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The NYPR Interview with R. Wayne Parsons
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Part of Perimeter Barrier at Auschwitz by R. Wayne Parsons. Source: courtesy R. Wayne Parsons
R. Wayne Parsons, "Part of Perimeter Barrier at Auschwitz" 2011

Regular readers of the New York Photo Review will recognize R. Wayne Parsons as an astute critic and writer about photography, who has frequently graced our silicon and glass pages. He is also an insightful and challenging photographer and currently has a an exhibition of photographs taken at the Auschwitz concentration camp on view at Soho Photo Gallery in Tribeca. The NYPR visited Wayne at his Upper West Side home recently and talked with him about the show and the book that has evolved from it. I started by asking him to explain how he came to take these pictures at Auschwitz.

RWP Well back in 2005, my wife and I took a trip to Eastern Germany. But we were really interested in seeing what had been behind the Iron Curtain - Eastern Germany. We went to Berlin, Dresden, Liepzig and then to Krakow, where we spent four or five nights, or something like that. Krakow is about an hour’s drive away from Auschwitz or Oswiecim, or however you pronounce that in Polish. One of the tourist things you can do is take a tour to Auschwitz, so we decided to do that. And I had my camera of course, loaded with Tri-X film.

NYPR Had you been to any other camps or sites like that?

RWP Way back in the mid 70’s we had been to Dachau, near Munich, but I had pretty much forgotten about that. I remember very little about it. But Susanne, my wife, is Jewish, – but not a practicing Jew, and she really doesn’t have much interest in Jewish culture and things like that. Nevertheless when we’ve gone to places like this, she’s always expressed an interest in seeing the Jewish synagogues, or what’s left of them, and that sort of thing.

So we took one of these day-trip kind of things to Auschwitz, and I started taking pictures, just on the spur of the moment. This was not a planned project. You know there are a lot of pictures of Auschwitz. I didn’t want to take just the same pictures that everyone else has taken. So, I started focusing on some of the details of things at Auschwitz, like a single strand of barbed wire, or just a section of brick wall where executions had taken place, things like that.

And then when we got back to the U.S. I developed the film, kind of looked at it, didn’t really do much. But it sparked my interest in the Holocaust, and I started reading about it with the idea of maybe doing a project. I read a fair amount in, oh, 2006 and 7, but didn’t really start working on this project until about a year ago, not even a year ago. Then I decided to put some time into this and see what I can get out of it. I began with the idea of small pictures, making them not pretentious or dramatic, quite the contrary, making them very unobtrusive, small– not something that’s shouting, ‘Here I am, look at me’. Just the contrary – very low-key.

And you start playing with an idea like that and then it evolves.

NYPR  Were there any conscious influences on your choices there?

RWP None that I can think of. I’m not aware of any. I was just trying to deal with the Holocaust– Auschwitz.

NYPR So the format of the show echoes the format of the book that you’ve made. Did they develop simultaneously?

RWP No the format of the show was first. The idea is to have a presentation of images, all of which are small, the actual image area on the paper is 8 by 11, white photo paper, the image area typically not much more then 4 inches wide, so the actual images are small, and the text overlay on top of the images sometimes spills out beyond the four inches. So the images may be five inches wide. But that’s as big as they get. And I wanted them unmatted and unframed in keeping with the idea of making this relatively unobtrusive and undemonstrative, letting the material speak for itself. And, a very simple presentation, just going straight across. And they are closely hung, there is only a one inch separation between them.

NYPR Well do you consider it one piece?

RWP Well I consider it one work. It’s twenty separate images on the wall, and there are about a little over forty all together. I didn’t have room to exhibit them all with this treatment. But one of the ideas in the display is to have a contrast between the crowded exhibition and a wall that’s almost empty. The two walls right next to it. One wall has two pages of introductory material the other wall which is the larger wall, is about 10 feet wide, and there is really one single page with a little text on it. So to me one of the important things is the contrast between the very crowded conditions which represent the crowded conditions in the concentration camp, and the non-concentration camp, the surrounding area that is virtually empty. Down the road there is a little village. I hope people come away with that sense.

NYPR Why don’t we talk a little bit about the text and the imagery. Because you deal with text a lot.

