Photo-Genealogy /
Nili Goren


What is Left to Ponder

The diversity and variance among the individuals comprising Vardi Kahana’s family are not only the basis for a fascinating documentary journey spanning four generations, three continents, and some fifty families which make up one dynasty and multiple histories; they also open a door to an engaging dialogue with various currents in the history of photography, from the medium’s beginnings to the present.

Kahana depicts her extended family, but in terms of her work style she belongs with photographers who present a social profile rather than a family portrait. Her works show affinities with masterpieces from the early history of photography and to this day. It is interesting to compare her photographs to those taken in early photo-documentary expeditions from the late 19th century, such as the stereo views by C. W. Carter (1832-1918), who documented Native American tribes in North America, through August Sander’s (1876-1964) “People of the 20th Century” and Diane Arbus’s (1923-1971) “Family Albums,” to the soldier portraits by Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra (b. 1959). Furthermore, it is interesting to note Kahana’s tendency to draw away from the “intimate family album” genre – from Julia Margaret Cameron’s (1815-1879) 19th century staged allegories, through Lee Friedlander (b. 1934), Emmet Gowin (b. 1941) and Nicholas Nixon (b. 1947), to Sally Mann (b. 1951) – and her implicit allusion to local influences.

Unlike the commissioned portraits she creates (mainly as part of her photojournalistic work), where she strives for in-depth depictions of the figures and encapsulates numerous psychological strata in a single manifestation, in her family photographs she avoids a piercing concentration on character traits and the “private” personality, directing the discussion to a comprehensive transverse survey that strives to provide the maximum significant details on the surface, thereby conveying a broad, diversified human totality.

Upon embarking on the carefully though out voyage, Kahana could have indicated the point of departure (the photograph of her mother and her aunts entitled Three Sisters, 1992), and plan ahead locations and times along the itinerary, while predicting bifurcations and developments in keeping with changes in places of residence and the families’ makeup. As a seasoned photographer highly experienced in staged portraiture, and as a family member well-versed in the chronicles of her family, who keeps in touch with her many relatives, it is evident that she planned her professional steps in advance, and meticulously controlled the organization of the scene to generate the desired photographs. In addition, she took impressions, memories and knowledge from the history of photography, familiar stories of documentation and select images etched in her consciousness (and in collective visual consciousness) with her on the journey, as well as biographical details of photographers who at certain points touch upon her own professional biography. Kahana is clearly conscious of the unique diversification characterizing the history of her family, and certainly assumes that in this respect there is no other such photographic biography. To the question, how long the journey will continue, one may probably reply, as long as Kahana continues documenting. The family will naturally continue to expand and bifurcate. The geographical distances and mental gaps will probably grow; the need to document will continue to bridge and unite them under a single title, derived from the evolutionary nature to multiply and change, which is influenced by social tendencies to gather or segregate, and is formulated through the cultural impulse to perpetuate and preserve.

We are left to ponder the realms of the cultural discourse within which the private familial quest takes place, and seek the boundaries of the discussion whose first manifestation lies at its point of departure.

The First Photograph – Auschwitz 1944

In the winter of 1997 (five years after Kahana took Three Sisters, years during which she continued to document her family), her mother ran into an acquaintance who told her about a photo album from Auschwitz kept in the library of the Goethe- Institut in Tel Aviv. The acquaintance could not provide her with exact details about the album, but said she had identified the mother, Rivka Kahana, amongst the photographs, as well as several other individuals from their hometown – Beregsas. Vardi’s mother went to the Goethe- Institut, searched among the photography books, and with the help of the librarian tracked down the “Auschwitz Album.” The book is an exact copy, in size and design, of a photo album found in the SS officer quarters in Auschwitz, with photographic documentation of the absorption and sorting process of one transport from Hungary. The photographer documented the stations through which the Jewish arrivals went, from their disembarkment from the cattle cars, through Dr. Mengele’s selection, to their fateful division, either to “life” or to the “crematoria” based on their work capacity. In one of the first photographs in the album Vardi’s mother is seen disembarking the railway wagon with her young brothers who were murdered later that day. This photograph [fig. @] by an “anonymous photographer,” is Rivka Kahana’s last photograph before the number was scorched on her arm, becoming her identifying mark among the thousands of inmates in the camp; the number that has became an inseparable part of her identity ever since, and would be scorched in the consciousness of her children and grandchildren, as well as in the celluloid and memory card of photography.

