Review by Steve Harp •
Where to begin with Jason Francisco’s Alive and Destroyed? Where does one begin considering, weighing, wrestling with a volume as unsettling and provocative as Francisco’s images of “small and forgotten” sites of the Holocaust across Eastern Europe, made between 2010 – 2019? One place to begin might be with the opening of the “Afterword” by Menachem Kaiser, who writes, “Holocaust photography is not like other sorts of photography. The rules, you might say, are different . . . “ Indeed. As one who has photographed sites of the Holocaust and spent the following years simultaneously baffled and daunted by the images arising from those projects, these words resonate. The question continually bedevils as to how meaningfully, intelligently and reverently to represent that which has been both overrepresented, yet never adequately represented.
In his essay “Images in Spite of All,” Georges Didi-Huberman discusses the only four images known to have been taken by inmates at Auschwitz. He writes:
But “one must imagine” Filip Muller [one of the few surviving members of the Sonderkommando] insists nonetheless. To imagine in spite of all, which calls for a difficult ethics of the image: neither the invisible . . . nor the icon of horror . . . nor the mere document . . . A simple image, inadequate but necessary, inexact but true.
Didi-Huberman argues that to consign the events of the catastrophe to the “unimaginable” is a luxury simply not to be permitted. Jason Francisco’s Alive and Destroyed is a devastating and brilliant example of imagination surviving, questioning, seeking answers to the unanswerable.
The question of the impossibility yet necessity of representating the Holocaust is central to Francisco’s visual approach as well as to his extended written essay included in this volume titled simply, “Alive and Destroyed.” The essay covers some 25 pages (half from what Francisco terms his para-book, towhich I will return later). I am unsure whether it is necessary to read Francisco’s essay, but it is certainly recommended. In it, Francisco discusses the personal, historical, conceptual and visual underpinnings of his project. Having read a fair amount dealing with visual representations of the Holocaust, Francisco’s essay impresses as articulate, perceptive, heartfelt. In it, he considers the central enigma of not only “Holocaust photography,” but arguably the inherent central enigma of photography as a medium: a record existing at the same time as presence and absence. The subject of every photograph is, simultaneously there and not there. And this enigma Francisco argues as being fundamental to his images: “The mystery in which this book was born is the same mystery in which it has kept finding its rebirth, and I can put that mystery this way: it is never certain whether it is a book made or a book found, whether I am its creator or its medium . . . “ He later describes his task as: “. . . through photography, to create a contemplative space within which the difficulties of remembrance can convene. Such a space would distinguish between the work of memory and remembrance, and attempt to accommodate both.” This “contemplative space” is, necessarily, a place of ambiguity rather than clarity, a space of contradiction and fallibility, a “dissent . . . from the fictions of knowability.”
In creating these visual spaces, Francisco walks that most treacherous of tightropes presenting images that are at the same time both seductive in their formal visual qualities – richly saturated colors (or tonalities, in the case of the monochrome images), the compelling interplay of focus and blur – and haunting in their quiet depictions of “empty” (but not really empty) space. In his introduction, Francisco comments on how “a corridor of focus runs through an inchoate visual field.” Perhaps, though, the qualities of enticement and disquiet are not really contradictory aspects of the images at all, but are interwoven. For the loss inherent in every photograph is writ large in images that recall the events of the Nazi genocide. The eloquence of Francisco’s project – his conception, description and, most importantly, his stunning visuals – lies in his ability to weave together the “beautiful and enigmatic.”
As mentioned above, the second half of Francisco’s essay is a selection from what he terms his para-book, which he describes as “notebooks, written by hand and containing research and reading notes, conversations and maps, also dreams and speculations.” These sections serve as expansions on or “explanations” of certain images or sites photographed. Though “explanation” is absolutely not the correct word. Para- in the sense used here, can be thought of as adjacent to, beyond or beside. For me, the most compelling passages from the para-book are those sections (8, 10, 11, 12, 16) wherein Francisco describes dreams, and the relation of the photographs (which are, after all, hard and factual proofs of real extant places) to his inevitably ambivalent goals and desires for this undertaking. As he writes of a dream in From the para-book/16: “and in that place my trial begins, i stand accused of a memory crime having to do with my camera, and a secret desire to make hell beautiful . . . “
This “accusation” in his dream, I found, opened directly onto the sense that had been weighing on me as I considered these images, drawn into these perplexing, simultaneously enticing and forbidding spaces. In the “Afterward,” Kaiser remarks as to how Francisco’s “use of tilt-shift [on his view camera] confuses your sense of scale” and I realized that, in fact, these photographs made me think of miniatures, of doll-house images. And this association suggests nothing so much as a desire to distance, create a space of “pretend.” Yet at the same time we know these spaces are not “pretend,” and must acknowledge the impossibility of that distancing. “Beautiful and enigmatic” indeed.
As a physical object, the volume is substantial – hardcover, measuring 8”x10” and nearly an inch thick. It contains 72 plates (although nine of the plates are six image grids on a single page). Most of the images are color although there are a few monochromes included throughout. The imagewrap cover features subtly raised text on the front, giving the author, the title and the descriptive subtitle, “A Meditation on the Holocaust in Time.” The book may present as a “traditional” photobook, presenting lovely scenes to luxuriate in, beautiful and seductive images. However, as I suggest above, it is anything but. It is a meditation, and as such, the reflection and contemplation the photographs require repay the viewer with a lingering sense of disquiet and conundrum. A central question posed by the book has to do with the violence done to his subject by aestheticizing. As the viewer is made uncomfortable with Francisco’s beautiful images, we are forced to consider what other crimes we commit by allowing ourselves to be seduced by the camera’s capacity to render the horrific beautiful. And yet, paradoxically, this is also our highest calling, to find beauty in horror.
Steve Harp is a Contributing Editor and Associate Professor, The Art School, DePaul University
Alive and Destroyed, Jason Francisco
Photographer: Jason Francisco (born in California, resides in the Atlanta, Georgia area)
Publisher: Daylight Books, Durham, North Carolina; Copyright 2021
Prologue and essay: Jason Francisco; Afterword: Menachem Kaiser
Book description: paper over board, sewn binding; 160 pages; 8 x 10 inches; printed by Ofset Yapımevi in Turkey. ISBN 9781954119024
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