Mar 19, 2018
Shterna Goldbloom and I share a dear friend in the Yiddish world, so I’d been hearing her name for years. I think of my long friendships as ongoing conversations, stretched across time and space, and when I met Shterna in person last summer, we were somehow, already, in conversation. This interview, a part of that ongoing conversation linking several relationships, centers on Shterna’s photography, which is at once intimate and expansive and wrestles with questions of self, community, religion, and gender. Many of the images in this particular photo series, Sitra Achra, are self-portraits, but the way Shterna changes attire, appearance, and mood between them makes her almost unrecognizable; the portraits become physical manifestations of multiple truths and simultaneous, even conflicting, ways of being. Sitra Achra describes those who don’t fit in, but in Shterna’s photography, the periphery becomes the center, and those who are sometimes outcast instead are rendered with luminous care.
Shterna Goldbloom will be receiving her MFA from Rhode Island School of Design (2019). Her photography has been exhibited at EXPOChicago, the Mint Museum (NC), the Hartmann Gallery (IL), the Gelman Gallery (RI) and at Double Exposure in the Fotovakschool in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. She is the grateful recipient of many prizes including the Hahnemühle Award and fellowships from Anderson Ranch, Columbia, and RISD. Her work can be seen in LensCulture and Lilith Magazine. Shterna is also an award-winning teacher of visual arts and was the recipient of a Yetzirah Fellowship. www.shternagoldbloom.com.
In the artist’s statement for this series, Sitra Achra, you write “Sitra Achra is the term used to describe all the things on the ‘other side’ of holiness, like queers, and women who don’t fit traditional definitions of femininity, women who go to college and want to have babies outside of marriage and without husbands. Sitra Achra is me.” What did it mean to reclaim this term, and how did you come to apply it to your work?
Around the time that my mother came out to the Hasidic community, I was in high school learning Tanya. 1 1 The Tanya (תניא) is a philosophical work by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, who founded Chabad Hasidism. The book, which was first published in 1797, lays out the foundations of Chabad practice in daily life. I was fascinated by the hidden levels and wrappings of purity and impurity in this world. Simultaneously, my community was shifting as parents told their children they couldn’t be friends with me or come over to hang out. Because we were a “troubled” home, I lost my two closest friends. I was struck with the realization that what I was learning was “impure” didn’t feel true to me. It was this ideological contradiction where I felt forced to decide for myself what I thought of as impure or wrong. My mother has always taught me kindness for those who are “other” and I chose that way of thinking.
It was a really important time in my life when I finally figured out, for the first time, what I thought was good and bad, kind or mean, pure or impure. I grew fond of this term “Sitra Achra” as one that describes rebels, the ones who didn’t follow, who pushed and questioned what they were told.
You recently moved from Chicago, your hometown and a place with a thick and multifaceted Jewish community, to Providence, Rhode Island for an MFA. What is it like to work on your art about community, place, and self in a context far from the one that inspired your work?
When I made this specific series of self portraits I was actually living in Chicago, where I was still close to my family and childhood friends, and a short drive away from the frum community where I grew up. So I was making work about community, place and self while still very much wrapped into the thick Jewish life and culture of my youth, and the way it presented itself into my adulthood. Some of those photos were made in other parts of the world though, like Poland, where I traveled for a few weeks and tried to find some of my family’s roots. I think making this series, interrogating my place in the Jewish community and in Jewish history, required me to be around it and in it. Being in Providence is completely different. When you grow up with such a strong and rooted community, loose networks of acquaintances or colleagues just aren’t the same, and it can be hard to adjust. But I’ve begun a new project where I photograph Queer Orthodox and ex-Orthodox Jews, which has meant a lot of traveling to New York and being around people who I share a lot of imaginary history or actual shared experiences with. One of the things that attracts people to Hasidic life is the same thing that makes it hard to leave, which is the feeling of belonging to something and having meaningful webs of relationships. But these kinds of relationships aren’t exclusive to religious life, and can form around shared experiences (like leaving an Orthodox or Hasidic community) or shared love (for photography, art, etc). It’s important to be reminded of that.
