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Sun August 23, 2020

Predicting the Past: Zohar Studios, The Lost Years

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Predicting the Past: Zohar Studios, The Lost Years is 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, The CJM.

Images: (first image) Stephen Berkman, A Wandering Jewess, undated. Albumen print, 11x 14 in. / (second image) Stephen Berkman, Conjoined Twins, undated. Albumen print, 11x 14 in.
Predicting the Past: Zohar Studios, The Lost Years is 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, The CJM.

Images: (first image) Stephen Berkman, A Wandering Jewess, undated. Albumen print, 11x 14 in. / (second image) Stephen Berkman, Conjoined Twins, undated. Albumen print, 11x 14 in.
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Contemporary Jewish Museum 77 Upcoming Events
736 Mission St, San Francisco, CA 94103

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