The Shifted Gaze

From among all the photographs selected as representative (over one hundred), there are only a few where the depicted subjects neither appear in a frontal pose nor direct their gaze at the camera. In these few cases when the gaze is turned aside, it is directed neither at an occurrence outside the frame nor at some imaginary locus behind the photographer, poses which would have lent the portrait a contemplative, enigmatic quality. The first diverted gaze [the couple from Susya, p. 49] is turned toward the horizon, far off toward the open expanses, as if striving to encapsulate the vision, to imply that the path is still long, that the dream has not yet been fulfilled, even though it is well defined and spans mounts and vales under protective skies above.

Seen behind the couple are the houses of the West Bank settlement where they live and in whose founding they took part. They look toward the Promised Land, the land of the patriarchs with a smile; despite the smile it is evident that they still cannot rest, and the way home is still long. A glance at the horizon, filled with the pathos of vision and fulfillment, characterized Eretz-Israeli photography of early Zionist settlement, and is rooted in the mobilized Soviet and German photography from the first three decades of the twentieth century. This is the pattern after which the photograph of the couple from Susya was modeled, but it is not the model for the perception of the body, as discernible, for example, in the posture of the cousin from the kibbutz [p. 58]: her body is erect, her head is held high, leaning slightly sideways with pride and a determine gaze, calling to mind the photographs of Soviet workers and athletes [fig. 1, or mobilized Zionist photography of the pioneering settlers in the land.

Uncle Moshe [p. 29], on the other hand, is tired and somewhat disappointed by the way in which the settlement dream, which he shared, has been realized, and possibly dissolved. He has “land,” but it is doubtful whether he has achieved rest and security as well. He seems to have straightened up for the photograph, and taken two steps outside the furrows of the fields which he still cultivates; even if this is a dream or a memory, it seems to involve sorrow and pain. His limpness and hesitant bodily pose are closer, in terms of photographic style not to the heroic documentation of the country’s early settling, but rather to critical contemporary photography which addresses the psychology of social groups and the physiognomy of personal expression, such as the pale teenage boys on the beach and the anti- heroic soldiers, slouched in awkward discomfort under the military uniform and equipment, as documented by Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra in recent years [fig. 2]. Another photograph of a couple, looking into the horizon [Ma’ aleh Michmash, p. 28] emphasizes the subordination of the gaze to stereotypical patterns of seeing and interpretation. The man’s feet, in jeans, rise from the grass. He has a cowboy hat and plays the guitar in the middle of “nowhere,” in the open landscape. There is no human settlement in sight, and it is impossible to recognize the geographical area of the country based on identifying features in the landscape. The man could be a nature-loving country singer, or a song-loving nature aficionado anywhere and of virtually any period. But the girl by his side is wearing a skirt down to her feet and a shirt down to her thighs. Her appearance is one of a moderate orthodox Jewish woman, and by her side the enigma around the country singer’s figure dissipates, and he turns out to be a hat-wearing orthodox-Jewish Israeli, possibly a keen fan of Hebrew singing and certainly an adherent of the Greater Israel. The blurred landscape, virtually disappearing into the background, is forthwith revealed as the Samaria mountain range, perhaps Trans-Jordan – the bank that is “ours,” and the other which is “ours as well,” or the one forever condemned to be disputed. Unlike the couple from Susya, however – who are depicted with an already standing settlement behind them, territories yet to be settled before them, and satisfaction blended with apprehension on their faces, as they look toward the mission ahead – a vein of melancholy emerges from the eyes of the couple from Ma’aleh Michmash. Their gazes seek comfort in nature and the landscape, striving to forget the borders, the target practice range, and the enormity of the task.

