Speaking of the unspeakable

  • Article by: MARY ABBE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 16, 2012 - 11:14 AM

Art review: A show at the Mpls Photo Center revisits the Holocaust.

Photo by Mark Seliger of Holocaust survivor Adolf Hager, born Oct. 27, 1924, in Vienna, Austria.

Photo: Mpls Photo Center

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Holocaust survivors aren't any longer.

Surviving that is.

Having dodged or endured unspeakable horrors 70 years ago, they are now reaching the natural end of their days. Their stories have been told many times in many ways, yet none is redundant or irrelevant.

That is what inspired Mark Seliger, a former photographer for Rolling Stone magazine, to add his chronicle to the substantial body of Holocaust literature. Moved by the numbers tattooed on the arms of three brothers who ran a bakery in Houston, where he grew up, Seliger delved into their past.

Twenty-two of his black-and-white photos of survivors, paired with excerpts from their stories, are on view through Jan. 4 at the Mpls Photo Center. Called "When They Came to Take My Father," the exhibit is excerpted from Seliger's 1996 book of the same name. It is co-sponsored by the Photo Center and Tolerance Minnesota, an educational program of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

Seliger's pictures are affectingly direct, with the survivors gazing impassively out from their desks, beds, gardens, studios, butcher shop or wheelchair. As our eyes flicker between words and images, we notice wrinkled flesh, steady eyes, shy smiles, tattooed numbers. The pictures are somber but not maudlin. These are survivors, after all, and much time has passed. It's the interplay of stories and pictures that brings gravitas to the project -- the mention of a mother abandoned, a twin experimented on by Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, a rescue by Raoul Wallenberg, who was known as "Moses From the North."

And there are startling observations: The orchestra played while people burned. The Dominican Republic was the only country in the world that agreed to take 100,000 Jews.

Standing on a narrow path in her Cincinnati garden, Anna Ornstein, now a psychoanalyst, displays the numbers neatly burned into her arm and recalls how happy she was to get them. Just 17 and incarcerated in Auschwitz, she wanted small, well-shaped numbers on the inside of her arm, so she flattered the skills of the tattooist and got what she sought. "The day we received the tattoos was a good day for us," Ornstein recalled. The tattoos were "passports for life," she said, proof that the Germans intended to keep those prisoners alive.

There is no argument with these pictures and their stories. They bear witness to what must be remembered and retold. And yet there is a weariness to this show, as there is on so many of the survivors' faces. The better part of a century has passed, healing has occurred, and yet the burden of remembering and teaching goes on.

Two additional shows complement the Holocaust pictures.

"The Human Condition: A Survey of Humanity" is a miscellany of color and black-and-white images selected by National Geographic photographer Annie Griffiths-Belt from entries in a competition about a topic that is "both timely and universal," as she put it. True enough. As human beings, were are inevitably interested in our own condition, whatever that may be.

She picked roughly 50 photos ranging from crisp news images of an upset woman and a hostage negotiator in New York, to riot police monitoring a protest in Ukraine, to a bunch of wary kids clambering around a rusting World War II bomber in a jungle clearing.

Other striking photos include impoverished children floating in tin basins in a muddy river, barefoot monks with cellphones, workers hand-cutting grass at the base of the famous Red Fort in old Delhi, fat white people wading into an ocean, a thumb-sized fetus, prostitutes awaiting customers, girls upside down on a roller coaster, a barefoot man looking catatonic in Louisiana, a self-mutilating young woman, a roadside memorial to Fred, a legless Paralympic swimmer in Palm Springs, lovers kissing on the Paris metro, and so on.

Some of the photos are arresting and others mundane, but in general the show suffers from touristic randomness. It's a voyeuristic gape at other people whose "condition" we may or may not share. Like its pretentiously vapid title, the show looks and feels callow and exploitative.

"Nobel Laureates: 20 Portraits," taken by Minneapolis-based photographer Doug Knutson, features black-and-white images that both ennoble and humanize worthy individuals, presenting them as thoughtful, curious, smiling, preoccupied, shrewd. The images are well known locally, but Knutson's rather old-school approach seems very appropriate for winners of this award.

mabbe@startribune.com • 612-673-4431

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  • Work by Andy Richter

  • WHEN THEY CAME TO TAKE MY FATHER: VOICES OF THE HOLOCAUST

    When: Noon-5:30 p.m. daily.

    Ends Jan. 4.

    Where: Mpls Photo Center,

    2400 N. 2nd St.

    Tickets: Free. 612-643-3511 or www.mplsphotocenter.com.

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