The last film project

Old projects seem to have an odd way of circling back to haunt you. Sometimes that is economically, other times stylistically. An old project is back in mind right now which has prompted me to reconsider how, sixteen years ago I started an informal collaboration with two other photographers, using a primitive imaging technology called “film.” Almost two decades later, that project is coming to fruition, which prompted me to look back on one of if not the last projects that I worked on using film.

Abigail Gumbiner, an old friend (and at that point an Arizona-based photographer) asked my wife, Annu Matthew, and I to work with her to photograph the building that was known in Tucson as the Stone Avenue Temple. In 1998, when we started photographing, I was on the tail end of the point in my career where I was working with B + W negative film. We started before the building was restored and converted into what is now the Jewish History Museum of Tucson. We stopped photographing in 2007, after that same conversion. At that point in this project I was working mostly with color slide film. (By 2007, I was using digital for assignments and I was just starting to “trust” digital for serious projects like this.

According to Wikipedia:

Tucson’s Stone Avenue Temple is the original home of Temple Emanu-El and was built in 1910. The museum’s building housed the first synagogue in the Arizona Territory and is the oldest synagogue building in the state. The synagogue is a brick structure designed by architect Ely Blount, blending a pedimented, pilastered Greek revival facade with rounded windows and twin towers in Rundbogenstil style. The building is listed in on the National Register of Historic Places.

After the congregation moved to the suburbs, between 1949 and 1982 the former Stone Avenue Synagogue building housed eleven different churches. In 1994, when it was learned that the property was to be sold and turned into a parking lot, an organization was formed called the Stone Avenue Temple Project. They began to gather community support to save the historic synagogue building. in 2006 the Jewish Historical Society and the Stone Avenue Temple Project merged to form the non-profit Jewish History Museum, housed in the old Stone Avenue Temple.

The photographic portfolio we collectively produced is finally about to go on exhibit at the Jewish History Museum. That news prompted us to pull out some of the old prints and review them for the exhibition. It also prompted me to wax nostalgically about “the good old days.” I no particular order, my thoughts include:

First, film in general seems so ancient today. This doubly so since I started the project in black and white and where I was subconsciously riffing on my earliest light study from 1986 on Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. By the time we finished, I was working with color slides, similarly riffing on my post 2000 work from India, where color was fast becoming a major component of each image.

On the other hand, all of my images from what we collectively call “the Gog” (and those of my collaborators) have strong components of the images portraying the magical light within the building.

Light at its core, is still a big, big component in all of my work to this day. As my work evolved from using black and white film into using color during “the Gog” project the addition of color in my images was a tool to add to the narrative. Color expanded the language I could use to tell a story. That expansion into color parallels my career arc as well as explains why I am so taken by color these days. Still, looking at the work, I was again reminded of the richness of the black and white media, which does minimalism at its best, in a way that color images rarely can.

Looking at all the work again, I was especially impressed by the play of light and shadow in the building that we were photographing. We need to give special credit to the architect who designed the building. He clearly wanted to make it both visually inspiring and religiously evocative.

Also, since the synagogue is in Tucson, which is a unique desert location, the interaction of the environment and the building was equally important. When I was working on the project, in collaboration with the other talented photographers, Abigail Gumbiner and Annu Matthew, we always photographed in the winter, when the sun was low on the horizon which resulted in uniquely southwestern light.

While I do NOT “miss” film, I am reminded of the magic that film can create photographically. Yes, I can achieve that same impact through digital imaging with some filters and presets. But there is something about the discipline of doing it all in camera, especially with color slides, with their minimal room for error.

In an age when anyone can claim to be a photographer, I am pleased to be able to look back and point out when I did something unique, (in collaboration with two others) creating unique work that few others could do.

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