Stephen Berkman – Predicting The Past – Zohar Studios: The Lost Years

Review by Douglas Stockdale

The cover photograph of a book can provide a visual hint of what is yet to come. A vexing book title can add mystery and intrigue. What appears to be an 1800s wet-plate collodion photograph of a woman holding a banner in front of a painted tableaux seems to falter upon closer inspection; is she actually wearing roller skates? How could that possibly occur at that time? The book’s title; Predicting the Past is another twist on grammar; it should not be very difficult to “predict” what has already occurred. Should it?

It should then come to no surprise that Stephen Berkman’s opus Predicting The Past– Zohar Studios: The Lost Years is a massive and immense assemblage of history and necessary fictions. As an example, the title page for the Plates, a publishing term for what is on the pages as a result of using a printing plate, is faced by an ornately costumed individual who appears to be performing the act of spinning, what else, a series of plates. A delightful beginning for an entire series of visual puns and ribald narratives. This is a panoramic and humorous view of American life in the second half of the 1800s, channeled by a mythical nineteenth-century Jewish immigrant studio photographer, Shimmel Zohar.

Contents of the “plates” include the titles Quixotic Quests, Good Intentions, Vexing Situations, Cautionary Tales, Empirical Knowledge, Second Nature, Lessons Lost and Foregone Conclusions. The section of A Somnambulist’s Guide to The Photographs provides extended captions with illustrations that somehow attempt to explain the inexplicable. To say that some of the images here within are a bit bawdy is an understatement.

Being a scientist, I really enjoyed the photograph titled Chemist Developing Non-Humorous Laughing Gas which I find to be hysterical as a visual spoof on science. Similarly, in the section of Good Intentions, the visual pun for a Pointilist Painter who appears to require special spectacles that allows him to paint the required dots is again, too funny. It does make one wonder if indeed this was required by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac at this same time period of the 1880s. Is it not plausible that such constricted glasses would make it easier to create these famous Pointillism paintings?

Within the section of Good Intentions are visual revelations for Woman Hand-Knitting A Condom and her handiwork is rather large as well a porous, followed by the plate for the Man With Downtrodden Banana, an innuendo we can only assume. There is also Lazy Susan, an immodest plate that purportedly reveals her ability to grow her pubic hair to stylish proportions, which is explained in my much detail in the later Somnambulist’s Guide, including a promotional picture of Lazy Susan Hair Elixir. This plate is followed by Forget Me Knot, an older gentleman who appears to hold a trophy photograph and the braided pubic hair obtained from Lazy Susan. It would appear that the delicate trimming scissors festooned on his jacket were not meant to trim the broad expanse of his own beard, but for other more delicate trimmings.

One visual pun follows another with sexual innuendos interspersed, resulting in a raffish, but not really tacky, book. Perhaps earthy.

Late in the book’s Afterword, we read a concession that perhaps these are technically the photographs by Berkman to restage the tableaus of Zohar. The photographs are created using the wet-plate collodion process that imbues the images with the imperfections that result from this time-consuming process. The collodion image needs to completed within 15 minutes after the glass plate has been coated, sensitized, exposed and then developed, completed before the collodion solution dries. Similar to the early 1800’s, the exposure times are also extended to as much as 40 seconds. That’s a long time to hold a pose, thus the stiff appearance of his subjects. Elaborate sets, actors, props and period costumes add to the cumulative effect which resulted in an approximate twenty-year span to complete this amalgamation.

The photographs are but only a half of the immense wit employed and the annotated captions in the Somnambulist’s Guide that follow the section of “plates” are an extremely delightful. It may require some internet double-checking to sort out the facts from fiction. Was there in fact a solar enlarger as illustrated in the albumen print in Fig. 13? How common was the Surveillance Obscura? Would a strap-on Obscura really been functional?

The large size of this volume (trim: 11 x 14”) implies that the photographic images are potentially contacted printed from the original collodion plates for this publication. That the book measures an inch and a quarter thick will inform you that this book is also a weighty matter, one that is not picked up gingerly while requiring ample room to spread out and read.

There is no doubt that this photographic tale, as rendered by Stephen Berkman, reveals the full potential artistic legacy of Shimmel Zohar. It is said that Zohar “explored concealed meanings, mysterious symbols that led to illuminating insight.” A brilliant, witty, visually delightful and humorous read, “even when fact could no longer be distinguished from fiction”.

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This book was selected as one of PBJ’s Interesting Artist and Photographic Book for 2020.

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Predicting The Past – Zohar Studios: The Lost Years, Stephen Berkman

Photographer: Stephen Berkman, born in Syracuse, New York and residing in Pasadena, California.

Publisher: Hat and Beard Press, Los Angeles, California, copyright 2020 

Essay; Lawrence Weschler (Afterword)

Texts/Writing: M. De Leon (Opticus Naturalis), Jeanine Tangen, Stephen Berkman

Text: English

Hardcover with printed dust jacket, corrugated storage box, sewn binding, printed and bound by Trifolio, Verona, Italy; ISBN 978-1-7320561-2-1

Photobook Designer: Bill Smith, Coco Shinomiya-Gordoetsky, Stephen Berkman

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Articles and photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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