The Kiss

The third couple among the “gaze shifters” is the pilot and his pregnant wife [Nofei Prat, p. 45]. His flight overalls, her miniskirt and exposed midriff, the structure reminiscent of prefab housing units for young couples in army bases by their side, and the landscape extending behind them – all these call upon the viewer to locate this photograph somewhere in the open prairie, possibly in the southern Negev, east of Ramon, or the Eilat mountains. But the title pinpoints it in Nofei Prat, a Jewish settlement above Wadi Kelt in the Judean Desert, overlooking not the Negev craters, but the Moab Mountains, with the so-called “Pursuit Land” in-between. In this conflicted landscape, against the backdrop of a land saturated with blood and overflowing with wars, an exceptional photograph in the project was created. It contains a kiss, interaction between the subjects, who turn to one another, their gazes converging in the frame rather than facing the photographer. This photograph is probably one of several variations created by Kahana, as she usually does in the sets that she stages; one may assume that the gesture was captured by chance, in an intermission between one shoot and another in the sequence, between poses, when the couple turned frontally and looked into the camera. Through this “random” photograph and the spontaneous moment it documents, Kahana chose to represent the couple – not as settlers, who have kept the commandment to ‘be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth,” but as parents-to-be, excited by one another and by their shared creation.

The kiss is the most direct and explicit intimate gesture in the project. It is a rare manifestation joined by a few other photographs where the physical contact between the subjects conveys closeness and warmth. This small and exceptional group raises questions about the warm, firm bond linking most of the figures standing side by side in this array, their gazes turned forward and their bodies – frontal, without the slightest contact between them. This is also true, as aforesaid, of most of the photographed subjects.

The couple from Susya, the couple from Nofei Prat, the three sisters, the grandmother and her grandchildren, and of course – the babies – all these maintain physical contact during the shooting. The uncle from Petach Tikva [p. 35] hugs, or rather places a caressing hand on his wife’s shoulder as she holds the picture of their dead son in her hands, before her body and close to her heart. They were photographed in the studio against a gray background.

While most of the photographs were taken outdoors and their subjects are characterized by the environment in the background, the clothing, and other external features, several photographs were taken in the studio, against a neutral background, with the figures providing their own décor, carrying on their body, at times on their very flesh, the object selected to represent them. The cousin from Yismach Moshe neighborhood [p. 22] sports a white beard, wears a black hat, covers himself with a prayer shawl, and his wife wears a wig. They are characterized not by the landscape or the background, but by their clothing, which affiliates them with the ultra-Orthodox community, uniting them in their faith, one with the other, with the rest of the congregation, as well as with God and the place (which in Hebrew are represented by the same word, makom). It is the abstract place, the association with which is unmediated, unlike the bond with the land on which the feet of the settlers stand, the disputed land on which the farmers and pensioners are depicted, the kibbutz fields, or the private yard in Copenhagen [p. 25].

The absent-present place in the photograph of the ultra-Orthodox in the studio, unfolding in thundering silence and full splendor from the height of Nofei Prat, also echoes from the bowels of the earth where the son whose picture is attached to his mother’s and father’s breast is buried. They are photographed in the studio. There is no hint of an external setting in the background, yet they are eternally tied to the place where they stand, the place promised to their fathers, on whose defense their son fell.

The Family Tree and the Discourse of Photography

The affinities and sources of inspiration for Kahana’s family project in the history of typological documentary photography are diverse, differing in their aesthetic perception, and consequently – in the critical position taken by photographers from various schools toward their subjects. Such contextual mapping, based on associations with visual similitude, raises an interesting discussion of the personal, social and conceptual aspects that guide artists, among them Kahana, to construct their photographic composition by means of one or another aesthetic syntax.