Your project examines “day-to-day life, mundane spaces. Doubled images, good and bad. I want to show people the way they see themselves, nuanced, complicated.” 2 2 The focus on power in stillness and domesticity, and your depiction of women living unconventional Jewish lives, reminds me of Dvoyre Fogel’s poetry, and Dr. Anna Torres’ forthcoming writing on the subject. Could you talk about the ways in which you find power in the domestic, and in tradition? Where does that show up in your work?
I love that you asked this question! Domesticity has always been such a big part of my life, but when I came out as queer and rejected the traditional marriage-husband-kids path that had been set out for me, I didn’t know what role family would continue to play in my new life. Growing up, “family” meant a father and a mother, where the father goes to shul with the brothers and the mother sets the table with the girls. Now I don’t know what family means, and I sort of get to figure it out for myself. For example: I love shabbos, and have always loved shabbos. And I’ve grown to realize that I don’t need to be frum to celebrate shabbos, and I don’t need to have a father to make kiddush. In this regard I’ve been really lucky, because my mother came out as queer when I was a teenager and still stayed Orthodox, which exposed me to a radically different way of combining traditional life with nontraditional family structures. When I was young, I used to collect little household things for my future life with my husband: plates, tablecloths, sheets, etc. When I moved in with my partner this year I took my domestic collection with me and used it for our new home. I hate to think that being queer or leaving Orthodoxy means that someone can’t have a family, and I try to bring these seemingly incongruous ideas and aesthetics together in my images to craft a domestic that isn’t simply a traditionally oppressive or disempowering one.
At age sixteen you left a Hasidic Jewish community in Chicago, ignoring warnings “to stay away from everything unholy, all the deepest, darkest profanities of the world.” How does representing the domestic or the traditional challenge you?
It can be hard to show domesticity without showing the choice that lies within that role. There is power in choosing what is thought of as “soft” or “feminine.” Too often, “supposed” feminism is wrapped up in toxic masculinity that looks down on more traditionally feminine choices. I find it a hard balance to show both the power and the choice.
Issues of representation for a community that doesn’t wish to be represented have also been confusing for me to work through. If women in the Hasidic community don’t want to be in the spotlight, how can I tell their stories without their faces? 3 3 Shayna Weiss also wrestled with this question in her recent review of One of Us, the Netflix documentary about “three ex-Hasidic Jews who have decided to leave their communities and their families for a world largely unknown.” This is why I chose self portraiture, a style that allows me to be a surrogate for other women’s stories.
Your photographs are quite intimate, and give an impression of static air and contemplation. How do you create that slow and contemplative atmosphere? What is your relationship with your subjects like (most of whom, in this particular series, are different versions of you)?
When I’m photographing other people, I have less control over how their faces appear, but with self portraits I get to play around a lot and perfect the expressions I want, so in that sense I’m really close to the subject I’m portraying. I’m not interested in open or eager faces, and I don’t want an expression that can be simply interpreted as happy, or sad, or angry. I actually used to practice my facial expressions in the mirror, examining different ways of moving around my eyes or my mouth and paying close attention to whether certain emotions came across in the way I wanted. I would like the women in my images to look like they’re pushing the boundaries of their own world, but I also want the viewer to be able to project emotion into their faces, find different shades of reality. That’s where the contemplation comes in. The women I pose as are inspired by who I might have been, who I am now, and other Jewish, female narratives I admire.
Despite the stillness, there’s also a lot of air and light, a lot of soft pale fabric, mirrors, sky. Open space even in shadow. How do you create roominess here, whether visually, conceptually, or communally?
