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Predicting the Past: Zohar Studios, The Lost Years

Oct 17, 2020–Jun 27, 2021

Los Angeles-based artist Stephen Berkman’s immersive photography installation is a tribute to Shimmel Zohar, a mythical nineteenth-century Jewish immigrant photographer, founder of Zohar Studios. The exhibition includes over thirty photographs, several large installations, a cabinet of curiosities, and a large format artist book about the Zohar project. These uncanny photographs take the visual codes of nineteenth-century portraiture as their point of departure, and the images and objects address both Jewish life and the scientific state of understanding over one hundred years ago. Together, they 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, Berkman shows that history is malleable and contains a multiplicity of meanings.

Berkman’s installation brings to life an 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 the Museum of Jurassic Technology by the artist David Wilson in Los Angeles. Like Wilson, Berkman’s art moves beyond the binary of fact and fiction, creating a portal to another world.

The name Zohar also refers to the writings that form the basis of Kabbalistic study. This historic text is full of allusions, obscurities, and tangents. Berkman mirrors the complexity and density of this mystical text as he builds the story of Shimmel Zohar, an immigrant from Eastern Europe who came to New York and opened a portrait studio. Using the formality and inherent strangeness of early photography as both anchor and foil, Berkman’s photographs and camera obscura installations create new narratives that live at the crossroads of art, science, history, and illusion.

A Jewish photographer, Stephen Berkman was raised in the Bay Area and now resides Los Angeles. Obsessed with Victorian culture and technology, Berkman has perfected the rare and extremely difficult pre-chemical photographic process known as “wet collodion.” Made with a very large camera using glass negatives, the resulting albumen prints have an unmistakable archaic quality: beautiful, richly detailed, and unsettling.

This exhibition is organized by The Contemporary Jewish Museum and is co-curated by Chief Preparator and Exhibition Designer Justin Limoges and Senior Curator Heidi Rabben.


This exhibition is included in your general admission ticket. Become a Member to receive free admission. All visitors are required to book their timed tickets online in advance to facilitate a contactless visit to The Museum.


Your health and safety are of the utmost importance to all of us here at The Contemporary Jewish Museum (The CJM). During the COVID-19 pandemic, we are offering a virtual version of Predicting the Past: Zohar Studios, The Lost Years that you can explore from home if you are unable to visit The Museum in person.

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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, including: Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, The Assassination of Jesses James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Cold Mountain. Berkman is currently on the film faculty at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California where he has taught since 1995.


Predicting the Past: Zohar Studios, The Lost Years is organized by The Contemporary Jewish Museum. Leadership support is generously provided by Maribelle and Stephen Leavitt, The Bernard Osher Foundation, and the John Pritzker Family Fund. Major support is provided by Joyce B. Linker and Dorothy R. Saxe.

Media Sponsorship is provided by the San Francisco Chronicle

Image Credit

Header image: Stephen Berkman, A Wandering Jewess (detail), undated. Albumen print, 11x 14 in.