RWP You mean in my other work.

NYPR Yes, the text is again very flat. But I was a slightly surprised last night at your opening when you said there was a sequence to the text. How did that develop? How did the text develop on these images?

RWP It has to do with the nature of documentary photography and the relationship between a documentary photograph and text. And the conclusion you get when you look at documentary photography, this work is in a sense documentary work, and all the other documentary photography, is that that’s only part of the picture. Photographs convey a certain part of reality, but it is by no means all of reality.

Think of the Holocaust for example. Think of some of the most dramatic and eye-grabbing and emotionally intense pictures of the Holocaust. Liberation of some of the concentration camps by the Allies, Bergen Belsen, I think was one. The stacks of bodies, emaciated bodies just stacked up like stacks of wood. Those photographs were widely disseminated and published in newspapers all over the world, in magazines like Life and all that. Those are very engaging photographs, they are really wrenching when you look at them. So they succeed on an emotional level. But if that’s all you saw, with no textual information whatever, you wouldn’t really know what to make of those. If you didn’t know they were taken at a concentration camp upon liberation, they wouldn’t mean much of anything.

NYPR Well, they’re horrific images.

RWP Well they’re horrific images, but what is the horror? You need a text to explain what the horror is, what the photograph is documenting. And even if you know they’re - if the text tells you - that this is the liberation of Buchenwald, for example, or another camp where these horrific images came from, that’s just a small part of the story. That doesn’t tell you – you may see stacks of bodies, but those stacks of bodies don’t tell you that 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazi’s. I mean, that kind of very essential information is textual information that a pure photograph is not going to tell you. How would you have a photograph that told you 6 million Jews were killed?

The answer is you wouldn’t. So the point is the two complement one another the text and the image. And I have this very beautiful quote from Cormac McCarthy, from one of his novels, about ‘things without their stories have no meaning.’ So what I have attempted to do, and I didn’t start with the idea of Cormac’s quote, I was well through this project when I read the novel and found this quote, and bells went off – that’s exactly what I am trying to do. He has expressed it so beautifully that I appended his quote as a heading to the show, to the description of the show.

NYPR OK, but you take it a little bit further, because you have essentially the caption for the picture, but you put it right in the middle.

RWP Right in the middle, yeah.

NYPR What was your thinking on that?

RWP Well, in part it’s to emphasize the importance of the text. Because, the photographs are really kind of bland. And I think the text is equally as important, possibly even more important than the imagery. So I superimposed it across the image, to highlight its importance. And then there is also this notion of highlighting the horror, which is represented in the text, by enclosing, by printing the words is red. Indicative of danger, and the blood of the victims, so there is a little bit of photographic, artistic, gimmickry going on there, if you want to call it that. ...

RWP You alluded to the sequencing idea.

NYPR The sentences are all very straight forward, they are all simple sentences describing what’s on there. Any yet you said there was a sequence.

RWP Well there is a sequence to the way the works are displayed. The first image in the sequence is the entrance to Auschwitz – the famous, infamous slogan, Arbeit macht frie, work makes you free. Which of course was a complete lie.

NYPR Well, it’s ambiguous what free means.

RWP Well in this particular case free means dead. …. But anyway, the sequence, it starts with this somewhat benign image, Ok you are going to come to this place, and if you work we will treat you right and you achieve a certain degree of self-respect and autonomy, or whatever else the Germans wanted that to suggest. ... The next image is almost a bucolic image, with some trees in the wind. A nice picture, kind of reassuring, pastural, all that. ... But then things start taking a turn for the worse. There is a picture of a drainage pipe that’s broken, it’s sort of sticking up out of the earth. Things are broken, things are not quite the way they were suggested they would be by these first couple of images of the camp and the trees in the wind. There some further pictures, and then there’s a picture of graffiti, and I suggest it’s of unknown significance, which it is, because you can’t read it, it’s largely effaced. So the notion of unknown significance, at least to me, raises the question of ‘what’s going on here?’ We don’t really know what’s going on. And then you follow through and you start to see what’s going on. In the middle there’s some pictures, two pictures of railroad by which Jews were transported, or deported Jews were transported to other parts of Poland and Russia, to the camps. And then you get pictures of the barracks, pictures of barbed wire, pictures of rubble of the gas chamber, and pictures of deceased, some of the people who were killed. Pictures of memorials to the victims.