Much of what you ask is intuitive or simply aesthetic but mirrors definitely have a dear place in my heart. When I was starting to make this work I was inspired by women who associated with the surrealist movement in the 1930s and ‘40s. Artists like Claude Cahun and Frida Kahlo, who both made self portraits, told their stories in new and powerful ways through reflectively looking at themselves. I want my work to be in conversation with theirs, to continue in that line.
When you “look to history with regards to clothing, situation and placement,” where do you look? What historical images, scenes, and practices feel compelling to you, and why?
I love the boring and mundane, the times you wouldn’t recall over dinner. By showing someone musing over her enlarged belly, or daydreaming while sorting mail, I’m asking the viewer to take part of this headspace. What is this person thinking about? What are her daydreams? I offer visual clues to hint at what my perspective is but ultimately ask the viewer to come to their own conclusions.
I love your photograph “The Schechting,” which depicts a haircut. You are the person in the photograph, bending backwards in an old-fashioned, dark-colored gown with your eyes closed. Someone else’s hands are visible, wielding the scissors. The schechter’s body is outside the frame, though their nose pokes in. A shechting is the kosher slaughtering of an animal. In the title of this photograph, you allude at once to death and to the act of becoming kosher, becoming appropriate for consumption. Ideas which, when applied to a human being, become monstrous. Can you talk about the process of conceptualizing and executing (catching on the casual violence of that word) this piece? How do you make the choice to render your body as a symbolic object?
The best part of making work is having it resonate with people, and I love that you picked up on the intersection of losing something at the same time as purity, or kashrus is gained. Hair is a really important theme for me and also has a lot of significance in Jewish life and Jewish history: women cover their hair, boys cut their hair at the age of three, the Nazir can’t cut his hair and Shimshon loses his power when his hair is cut. A lot of different themes came together for me when I was conceptualizing this image. I was, in the first place, thinking about the roles of men and women in traditional Jewish life. We know of course that men have always created Halacha, or Jewish law, and this affects women’s lives and bodies in extraordinarily intimate ways. But I also know and have known so many women who feel purified, or “kosher” through these laws, and I wanted to think about female agency in interactions where men are making decisions about the female body. The meeting point of violence and redemption is so crucial for me. I think that hair is a really personal thing, and that even just a small change in someone’s hair style or hair length can change the way a person feels or is perceived and gendered.
What about the stories of Rashi’s daughter’s compelled you? What were you hoping to evoke or represent in the photograph where you depict yourself as one of them? Who else is that in the frame?
As someone who was discouraged to go to college, I was fascinated by the stories of Rashi’s daughters, who were learned women at a time when that was highly unusual for Jewish women. Rachel, in particular, was said to have served as an assistant for her father and I am channeling her through this image. In the background of this image there are two figures, a meek woman partially undressed and a man in a powerful dress wielding a shield, giving an order. My mother helped me with brushing my hair for this image. I wanted to show a woman who was more concerned with a complicated Talmudic question than with the state of her hair, in direct contrast with the gendered roles on the wall.
The photograph titled “Two Shternas” [which is the featured image for this post] most directly evokes the idea of Sitra Achra, the two sides of holy/unholy, and the way you inhabit/represent/challenge them both. What was it like to depict yourself so clearly in both archetypal forms, and against such a surreally lush landscape? How do you navigate duality in the ordinary world?
What makes this image so successful for me is the reaching of the two characters’ hands towards each other. There is a peace offering of red roots that resemble veins, a life source. They are the same person, both sides caring for the other, while facing different directions in life. The sky is stormy (I was rained on in this shoot), and while the foreground is lush and full of summer, the background holds snowy mountainous terrain. In this image, there is a commitment to respect for Hasidic life, for the warm memories of my upbringing, while simultaneously holding onto a critical view of its constraints. My feelings are complicated and I want to show that.
So often, Yiddish is represented as a language, or maybe as a culture, literature, or cuisine— but there’s so little about the idea of Yiddish as physical form, as visual art, as photography. What does Yiddish look like, or what could (a) Yiddish photographic aesthetic be?