Shortly after the invention of photography, it became widely used for documentation of exotic sites and sequestered cultures. Research expeditions to the Land of Israel distributed voyage albums in Europe and the United States that contained, alongside photographs of the holy sites, group and individual portraits of local types. In a similar vein, but in a different iconographic context, the Native Americans were perpetuated by many photographers, best known among them being Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952). Some thirty years before him, photographer C.W. Carter worked in Salt Lake City, capital city of the US state of Utah, extensively documenting the Native Americans from the local tribes in dramatic portraits to which he attached allegorical titles, and occasionally – in group family photographs as well. In Shoshone or Snake Chief and Family, ca. 1870 [fig. 3], the chief is standing, and seated before him, in two rows, are the rest of the family, similar looking and not too jammed together. It is hard to identify the gender of the photographed subjects or determine their number. Carter’s studio may be identified in the photograph. In other portraits Carter extended a painted backdrop of pastoral scenery, but in this specific family picture the photographer chose to blur the backdrop almost to the point of effacement. Carter often depicted portraits of the tribal chiefs, among them Snake Chief, in stylish attire, adorned with traditional ornaments or sporting feathers and weapons [fig. 3]. In contrast to the dramatic titles he often gave his photographs, the portraits of the chiefs were given straightforward captions. The stereographic photograph is mounted on a cardboard frame with two stamps on either side, containing the project’s name and the title of the series, and below, the title of the subset in the series is printed: “Shoshone or Snake Chief ” with a handwritten addendum: “and Family.” The chief is the subject of the photograph, and the family serves as secondary information for construction of his character.

Among Kahana’s photographs in “One Family” several group pictures of large families stand out, and their crowding is especially accentuated in those taken in the studio, rather than in the natural habitat, but in both cases the immediate attention is drawn to the large number of family members. In the yard of the kibbutz house, in the empty Hebron market street, around the van in the Petach Tikva parking lot, and in the studio dissociated from all environmental context – admiration of the family size precedes the reading of the secondary details, and later too, one is occupied with quick calculations of age differences and the rate of pregnancies and births.

Kahana fills the photograph with details and participants, yet eliminates all hierarchical ordering between them. The photographed subjects are all the family members, but the subject matter of the photographic act is open to interpretation. Her photography does not judge the large families, yet by presenting eleven individuals, smiling in a compressed composition, juxtaposed to four or six figures, conveying restraint or melancholy in another composition, the viewer is confronted with his own personal critical reading. The judgmental dilemma becomes more complex as further details are elucidated on the photographic plane, furnishing further layers for its interpretation.

Diane Arbus photographed the man dressed as an Indian [fig. 5] as part of an undeclared mask parade, an allegory for existential alienation and social detachment – one of the major bodies of work in her oeuvre. Arbus introduced a dimension of alienation and grotesque into the subjects of her portraits, and the sense of horror accompanying the scene perpetuates their fateful incongruence not only with social norms, but also with the prevalent theoretical discourse. One may interpret the twofold isolation which Arbus forced on her subjects as a cruel position, but at the same time it may be construed as an act of compassion which delivered the marginal figures from their rueful fate, furnishing them with refuge from a forlorn competition for normativism, at least in one place – the critical discourse. When furnished with an autonomous space and discussed as a private case, they are spared the humiliation accompanying any value- minded reference and comparison to conventional standards of appearance, conduct, normality. The mask on the face of the woman in the wheelchair in Arbus’s photograph [fig. 6] hides her features, leaving her disability exposed. Arbus may have endeavored to hide her own difficulty behind the mask as well, as a photographer confronting the suffering of the others before her. Her standing behind the camera may not have been solid vis- à-vis her photographic subjects. The Aunt [p. 37] in Kahana’s photograph is part of “One Family,” and is depicted with her husband, who holds her hand, supporting her chair, but this affiliation is not the main reason for the diametrical difference between her and the woman in the wheelchair who is dissociated from all source of belonging, as shot by Arbus. The grotesque mask, the truncated tree at the margins of the frame, the house tilting slightly with its impervious black windows – all these upset the balance, introducing tension into the ambience of Arbus’s photograph, whereas in Kahana’s balanced composition, blooming fruit trees fill the background, and soft daylight penetrates the foreground through the branches, fusing with the graceful gestures of the couple, who, in addition to their respectful place amidst the mature branches of the family tree, are also embraced by nature around them.

