Stephen Berkman: Predicting the Past: Zohar Studios: The Lost Years
I first discovered Stephen Berkman’s amazing staged wet plates in 2008 and became a little bit obsessed. I don’t know how many times I have visited his site over the years, just to get a dose of Stephen’s world and magical tableaux. So when Hat & Beard Press reached out and asked if I would be interested in reviewing Stephen’s new book, it was definitely an “oh hell yes”.
A week later, a heavy large box arrived. I know that I didn’t order a set of bricks, so I was flummoxed. What I received was a book as large as a tombstone, massive in size and girth with nearly 200 images comprising both original photographs and ephemera. This masterful 20 year effort, Predicting the Past, Zohar Studios: The Lost Years is an extensively annotated and profusely illustrated monograph, with photographs meticulously reproduced in four-color and tritone.
Predicting the Past, Zohar Studios: The Lost Years takes us on a discursive journey through the nineteenth century into the world of Shimmel Zohar, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe who came to America in the 1850s. Already an accomplished silhouette artist, he became the proprietor of eponymous Zohar Studios, a storied photographic establishment located on Pearl Street in the predominately Jewish Lower East Side of New York. Traveling through the portal of this enigmatic studio into the past, we encounter a Balzacian cavalcade of characters, both winsome and whimsical. This immersive panorama of personages includes phrenologists, ventriloquists, painters, poets, spiritualists, artists, bon vivants, merchants, luddites, and many more, each tableau composed like a single cinematic frame from a long forgotten nitrate film.
Berkman resurrects this vanished world in a tribute to Zohar Studios, working with the archaic glass plate process and photographing through period lenses, still coated with dust of the nineteenth century. He seeks to reclaim the lost world of the mid-nineteenth century even as our own world seems to be disappearing all around us.
Predicting the Past, Zohar Studios: The Lost Years culminates with an afterword by award-winning author Lawrence Weschler. Written in rhapsodic prose, his essay fills in pieces of the puzzle while perhaps creating a few new ones. With a keen wit and a nose for the apocryphal, Weschler’s essay follows Berkman’s quixotic quest down the rabbit hole, retracing detours and digressions to discover the story behind the story of Shimmel Zohar, while anchoring the book in the pantheon of photography.
His book, Predicting the Past, Zohar Studios: The Lost years, which accompanies his 2020-2021 exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, was shortlisted for the 2020 Aperture Photobook Awards.
Stephen Berkman has been working with historical photographic processes since the last century. His work is featured in private and public collections, including the Museum of Photographic Arts and Portland Art Museum. His work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Museum of Photographic Arts, Laband Art Gallery, Amory Center for the Arts, USC Fisher Gallery, CEPA Gallery and the Howard Greenberg Gallery, among others. In addition to his fine-art work, Berkman has been commissioned to create historical photographs for major feature films and documentaries. He is on the film faculty at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena California, where he has taught since 1995. His book, Predicting the Past, Zohar Studios: The Lost years, which accompanies his 2020-2021 exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum was shortlisted for the 2020 Aperture Photobook Awards.
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