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Predicting the Past: Zohar Studios, The Lost Years

Mar 12, 2020–Aug 23, 2020

This is an exhibition of photography and installation by Los Angeles-based artist Stephen Berkman, who grew up in the Bay Area. The exhibition consists of images by the nineteenth century Jewish immigrant photographer Shimmel Zohar from his studio on the Lower East Side in New York City. Viewers will see thirty prints in elaborate Victorian frames that address both Jewish life and the scientific state of understanding over one hundred years ago. In addition, there will be a set of environmental installations that utilize antique technological visual phenomena.

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about the exhibition

Stephen Berkman is a Bay Area-raised, Los Angeles-based Jewish photographer. He makes his living creating historical photography for large-scale Hollywood films. He is obsessed with Victorian culture and technology. Berkman has perfected the rare and extremely difficult antique photographic process known as “wet collodion.” Made with a very large camera and glass negatives, the resulting albumen prints are rich with an unmistakable archaic quality: beautiful, detailed, and strangely unsettling.

Berkman says that the works are “a tribute to the enigmatic nineteenth century New York City photographic establishment known as Zohar Studios, located in the predominantly Jewish Lower East Side.” This body of work falls into the tradition of the artist-made museum, such as Los Angeles’ famous Museum of Jurassic Technology by the artist David Wilson. Like Wilson, Berkman’s art moves beyond binary questions of fact and fiction.

The name Zohar refers to the writings that form the basis of Kabbalistic study. This historic text is full of subtexts, obscurities, and tangents. Berkman mirrors the complexity and density of this mystical text as he builds upon the story of Shimmel Zohar, an immigrant from Eastern Europe who came to New York in the middle of the nineteenth century. Berkman’s photographs and ephemera create a vision of Victorian life in the United States with all of its idiosyncrasies intact. Expanding upon the theme of the early years of photography, Berkman’s camera obscura installations converge at the crossroads of art, science, and magic.

The exhibition contains thirty photographs, several large installations, a case of ephemera from the life of Shimmel Zohar, and a large format 250-page artist book about the entire Zohar project.

The exhibition is co-curated by CJM Senior Curator Heidi Rabben and Chief Preparator and Exhibition Designer Justin Limoges.

about stephen berkman

Stephen Berkman was born in Syracuse New York. Now based in Pasadena, California, 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; USC, 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, A short listing of a few titles include: 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.

Image Credit

Header image: Stephen Berkman, A Wandering Jewess (detail). Albumen print. Undated.