Contemporary Jewish Museum reopens with sly, mysterious Zohar photos

Exhibition showcases witty 19th century-seeming images

The new exhibit at the recently reopened Contemporary Jewish Museum, “Predicting the Past: Zohar Studios, The Lost Years,” with its tantalizing title, poses questions not answered in the exhibit itself, beginning with: Was Zohar Studios real? (The word Zohar refers to the Kabbalah, the ancient mystical text that explicates the Torah.)

Los Angeles photographer Stephen Berkman, who created this exhibit/installation based on his eponymous book of 200 photos (of which 30 are seen here), offers a sly narrative: The provenance of the photos and ephemera is a 19th-century photography studio created by a Jewish immigrant in New York, one Shimmel Zohar, who mysteriously disappeared.

What’s certain is that Berkman studied the techniques of early photography—the wet collodion process of developing print, the use of the camera obscura and other early cameras and equipment—to illustrate a time (before the invention of electricity) and place (the Lower East Side) in which Zohar Studios might have existed.

So one of the sequences of enlarged, albumin-print photographs claims to reveal Zohar’s office, a cluttered atelier in which a large cat sits placidly (that cat reappears on a rowboat in another photo); a painting is, according to the caption, believed to be a self-portrait of Zohar himself.

In the detailed, lightly sepia-toned and convincingly antiquated images, a single model, or group, poses stiffly, formally, blank-faced, in Victorian dress, comprising various odd and amusing little still-lifes.

A “Blind Mohel” (a mohel traditionally performs Jewish circumcisions) with a long beard and a gnarled walking stick sits beside a table that holds his kit of medical instruments. A bearded “Pointillist Painter” with John Lennon specs and a tasseled cap is poised with palette and brush.

“Billy the Yid,” described as an enlarged film fragment, features a menorah-shaped cactus. A “Mute Debating Society” of five men sit, inert, expressionless. A woman floats in space on her back, her head propped up on a rod, in “Curing Hysteria: A Third Opinion.”

There’s even a “wax cylinder recording” of a ventriloquist’s dummy—a tiny Hasid in a fur hat, as seen in the accompanying photo—speaking in a tinny voice, presumably in Yiddish.

This is indeed a weird, even unsettling vision, complete with puns and witticisms, presented by a captivating trickster.

In one particular photo, captioned “A Luddite Gazing into the Future,” a man in a broad-brimmed hat stares implacably into the middle distance. That Luddite surely represents Berkman himself.


Predicting the Past: Zohar Studios,The Lost Years

Where: Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays; closes Feb. 28

Admission: $14 to $16, free for ages 18 and younger

Contact: (415) 655-7800,

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