Text by Daniel Seth Kraus
All Images © Hannah Altman
Hannah Altman is a Jewish-American artist from New Jersey. She holds an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University. Her photographs interpret relationships between gestures, the body, lineage, and interior space.
The conceptual coupling of photography and memory reaches far back into the medium’s history and how critics, especially Susan Sontag, have thought about photography. Hannah Altman’s book, Kavana, visualizes and affixes the ordinary yet fleeting human phenomena of memory. Focusing specifically on the Jewish understanding of cultural and shared memory,
Altman photographed family, traditions, and others as they practiced and participated in Judaism.
In Altman’s photographs we see a personalized understanding of memory showcased in her self portraits. The tangible or physical implications of memory can harkened, like the memory of a cut foot being washed in the water (image below).
Portraiture is a critical component in this book, and Altman photographed generations of people. In her artist statement she writes “…when my hand is wounded, I remember other hands. I trace ache back to other aches.” The power of generational memory, such as this, is how it goes deeper than one individual’s life and experience. Altman’s family is here today because of her great grandfather and grandmother’s flight from ethnic cleansing in Poland during the 1930’s. Those in the family who stayed in Poland were murdered in Nazi concentration camps. When Altman photographs personal, familial, or generational memory it moves memory out of the fuzziness associated with the past and into the tangible and consequential reality of the real world. The physical implications of memory loom large in Kavana. Generational memory means that people pass their memories onward and carry them on their skin, in the bones, and within stories.
Religion plays a central role in Kavana, and Altman draws from Jewish folklore and narrative traditions to communicate the intertwining of physical and generational memory. Furthermore, she photographs a diverse array of subjects who are unified by their shared faith. Altman’s reliance on her faith-tradition brings a genuine and personal tone to the project. Of the three major taboo subjects to avoid in polite conversation, politics, sex, and religion, it seems that religion is the only one of the three that hasn’t received much investigation by a substantial number of photographers, at least not in a personal sense. It isn’t often a positive subject of inquiry in contemporary photography, or even a consequential one, which makes Kavana a unique and important addition to the contemporary photography scene. Furthermore, the beauty and mystery of her photographs invite conversation and questions. Altman’s work is, in many ways, a personal investigation and search into her family’s past, which positions her faith as a natural and genuine locus of the project.
Symbols and metaphors are a through-line in Kavana. When asked about her work, Altman cites an appreciation for the “misleading simplicity” used to teach complex Jewish ideas in children’s storybooks. The photographs clearly depict actions as they happen before the camera. The photographs do not coldly illustrate a process from a distance. They are thoughtfully lit, composed, and photographed to place the viewer in the room, at the baptismal, and in the doorway with the subjects.
Dipping hands in honey, spitting on an insect, melting candles onto hands (images below), are all scenes clearly rendered by the photographer, though they’re still shrouded in mystery. Why are these actions being undertaken? What do they mean, if anything? Altman’s photographs show objects and gestures, but leave the viewer with questions. The tension between a photograph’s precision and ambiguity was succinctly described decades ago by photography curator and critic John Szarkowski, who wrote, “a photograph describes everything but explains nothing.” This is a major attribute of photography, and it’s the central tension that draws many artists to the medium. Altman’s use of this tension pulls the viewer into a deeper understanding of Jewish thought, folklore, and metaphor. The photographs are not only thought provoking, they’re paradoxical.
In regards to her work, Altman writes, “To approach an image in this way is not only to ask what it looks like but asks: what does it remember like?” Photographing cultural and generational memory, along with its religious ties presents opportunities for metaphor and symbolism. However, Altman’s work goes further to show us the central paradox of photography. Kavana personalizes something as big as religion while using something as precise as a camera to create mysteries.