NYPR You transition into the current state of the camp.

RWP Well, that’s true to some extent. You transition initially from this idea of sort a bucolic place where you might work, but everything will be ok, and then it gets successively darker, to at the end that wasn’t the case at all. At the end you get death, you get death in the gas chamber. Of which we see only the remnants now, because the Germans blew it up when the Russians were advancing in January of ’45. Because the Germans they didn’t want to be around when the Russians came, because they knew what they would get. Because they had been so savage when they invaded Russia in 1941, when they invaded Russia. Just indiscriminant killing of all sorts of people.

NYPR Of course that’s not in your piece

RWP No, you have to know a little bit about that. But the point is that the Germans blew up the camp, blew up the gas chamber in an attempt to hide the evidence, because they weren’t successful. And they left people in the camps who were alive, and those were the ones that were liberated by the Russians.

NYPR Or people escaped from the camps………..

In any case you do have this transition to current conditions at the camps. In other words as a tourist destination.

RWP Yes, several of the pictures deal with the fact that when you go to Auschwitz today you see the accommodations for tourists. And this is sort of another idea implicit in the work, that is, what I call the commodification of the Holocaust. Over the last twenty or thirty years we sort of turned the Holocaust into a form of entertainment. Think of all the films that have been made about the Holocaust, all the books that have been written about it. I’m somewhat uneasy about that.

NYPR Well, I think most people are.

RWP Should atrocities be an entertainment?

NYPR But how do you memorialize it? If it’s not interesting people are not going to remember it.

RWP Well that’s the problem. You’ve got a dilemma between two poles, of trying to keep it alive in memory, and on the other hand not making it into something that’s just frivolous entertainment. And you see that to some extent at Auschwitz. Although not extensively. They are relatively restrained in what they do.

Is Auschwitz going to become a theme park? A Holocaust theme park? I hope not. But there are some people who feel it already has become that.

If you go and look at the Blurb books about Auschwitz, there are about a dozen or so Blurb books about Auschwitz, and I guess a lot more about Auschwitz, one or two of the books that I looked at on Blurb expressed this idea, that particularly in the summertime, when there are hoards of people, walking around, everybody with a camera, taking pictures of there friends posing in front of the rubble of the gas chambers, that kind of thing that tends to trivialize it. It becomes not much different from going to Times Square and having your picture taken.

Sign Indicating Emergency Exit for Tourists at Auschwitz by R. Wayne Parsons. Source: courtesy R. Wayne Parsons
R. Wayne Parsons, "Sign Indicating Emergency Exit for Tourists at Auschwitz" 2011

NYPR Or to the Museum of Modern Art.

Getting back to the word concept. When did the idea of the book come about? Because in my mind, the book seems to have primacy over the show. In that it seems like it works, it actually works for me somewhat as a poem. Because the words are so prominent. And when you leaf through the book, it’s like you are reading a long extended work of poetry. And you actually have a little ‘envoi’ at the end.

RWP I think that may be going over people’s heads to some extent. Because last night, somebody asked me, more than one person asked me, did I really meet those people at Auschwitz? And that’s not what it’s supposed to be about at all. … Yes, it’s supposed to be ambiguous.

NYPR And the idea of the sequence of the words. Have you ever ‘read’ the whole book from one end to the other?

RWP Well yes.

NYPR And do you think it works as a word piece?

RWP Well, yeah. I hope so. But here we get into, if you look at the book there is the introduction in the book, and I thought you might have some qualms about this, and you might not like the introduction on the grounds that it explains too much, as to what the work is trying to do.

NYPR Hmm.

RWP Because I remember you criticized one of my earlier shows for that reason. That I shouldn’t have explained what the pictures were about at all. Just let them stand by themselves. And I thought about that, but then I concluded that if I don’t explain what I’m doing, 99 people out of 100 who see this show won’t have the faintest idea about what I’m trying to get at. And I felt that it really needs some explanation. Some of the, to me, rather simple ideas, of the yellow borders and the red text within the yellow borders, to me those ideas are kind of obvious, but that’s because I spent a long time thinking about these things. To the ordinary viewer who is just walking by, and hasn’t thought about it, I don’t think those ideas are obvious. They will probably go right over people’s heads.

