by Charles Weise
September 18, 1997-January 5, 1998 Houston Holocaust Museum Houston, Texas
I walked into the Mein Kampf exhibition at the Houston Holocaust Museum and spun about the room. I looked again; I didn't feel any better. So began my difficulties with this collection of photographs.
The Mein Kampf exhibition is composed of large color Polaroid prints that take their subjects from the Nazi era. The photographs are all very blurred.
I will start at the end. The last photograph is of a Menorah resting on a painted table, thoroughly blurred because the camera's plane of focus is placed several inches in front of it. It is a Hanukah Menorah, not the seven-branched icon of Judaism. A curious photograph. There are no people in it; the candles are not lit.
I felt like I was looking into a dim alcove at something that was half-forgotten and half-lost. A bit of culture, bereft of membership in a living community. Where were the survivors? Candles are still lit today; Jewish history did not end with the Holocaust.
Where are the witnesses to the expressions of the Nazi state? Absent are those who experienced that history as it was being created. None who cried out in support or critique find their way into Lev-inthal's photographic frame.
The only witnesses are those like myself, wandering about the gallery. I feel I need to be a witness, but there were others whose presence must be remembered and acknowledged. So many were witness to the horrors of the Holocaust. That is an important detail I miss in Levinthal's images.
The rise to power and a sampling of the atrocities of the Holocaust are the mainstay of the exhibition. Again I am troubled by an absence. I look for the images of the decline of Nazi power and its defeat. These images are absent.
The photographs are grouped into segments. One is comprised of the fascist gestures of the Nazi state - the appeals of regimented posture, uniform and parade. Another is of the figurehead, Adolph Hitler in his various, distinctive poses. And yet another is of the collection and extermination operations of the Final Solution. Excepting the lone photograph of the Menorah, it ends there.
Levinthal often makes use of children's toys to stage his tableau photography. This series was directly affected when he discovered that the molds were used to produce tin toy playthings of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi elite. Levinthal was successful in adding casts found while ferreting about the ephemeral shops and collecting circles of Europe. He discovered a surprising bit of history; as reward for service to the Nazi state, a person was made into a toy figurine.
Levinthal went to work with the large Polaroid view camera to produce his luscious color prints of the posturing toys. Viewed through the lens such small objects become immersed in a world of soft focus, everything a blur except the thin plane of critical focus, carefully placed. Levinthal spoke of becoming absorbed in that world where subtle shifts of focus or movement of the toys had such profound affects. Later when all the work was placed on a wall Levin-thai finally saw his work in a collective sense. He said he found it depressing; his focus had always been on the individual frame.
Levinthal spoke of his study of the visual record that he examined; thousands of photographs were viewed as he worked on his project.
Levinthal chose beauty to seduce the viewer. He offered beauty as a solution to the difficulty that so many have when confronted with the documentary photographs of the Holocaust. Beauty is to provide the viewer a way into the imagery. Levinthal's diffused focus and lush color remove the gritty details of that history, leaving only their generalized trace, shimmering in the frame. The content of the imagery is now much easier to consume, confected.
I respond to the aesthetic and the anesthetic qualities of his photographs. Beauty is his anesthesia; he offers a heady brew of suffused color fields and blurred imagery. I would rather be sobered for viewing work concerning the Holocaust, a demanding subject. I look at the exhibition and wonder what Levinthal feels. I see only the formal project of blur, limited depth of field and color. I get no clues of anything else. The images strike me as visual averages. Each typifies a particular aspect of pageantry and dictatorship stripped of the specific details of time and place except the prominent graphics of swastikas and distinctive color scheme invariably return the series to Nazi Germany.
The anesthesia doesn't make any sense anyway. The cultural body of late 20th century America is pumped full. The perpetually half-remembered past is confused with the nostalgia of the present. The present demands that I desensitize myself in order to survive. To contemplate the history of human cruelty and suffering of this century is enough, but to add to the list the threats of ecology, ideology and nuclear war, it becomes all too much. I see a need for something a bit more brash. Perhaps a splash of cold water to awaken my psyche, to see and remember the Holocaust in a startling new way, and to be more acutely mindful of that history than before the encounter.
It feels like aesthetic and anesthetic exploitation. The subject matter is exploited for the power it contains, and little is offered as compensation except its beau-tification. The existing photographic document is extraordinarily powerful. I see little service in anesticizing it. The works of the propagandists have already explored the formal beauty of their subject. Perhaps if Levinthal examined the tropes of beauty as a tool of ideology - but no, I don't get any sense of that in his work.
I miss the specifics, the details that magnify the horrors of that time. They are an important part of the memory that is to be preserved. Attention to detail made the Holocaust a reality. The sheer magnitude of what was done required the Nazi state to plan their solution to the finest detail. Amplified with the application of technology, the plan proceeded with stunning rapidity. The details are important to remember, they make the history more personal, believable and unforgettable. The victims of the Holocaust were harvested for their eyeglasses, gold fillings, clothing and hair! I want an opinion, a reaction of some kind! I see only visual averages, images that contain suggestions of the Nazi's rise to power and some of its abuses.
I know the look and feel of the generalized postures of the fascist state. Show me something new and yet uncon-sidered. The interceding decades have provided plenty of perspective on the complex history of the Holocaust and the subject is not exhausted. Many things are to be remembered and expressed, things yet unspoken and stories untold.
Charles Wiese is a Houston-based photographer.
David Levinthal's Mein Kampf was published by Twin Palms Publishers, Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1996.