Hmm…I don’t know if I can answer such a huge question! I’m not sure I was thinking about a “Yiddish aesthetic” when I first began photographing and making art. I mean, Yiddish has always been a part of my life, or at least a part of my childhood. I learned Yiddish at the Cheder I went to and my parents spoke Yiddish to me when I was really young. But as far as a “Yiddish photographic aesthetic” I’m not sure. For me, having been exposed to Yiddish in a religious context, Yiddish is simply a language of Jewish life. So if I were to imagine a “Yiddish aesthetic,” I’d just think “Jewish aesthetic” which brings to mind images of a mother in front of Shabbos candles, and so on. But I think if I were to try and think about the history of the Yiddish language, and the emergence of a language through contact with other languages, lands and peoples, then a “Yiddish photographic aesthetic” could be one that carries its history with it even as it evolves in new contexts. In that sense, I’d want “Yiddish” or “Jewish” to visually encompass a queer, pregnant mother just as much as it does a woman lighting Shabbos candles. With these images, I also wanted to travel back in time, and think about women from Jewish history I learned about a child, and what they might look like outside the usual rendering. How can I reclaim Rashi’s daughters in a queer, Jewish context? These are the sort of questions I was thinking about when making this work.
Often, when I tell people I work in Yiddish it immediately becomes personal. (Did you learn Yiddish at home? What is your family like? etc.) How do you navigate making work that addresses the cultural as well as the personal, in which you show yourself and your community in context? How or where do you draw boundaries between self, culture, and art?
While I use my face, I’m also trying to speak to themes and figures larger than myself. It is my body but in each image I take on a different persona, usually in reference to biblical female figures I remember hearing stories about in my childhood. By “dressing up” in the image of these biblical figures I’m trying to question their role in my former life and their role in my present life. How the stories of women I grew up around formed who I am … Funnily enough, people usually don’t recognize me in the images, which makes me feel like I successfully embodied the character. But I also want people to know I’m showing my version of this story.
But yes, making art is always deeply personal, and it is very hard to separate who I am and what my story is from the kind of work I’m doing. My next project turns the camera away from my own image on to others who have stories similar to mine, but also so different. In that project, my personal proximity to Hasidic life and queerness facilitates my ability to do the project, but it’s also not about “me” in the same way this one is….
I have this feeling, in looking at your photographs, that you’re imagining some other world, very similar to this one but not quite of it. Can you say a little about the world you’re trying to imagine, or maybe even render into being?
Whenever I set out to photograph, I try and imagine a timeless scene, or an ambiguously dated setting. Not that I shy away from markers altogether; some of my images show clothing or objects, like sewing machines, that look very nineteenth- or twentieth-century. But in general I try and place in a scene that is, as you put it, in this world but just enough outside it that it has a dreamy or surreal quality to it. I love the idea of a queer utopia that imagines a world different and better and kinder than our own, and I suppose that’s sort of the world I’m trying to imagine. Really, I don’t know which world I’m in. I left my community at that awkward age where you haven’t stopped growing up but you’re grown up enough, and so I still feel that parts of me have been left behind, or that I haven’t fully joined the American secular world around me (and maybe don’t even want to). And so creating a scene that can be anywhere, and in any time period, is a way of trying to “render into being” what often feels impossible and too ideal; a place where I can be both my former self (Chassid, daughter, sister) and current self (Queer, ex-Orthodox artist) at once.
Does the world you create or represent (or both) here speak to your other work? What projects are you working on now?
I’ve started a new project photographing LGBTQIA Jews who grew up in Ultra Orthodox Jewish communities, or who are currently Orthodox. The portraits are accompanied by interviews and I am currently working through what the final project will look like. It’s a project I have wanted to create for many years and one that motivated me to go to graduate school. I am really excited by the possibilities. You can follow that work and see other projects on my website, Shternagoldbloom.com
Thank you for taking the time to talk with me about my work!