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photo-eye Book Reviews: There Was A Forest

There Was A Forest, Photographs by Loli Kantor.
Published by Loli Kantor with L. Nowlin Gallery, 2010.
There Was A Forest
Reviewed by Richard Gordon
 Loli Kantor There Was A Forest: Jewish Life in Europe Today, 2005-2008.
Photographs by Loli Kantor
L. Nowlin Gallery, 2010. 88pp., illustrated throughout, 6-1/2x8-1/2".

"The critique of culture is confronted with the last stage in the dialectic of culture and barbarism: to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, and that corrodes also the knowledge which expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today." -- Theodore Adorno

Loli Kantor's There Was A Forest is one more necessary act of reclamation, an act at once deeply intimate and personal, and one that cannot help but be political. This work is one of many from the past thirty years which refutes and consciously or unconsciously confronts Adorno's once famous dictum. Adorno wrote it a few years after the end of WWII and it was not until the voices of survivors had to tell their stories that Adorno's dictum broke down.

The disbelief in the late years of WWII and for some years to come after, the inability to understand the enormity of the factories of death gave breath and life to Adorno's dictum. Sixty or so years ago, the audience for Adorno mostly knew and grew up with the horrors of WWI's trench warfare, the introduction of chemicals to the battlefield, and the cruel extension to the historically ancient practice of rending violence upon civilians by bombing from the air in the Spanish Civil War. The death camps and the wholesale murder by non-industrialized means-shootings in the forests in the lands photographed by Kantor (which is how and where my uncle, his wife and their three children were murdered) raised (or is it lowered?) the bar of inhumanity.

There Was A Forest, by Loli Kantor. Published by Loli Kantor with L. Nowlin Gallery, 2010.
There Was A Forest, by Loli Kantor. Published by Loli Kantor with L. Nowlin Gallery, 2010.
The remaining survivors are now old and very old people. The child of survivors, Loli Kantor is of the generation of the artists who need to make memory tangible. Using different cameras, color as well as B&W (printed in Palladium), she moves between documentary, snapshot and a dream state effectively. The sub-title of the book is Jewish Life in Eastern Europe Today. Without the captions, a fair number of the photographs could as easily be of non-Jewish life in small towns in Eastern Europe. This was so before WWII, and it is not surprising that it is still so. What is a mystery is the continuance of Jewish life in Poland and more broadly, the pale. Kantor also does oral history -- an expanded version of this book would be richer with a CD.

There Was A Forest, by Loli Kantor. Published by Loli Kantor with L. Nowlin Gallery, 2010.
I would wish to see both an expanded version for the documentary value, and I would as well like to see another book which excludes the documentary for the dream-like photographs. Imagine those dancing Rabbis from Drohobych and an introduction made up of quotations from Bruno Schulz's phantasmagoric tales. The forward to the book as it is by Danna Taggar Heller is a good introduction to Kantor and her intentions. As it is, the current book is a welcome addition to the literature of memory.—Richard Gordon

 *Published by Loli Kantor with the generous support of L. Nowlin gallery.

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Richard Gordon is a photographer who lives in California. His photographs and artist's books are in museum and library special collections from sea to shining see. Photographs from Gordon''s American Surveillance (available from photo-eye) were in the recent, Exposed exhibition at The Tate Modern, and SFMoma.