Even when she depicted families, Arbus was attracted to their quirkiness, or possibly could not avoid introducing a threatening sense into scenes that may have been innocent. In any event, according to the existential-photographic perception probably befitting a reading of her works, the scene’s faithfulness to any reality, except for the reality in the foreground of the photograph, is inconsequential. The couple in A Family on their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester (1968) {fig 7} is sprawled on sun beds with eyes shut; their son is in the background playing on the vast grounds that extend all the way to a row of tall, dense trees, which also delimit the photograph, filling a third of it with a dark thicket. The man’s hand screens his eyes, as if filtering out the sun, although the lighting in the photograph is not harsh and contrastive as typical of a burning midday sun. The woman’s complexion is smooth and wrinkle-free, and her eyes seem to be shut for the photograph, rather than due to the blinding light. The child’s body is turned to the photograph’s rear, and his gaze is focused on some surface on the lawn towards which he leans. There is no gaze or gesture that connects the three family members. The sole association between them is that they are scattered across the same vast private grounds, and possibly the fate looming behind the black foreboding hedge. John Szarkowski, former curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, described this photograph as “a real shocker – they’re in Dante’s last circle of the damned, but they don’t know it.”1

The mental distance between the couple from Westchester is somewhat reminiscent of the embarrassing, pathetic coupling between the two dressed-up elders whose story is encapsulated so movingly in Arbus’s photograph entitled “Their numbers were picked out of a hat. They were just chosen King and Queen of a Senior Citizens dance in NYC. Yetta Granaf is 72 and Charles Fahrer is 79. They have never met before (1970). [ fig 8]

Something of the photographic structure of the family on the lawn in Westchester, and a hint of the official festivity of the royal retired couple in New York, are discernible in Kahana’s photograph of her relatives in Caesarea [p. 71], but the cynicism and despair accompanying the compassion in Arbus’s gaze, are absent from Kahana’s photograph. The man proudly holds the skimmer pole of the private pool, with the netting end suspended like a flag. His other hand firmly holds onto his wife’s hand, and both virtually stand at attention between the pool and the lawn, against the backdrop of their impressive villa, a chain of national flags fluttering on the porch railing as décor reminders from Independence Day. A great deal of humor and empathy accompany this festive scene, and it is evident that the couple’s pride, which is indeed represented by material accomplishments, lies rather in other achievements, which cannot be measured in real estate or assets, nor need be represented in the photograph via symbols.

Among the many exhibitions held for Arbus posthumously, one of the most surprising was “Family Albums” which traveled throughout the US between 2004 and 2005 and exposed her skeptical, possibly even apocalyptic vision, concerning the notion of family. Arbus was interested in the intricacy and problematic nature of the family, especially in light of the many alternatives (which she explored as well and the desecration of the sanctified traditions, as part of the 1960s social storm. In 1968, three years before she took her own life, Arbus wrote about her desire to edit her photographs as a family album which would form a type of “Noah’s Ark of Humanity.” The sense of alienation and threat emerging from the photographs of the traditional family, those related by either blood or marriage, shows that the image of “Noah’s Ark” as a metaphor for the album also signified an option of shelter and refuge from the catastrophe. Like the species pairs who hid from the deluge and whose survival saved the animal kingdom from extinction, the photograph album was to preserve the family model or, more accurately, its image, and enable it to survive and continue the dynasty even after the political-cultural earthquake of the 1960s.

