Shimmel Zohar is the name of the character who has appeared at the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco, in June 2021, with an exhibition called Predicting the Past. To mark the occasion, Gravity Goldberg, curator of the museum, asked to award-winning author Lawrence Weschler to write an essay for the catalog. Intrigued by the title and the name of the artist — and by the name of the curator too —, Weschler accepted and met another character, Mr. Stephen Berkman, presented by Gravity as the one who had brought the Zohar archive to the attention of the museum.
Berkman is a photojournalist, director, and a serial accumulator who keeps objects of all kinds and types in his garden — and, in an even more obsessive way, in his laboratory. When Weschler met him at his house in Pasadena, and asked where did he find the images of the catalog, and what’s their backstory, Berkam just answered “I didn’t ‘find’ them, exactly. This book is my tribute to the work of the Zohar studio and the historical imagination.”
Initially titled Predicting the Past: Experiments in Reverse-Prescience, in its early digital version, the catalog tells about how Shimmel Zohar was born in Zhidik, Lithuania, in 1822, and arrived in New York in 1857, and eventually established a photographic studio on two floors of 432 Pearl Street, on the Lower East Side, a neighborhood teeming with Jewish immigrants. About how he enjoyed some success but then suddenly abandoned his studio and hit the road, becoming an itinerant photographer touring America, perhaps in search of Flora, his former showgirl paramour — and, who knows, maybe even the roller-skate girl —, planning to return to New York within a year but then simply vanishing, never to be heard from again.
All true, apparently, except for the photos. In short, after a series of failed searches for Zohar’s material, Berkman had to give up and restage all his tableaus, “as a sort of tribute to Zohar Studios”, by following the Yiddish directions found in a notebook. It all began in the late ’90s, when Berkam and his wife Jeanine were visiting the Chelsea Flea Market, in New York, and came upon an ancient, dog-eared scrapbook, which they bought for $60.
Suddenly, arrested by one photo in those pages, a sort of theatrical cabinet card with a “loopily melodramatic image on the front,” Berkman started wondering where it might have come from — there was no credit on the back. Then, he found the notebook — “a big, thick ledger sort of thing, which consisted of a handwritten diary” — in the false bottom of a battered old Zohar’s trunk bought at the Elli Buk’s antiques emporium, down on Spring Street, in Soho.
The notebook was lost after the death of the man in charge of translating it from Yiddish, Feivel Finkel, an old friend of Berkman. But, fortunately, Feivel had described the tableaus… “So yeah,” Berkman said, “technically, the photos are actually mine. But we really don’t need to make a big thing out of that. As I say, I myself don’t want to get in the way.”
The photographs are created using the wet-plate collodion process that imbues the images with the imperfections that result from this time-consuming process. The collodion image needs to completed within 15 minutes after the glass plate has been coated, sensitized, exposed and then developed, completed before the collodion solution dries. Similar to the early 1800’s, the exposure times are also extended to as much as 40 seconds — a long time to hold a pose, thus the stiff appearance of his subjects.
“Each of those photos,” Jeanine said, “was like an entire short-film shoot. The treatment, the script, the casting, the costumes, the makeup, the backdrop, the lighting — sometimes it could take months of preparation for a single shot. And it was all happening here in our backyard.”
The final result, with the afterword by Lawrence Weschler, is Predicting The Past – Zohar Studios: The Lost Years, a panoramic and humorous view of American life in the second half of the 1800s, channeled by a mythical nineteenth-century Jewish immigrant studio photographer, Shimmel Zohar. It is said that Zohar “explored concealed meanings, mysterious symbols that led to illuminating insight.” A brilliant, witty, visually delightful and humorous read, “even when fact could no longer be distinguished from fiction”.
The book was selected as one of PBJ’s Interesting Artist and Photographic Book for 2020.