As a child growing up in the Midwest in 1950s and ’60s, James Friedman was acutely aware of anti-Semitism. He regularly heard vitriolic jokes at school about Jews and the Holocaust; a more extreme example saw his family’s house set on fire and riddled with gunfire. When he was 3 years old, he sat through a newsreel in a movie theater that featured intense imagery of the Jews who were killed and buried at the concentration camps; that reel stayed with him for years, and as he grew into an adult, shock grew into numbness as he looked at more and more disturbing photographs.
“I was … acutely aware of the events of the Holocaust and of the lasting impact of its images,” Friedman wrote via email.
Friedman said he was “determined to confront the very places where it happened,” so he traveled to Europe in 1981 and 1983. He visited a dozen camps to create a body of work titled “12 Nazi Concentration Camps” that are personal, sometimes humorous, and other times “confrontational, disturbing, unpredictable and about our collective memory,” he said. The work will be on view at the Skirball Museum in Cincinnati beginning on Oct. 13.
“Perhaps, the anti-Semitic events I experienced throughout my life also compelled me to travel to Europe in search of pictures that would connect me with audiences in ways that my photography had never done before,” Friedman wrote. “Once I was at the camps, I remember wanting to share visually my discomfort in being there and about what had happened at each site.”
Friedman knew he wasn’t going to create images that had lived in his mind since his childhood, so he brought along an 8-by-10-field camera and used color film. “I wanted my photographs to revive my deadened responses from repeated exposure to Holocaust imagery, and to do the same for viewers,” he wrote. “I want viewers who see these very different photographs to consider what images are in their own internal Holocaust archive, and perhaps to remember when, and what image, first established that archive.”
Friedman would ask people to pose for him, but he added that nothing was recreated or staged. Because he used a large-format camera, candid photography was next to impossible, although he said the longer he worked, the more he was able to sneak in a few unguarded moments.
Friedman said some of the camps were virtually unchanged since the end of the war when he visited in the early ’80s. “I sensed a residue of evil still present 40 years after the end of the Holocaust,” he said.
Friedman showed the work in 1983 and 1985 and said the response was overwhelmingly positive, although he has heard negative reactions to his using color photography, with one person protesting, “The Holocaust happened in black and white!” During his travels, Friedman said he rarely encountered any Jews at the camps that were located in countries under Soviet rule. Since today many more Jews visit the camps, Friedman said he feels inspired to create new work, adding that juxtaposing the old and new work will “be unique.”