NYPR Well, to some extent that’s what makes a work of art interesting, it’s that there are things in it that sometimes you might overlook, and then as you spend time with it they become significant. You begin to see what they actually mean. So there is something to be said for being a little bit reticent about it. Trying to explain it to people, because then people will just say, oh, yellow border, OK, you know make a little check list, rather than exploring it and letting it come out by itself.

RWP But the problem is most people aren’t going to put that much time into it.

NYPR I think you underestimate the worth and the value of the pictures.

RWP Well, maybe.

NYPR Frankly, I find it very intriguing work. It’s a difficult work, it’s not something that pops out immediately, but that why it’s a rich piece.

RWP To give you just a trivial example of difficulty, some of the words are hard to read. By the way they’re superimposed over the (image). You can’t just read it like you’re reading the newspaper. They are just hard to read visually, because of the way the blend in to the text. But so what, who ever said Auschwitz was easy.

NYPR Well, exactly. Uh,umm…. Robert Frank comes to mind. With his images, the Nova Scotia images, especially the ones dealing with the death of his son, where he has writing over it. Hard to read, hard to understand the context, unless you know the background. Are you familiar with that work?

RWP No, I don’t know those pictures.

NYPR Oh OK..., is there anything that you think we haven’t covered this morning?

RWP Yes, we talked about the level of difficulty of the work. To me there is a whole side of this that we haven’t alluded to that is very interesting, and ...it has to do with the representation and the recognition of evil, and the accoutrements of evil. OK, you see some of these things at Auschwitz, that basically look like the same things anywhere else. So what? You see a picture of a brick wall, it just looks like a picture of a brick wall, which is what it is, and a brick wall anywhere else would look pretty much the same. Or a strand of barbed wire, or a relatively simple barracks. ... The point is that much of what you see at Auschwitz looks very similar to what you see any other place. But these things have their significance solely by virtue of their story (as Cormac McCarthy wrote.) Then the question is how do you recognize evil? And what does it look like?

In this case the very simple statement is it looks like everything else. But that observation is not a very profound or original observation. A brick wall looks like a brick wall, so what? But then where it gets really interesting to me, is when you abstract the question a couple of levels, and we’re not talking about the physical accoutrements of evil, but the political ideology and the social ideology of evil. How do you recognize, how does a person recognize evil in the political realm. And make it more specific. How would you recognize the evil of the Nazi ideology before Hitler came to power? That raises the very significant question, in a democracy how do people know what they’re voting for. What is the process by which people separate the demagogues from the people who really are going to be leaders in a true sense.

But, that I think is the much more interesting question. And granted that is not a question, that’s an idea that this suggests to me. I think that very few people are going to look at this and take away that idea, but I think it is an idea that you can take away if you think about this enough. And I think it is a very important idea and has to do with a very fundamental structure.

The idea of why should we care about the Holocaust? I think that is a very important question. What is the reason for our remembrance? It’s seventy years past, you cannot do anything about it, it’s irrevocable, it cannot be changed in any way, all the people who where murdered have long since been dead.

NYPR Most of the survivors are dead by now.

RWP But nothing that we can do will make any difference whatsoever to the victims, because they’ve long been dead. So if we’re going to remember, we’re not remembering for their sake, remembering doesn’t help them in any way.

So why are we remembering? We’re remembering for ourselves and for future generations. And the way I express it in some of the text wrote is that one of the ways to look at an atrocity like the Holocaust is that the Nazi’s were in effect destroying the moral order. Just ripping it apart, tossing it aside, saying it doesn’t matter. We have our own moral order which is going to replace yours. And what we’re trying to do in our remembrance is to reconstruct and reaffirm the moral order for ourselves and for the future. That’s why it’s important.

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R. Wayne Parsons’ show “At Auschwitz: A Remembrance” will be at Soho Photo Gallery through June 4, 2011. His book is available online at http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/2044275.

The NYPR Interview with R. Wayne Parsons by Don Burmeister

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The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino
Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat
Central Booking Magazine
Soho Photo Gallery