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The Essence of Judaism : Five photographers, each with a specific agenda, focus on developing the subject, documenting and ultimately celebrating it.

July 16, 1998|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In an example of curatorial coincidence, photography dealing with Judaism is currently running hot in the Sepulveda Pass area, the region that has been dubbed "culture gulch" now that the Getty is sitting atop its haughty perch. The Skirball Museum's "Israel Through American Eyes" is just a stone's throw across the 405 freeway from the Platt Gallery's new show, "Photographic Visions of the Diaspora in Black and White," a group show presenting variations on the theme of Judaism.

There are differences as well as similarities between the shows, which could be viewed as companion exhibits. If the Skirball's purview is that of the now 50-year-old Israeli homeland as seen through the eyes of outsiders with an emotional stake in the place, the Platt Gallery exhibit is both a broader and more modest collection of images.

Here, five photographers show visions of Judaism from around the world, with agendas specific to each photographer's concept.

The general idea is to capture something essential about Judaism, recognizing the innate difficulty of the task.

Sy Edelstein's series of sensitive, close-up portraits celebrate Jewish working folk in the old, pre-computer-chip tradition. "New York Store" casts an admiring eye on a decrepit, or "lived-in," corner store, an older portly couple casting long, lean shadows on the sidewalk in early morning light.

A fine composition on its own terms, the image captures a sense of crystallized ambience as only the black-and-white medium can.

In other of Edelstein's pictures, proprietors of specialty merchandise stores proffer ties and buttons in the cramped spaces of New York.

Closer to home, Los Angeles clock shop owners proudly display their analog wares, and an L.A. shoe-repair business--which looks like a close-quartered shoe infirmary--displays old family photos on the walls above, echoes of heritage hovering in the workplace.

Posed shots are rarer in the works of Joan Roth, who documents Jewish women in myriad, and often archaic, rituals. We find portraits of exotic characters, like the clairvoyant Sarah Afota, fancy of dress and set up behind a table bearing her prophetic cards. Maia, the Romanian star of the National Theater, stands with a regal beauty, while a 100-year-old Israeli woman projects a different beauty, each rivulet-like wrinkle signifying wisdom.

Otherwise, Roth's work tends to be more rough-hewn--all grainy textures, tilted angles and on-the-fly candidness. She's a fly on the wall, and said walls are often in ancient quarters, where rituals and ceremonies are underway.

A woman bakes bread for the Sabbath in the half-light of an old room, and a grandmother blesses her granddaughter before her engagement.

Relatively speaking, the conceptualist of this bunch is the young Martha Fuller, whose corner of the gallery departs sharply from standard photographic practices.

Her uses of technical manipulations such as solarization, darkroom effects, and composite imagery throw into question objective reality and, by extension, the whole issue of identity. If the end result fails to cohere into a powerful statement, the effort is admirable.

Moreso than the other photographers in this show, Andy Katz has consciously set out to tackle the amorphous, rich subject of Judaism through the faces of the faithful and sacred sites.

Naturally, this mission has brought him to the Western Wall in Israel. In one imposing image, we see the wall at night, from an overhead perspective: huddled groups of people are lined up, a literal plane of illumination in the dark.

Out in the hallway extension of the Platt Gallery, Katz's "Dancing at the Wall" depicts out-of-focus figures in motion against the inspiring backdrop of the wall. "Three Jews and an Arab" is a portrait of inherent alienation. Shot from overhead, the image shows three Jews walking across a courtyard, with space separating them--if barely--from a lone Arab walking in the opposite direction. One reads the image as a narrative, a statement of fragile coexistence.

A picture is not just a picture in most of Katz's photographs. The burned pages of a Torah in "Charred Books," taken in Russia, is a handy metaphor for religious-cultural repression.

With a more photojournalistic detachment, David H. Wells has been exploring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1990, and his best images shore up elusive emotions and tensions. In one image, soldiers have a young Palestinian--accused of throwing stones--in a headlock.

Another simple, but memorable shot shows Israelis sitting, matter-of-fact, in a bus with a half-smashed window.

It looks like nothing so much as a spider web, a suitable enough symbol of the fragility of life there. But who is the spider? Who the prey? The best photographs in this show use the medium to document, to celebrate and, not incidentally, to stir up questions.

BE THERE

* "Photographic Visions of the Diaspora in Black and White," through Aug. 9 at the Platt Gallery, University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland in Los Angeles. Gallery hours; 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sunday-Thursday; 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Friday; (310) 476-9777, Ext. 203.

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