Arbus did not photograph her private family. The families she documented are very different from the family types in Kahana’s oeuvre. Nevertheless, the affinity between their photographic styles is not lesser, and for the most part greater than that between Kahana’s photography and the styles of artists who documented their private families, and even those who, like Kahana, present a social human survey through the sample of types and groups they documented. Emmet Gowin and Lee Friedlander documented their families in the personal family album style, perpetuating mundane moments, intimate gestures and personal experiences, which, in effect, form a photographic illustration of the family’s unwritten history [figs. 9, 10]. Such documentation, following the family over the course of years and the maturation of the household members, contains, inter alia, a visual stamp of the passing years on the physiognomy and body, perpetuating the ravages of time. This quality of time is addressed by Nicholas Nixon who, alongside his other family photographs, has documented his wife and her three sisters in the well known project The Brown Sisters [fig. 11,12] each year since 1975, in various compositions but in identical positioning. Nixon’s work signifies a transition from an experiential perception to a didactic-scientific, somewhat experimental approach. Its application to intimate themes or to subjects close to the photographer combines two photographic genres, chronologically and conceptually removed. This dichotomy is exemplified, for instance, in the gap between Gowin’s and Friedlander’s family photographs, and earlier family representations by Walker Evans (1903-1975) and Dorothea Lange (1895- 1965) [figs. 13, 14]. Conspicuous representations of sources which virtually contradict one another, yet form juxtaposed reference points in Kahana’s oeuvre, may be found, for example, in her unofficial homages [pp. 21, 95] to “People of the 20th Century” by August Sander, the father of typology in photography [figs.15], on the one hand, and Sally Mann’s revealing personal documentation, on the other [fig. 16].

Theoretically, one may illustrate this dichotomy by perusing two monumental historical exhibitions which addressed the universal human experience and photography’s role as its documenter. In both these shows the presence of the family as subject matter in photography stood out, although not as an independent category. In the exhibition “The Family of Man” (that opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1955, wherefrom it traveled to 38 countries), which set out to present existential harmony underlain by an egalitarian, pluralist perception, there was no division into categories. It interfused such themes as birth, love, and friendship, alongside solitude, war and death, which were interspersed with family photographs. Almost fifty years later, the exhibition “Cruel and Tender: The Real in the Twentieth-Century Photograph,” which was divided into four themes: “Comparison and Classification,” “Far Away and Close to Home,” “Industry and Consumerism,” and “Caught in the Lens,” opened at the Tate Modern, London. It likewise presented numerous family photographs, yet these were divided between the aforementioned four categories based on context. These two different approaches, by which the themes in each of the shows were organized, clearly reflect the transformation in the cultural discourse and photographic practice in recent decades, which is manifested in the political nature of the discussion and the transition from the private to the public sphere. Typological distinction, which characterized early photography in the first decades of the 20th century, and was implemented mainly in the anthropological context, is widespread in contemporary photography. Its application has expanded to include research and cataloguing of the landscape, and creation of intricate typological arrays, such as the association between portrait types and dwelling structures.

Kahana embarked on her near-obsessive documentation journey well equipped with orderly plans and clear goals. In her capacity as the link between all the parts and the creator of this fascinating jigsaw puzzle, her personal rattling and professional instinct have come together to form a moving artistic document. In addition, her project takes one on an intriguing, dynamic quest in the history of photography and criticism, whose implications are highly significant to the interpretation of the photographic composition. An intricate, eclectic syntax of ideologically and chronologically divergent sources, as typifying the current cultural discourse, generates new levels of reference to familiar themes, and this is the basis for the rich artistic language by which Kahana formulates the stories of “One Family.”

1. Tessa DeCarlo, Diane Arbus: Revelations Beyond Shock (New York: e Metropolitan Museum of Art, e Brooklyn Rail, 2005).

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