum is open daily (except Wednesday) 11am–5pm and Thursday, 11am–8pm. Museum admission is $16 for adults, $14 for students and senior citizens with a valid ID, and $8 on Thursdays after 5pm. Youth 18 and under always get in free. For general information on The Contemporary Jewish Museum, the public may visit The Museum’s website at thecjm.org or call 415.655.7800. The Contemporary Jewish Museum is located at 736 Mission Street (between Third & Fourth streets), San Francisco.