Photographs challenge viewer to engage, rather than archive, images of the Holocaust

James Friedman's grandfather was instrumental in the founding of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus and of Columbus Torah Academy. Friedman himself grew up on Columbus' East Side in what he described as a “middle-class neighborhood,” where he experienced acts of “overt racism” and anti-Semitism, including the hanging of the family dog and having his house set on fire.

In the early 1980s, Friedman, then a working photographer and professor at Ohio State University, noted an uptick in anti-Semitic rhetoric. This prick at the scab of his painful childhood memories, combined with a desire to honor his grandfather's work, took Friedman first to Germany, then, two years later, to Poland, where he visited and photographed the sites of 12 Nazi concentration camps.

The collection of 30 images taken at these sites in 1981 and 1983 (Friedman was set to visit Poland in '81, but the national strike and declaration of martial law there forced him to rethink this plan) will receive its first full showing in Friedman's hometown when Angela Meleca Gallery hosts “12 Nazi Concentration Camps” Sept. 16 through Oct. 28.

“[The photographs are] unabashedly personal, and that's what differentiates them from almost any other body of work from the camps either during the war, after the war or contemporary,” Friedman said in a phone interview. “The premise is that almost everybody, no matter their age, has in their head their own personal archive of Holocaust photographs, and they're all in black and white. My goal was to juxtapose a contemporary personal view of the camps (in the '80s) with the historical black and white that everybody has housed in their head.”

Employing a cumbersome 8-inch-by-10-inch field camera, Friedman set out to create a visual diary of his experiences. Questions such as how one was supposed to act at such a location were answered early, as Friedman encountered hosts of boisterous tourists at Dachau, the first camp he visited. Tourists were not the only individuals Friedman met — caretakers, soldiers and survivors are also captured in these images (although not every image features people), along with, in many instances, the photographer himself.

“One of my formal strategies was to signal to the viewer that I'm not an innocent bystander hiding behind the camera,” Friedman said.

“I wanted to make beautiful pictures in terms of form and color,” Friedman said of another of his strategies. “It's another layer that I was aware of that would force viewers to confront that people had been murdered on beautiful days. I wanted to close the distance [between the viewer and what happened at these places], to provide counterpoints to the archives that exist in our heads that would make [these images] difficult to dismiss.”

That the collection has gained renewed relevance is not lost on its maker.

“The work has never been more relevant than it is right now, now that there are actual neo-Nazis in the streets, waving swastikas and chanting, ‘We won't let Jews replace us,'” he said. “I don't have to say anything politically. All I have to do is mention what's real and what's happening.”