A photographic collaboration ten years in the making

Ten years ago, I became part of a collaborative project photographing an exquisite old building in Tucson, Arizona. For me, photographing the building was the easy part. All I had to do was draw on the skills I often use in my previous “light studies,” my ongoing series of photo essays on the light and atmosphere of different places. The hard part was collaborating with two other photographers, while keeping my eye on the long-term prize, the finished project. It took a long time but the effort is near coming to fruition.

In the project, I was photographing along with my wife, Annu Palakunnathu Matthew as well as with a long-time friend and fellow photographer, Abigail Gumbiner. In 1999 we started photographing the dilapidated remains of the southwest’s first Jewish house of worship, which was built in 1910. It was originally called Temple Emanuel and later renamed the Stone Avenue Temple and now it is called the Jewish History Museum. The artists’ statement has a great deal of fascinating background information on the building that we grew to love as we photographed it, inside and out. The photographs will soon be published as a limited edition portfolio to raise funds for sustaining the Jewish History Museum

The artist’s statement notes; “The photographic project began when Abigail encountered the deserted synagogue in 1995 with a “For Sale” sign on its sadly weathered exterior. (Abigail Gumbiner’s father, Rabbi Joseph Gumbiner, had been the rabbi of that synagogue from 1941 until 1947.) She returned to live in Tucson in 1997 and became involved with preserving the old building.” In 1999 Abigail proposed what became a collaboration of three photographers, which lasted over 10 years. We made many trips from the East Coast to photograph the un-restored structure, and again years later in its current restored state.

The artists’ statement goes on to highlight how “Visual intimacy developed between each photographer and the one room site.” That process started with Abigail and her connection to architecture, photography, the building, and of course her friendship with Annu and me. Abigail spent the first seven years of her life in Tucson while her father was the rabbi of the historic Temple Emanuel. She worked as an abstract metal sculptor and photographer from the 1960’s on. For 25 of those years she also held positions as the Director of Education and Program Director in Reform and Conservative synagogues in California’s Bay Area and Los Angeles. Her 1997 photography book; Vacant Eden; Roadside Treasures of the Sonoran Desert, captures the remnants of Tucson’s old motels. Her previous work can be seen at: http://www.abigailgumbiner.com/home.htm

All of those influences came together magnificently in this project! One of the many things Abigail brought to the project was long-time friendship with Raphael Rubinstein, a New York-based poet and art critic. He was a senior editor at Art in America and continues to be a contributing editor to the magazine. His paternal grandparents, who moved to Tucson in the 1930s, were closely involved with Congregation Emanuel; Rabbi Joseph Gumbiner officiated at his parents’ wedding.

His essay: Temple of Shadows, starts out “ Architecture and photography are both arts of memory…. But there’s something else that links these two art forms: both of them abound with ghosts. The irremediable absence and implied mortality of every person in a photograph has often been noted. Similarly, old buildings are haunted by allthose who have lived in them, passed through them, thought and felt within them. “ You can read the entire, thought-provoking piece at: http://www.davidhwells.com/lightSynag/Intro.html In that piece, Rubinstein describes our efforts saying “…what may be a unique artistic experiment: three photographers returning over a decade to explore a single building, inside and out.”

For me it was a unique experience. Having been self-employed for so long it took effort to reign in my individualistic impulses in order to work within the collective effort. As noted in our artist’s statement “… hundreds of our images were studied, discussed, sorted and argued over by the threesome until they could agree on the 15 presented in the final portfolio.” It was never an unpleasant process, but it was challenging. The effort also took more patience and played out over an even longer time frame than I am used to with my usual projects. When we first started the end goal was amorphous, so it also took a lot of faith to believe that the work would really end up in some finished form that we could be proud of.

All of those challenges became benefits. The slow progress of the project enabled us to visit and revisit the site, as it changed. Faith in the project was important in both sustaining the effort and in nurturing our ongoing friendships. The pace allowed each of us to use our best photographic skills and reduce any duplication or overlap between our individual sets of work. One example is shown in the finished work, where Annu brought her unique “Holga-esque” vision to the collaboration. That same vision can be seen in her work at: http://annumatthew.com/PortfolioMemories_1/index.html

Editing and the re-editing the work over time helped us look at the work more critically, so the final edit serves both the project’s mission and the artist’s intentions. The deliberate pace of the project enabled us to look at the idea in general and the work in particular with the kind of critical eye every photographer should bring to their long term project(s.)

In discussing the collaborative process, Annu said: “Working together was inspiring. It was challenging to come up with new images in a one-room space over 10 years! All three of us are competitive so we were always eager to see what the other had done which was also motivating. Over time it was also interesting how each of our unique photographic visions came out in the images.”

The portfolio will be published in the coming year and in the months ahead I will be blogging about the various phases that we go through in promoting and disseminating the work. I look forward to the actual publication as well as the exhibitions and presentations that we will be doing to promote the work.

This whole effort reminds me how important it is to believe in your own work and to get others to look at that work critically. The person who had the most faith in our effort and the necessary perseverance was Abigail. When I had my doubts, she pushed forward. When I was sure we were spinning our wheels she came up with new ideas. Now, as we near the completion of the project, I am reminded again how things get done when one person has faith in an idea and the perseverance to see it through.

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