Of course, vivid photographic memory of tragedy, pain and cruelty also can keep those things alive in us: to gird our loins or to haunt our dreams. Oftentimes, sadly, the choice is not ours to make.
Sometimes, the best we can hope for is context, if not actual understanding.
To photographer Muriel Hasbun photography is about layering: of images and of memories, often literally one atop the other. Her current exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Memento: Muriel Hasbun Photographs (March 6th through June 7th) is an intriguing and beautifully rendered depiction of her own memories of her multi-layered background, literally from cultures and traditions not always in synchrony, much less harmony.
Using a number of wet darkroom techniques including multiple negative printing, selective toning even printing her work on personally significant materials like her grandmother's white linens Hasbun presents a still-ongoing attempt to mine memory from a past that sometimes seems as ethereal as smoke. This is, to be sure, a beautiful, though melancholy, show of memories and connections lost, of Diaspora.
"I come from people in exile," writes Hasbun, 42. "My mother was born in Paris to Polish Jewish parents who settled in France just before World War 2. My father was born in El Salvador to Palestinian Christian parents who settled in Central America shortly before World War 1. I was born and raised in San Salvador and now live in Washington, DC. So I follow in my family's legacy of exodus."
Hasbun's own exodus brought her to Washington, where she now is coordinator of the Fine Art Photography Program at the Corcoran College of Art + Design. The journey also brought her to the timeless floating city of Venice, Italy, last year, where key elements of her current show were exhibited at the 50th Venice Biennale. She is the first Corcoran faculty member ever to be so honored.
In this highly personal, yet also somewhat distant, show we learn from printed material, and not explicitly from the photographs, how the artist's mother and grandparents hid from the Nazis and Nazi sympathizers in south-central Vichy France. How Hasbun's mother recalled wartime ballet lessons (!), the sound of Ave Maria emanating from the nunnery where she was hiding, and how these memories affected her (and certainly her daughter, if only obliquely) during their later years together in El Salvador, when that country was undergoing its own period of riot, cruelty and political upheaval.
A turbulent, anchorless period seen through the eyes of an artist of Jewish and Palestinian heritage, raised as a Catholic in Latin American, who now considers herself a Jew.
Hasbun's show at the Corcoran, her first solo museum exhibition, clearly is art photography, not documentary photography, and that might turn off those who come expecting to see explicit depictions of the artist's interesting past, framed one image after the other, with copious expository notes. She uses a number of different ways to display her work, some very effective, some I found more gimmicky than evocative. But nearly all combine to create a very effective whole.
In fact, this is one time when it is important to read the written material provided in a trenchant critique prepared by the show's curator, Paul Roth, the Corcoran's Associate Curator of Photography and Media Arts.
"Hasbun [has] engaged in a kind of personal archaeology, and her work [takes] on increasing perceptual depth," Roth writes. "The medium of photography, with its ability to capture and sustain moments in time, seem[s] an ideal tool to excavate buried memories from her family's scrapbooks and give them new life..."
New life also might imply different meanings to different people. Surely different people might view her striking black and white images of a shadowy cross, depicted twice in two large framed prints, and feel either power or peril.
So too, one might look at one of the most elegant and eloquent pieces in the show, Ester's Poems, and see in the photograph of a rough handmade volume and the careful handwriting on its pages a symbol of hope and eloquence emerging from want or a tragic metaphor for opportunity lost.
"I'm interested in dealing with photography in a non-descriptive way," Hasbun told me. "Photography is about layering, about transparency ...about the layering of memories."
She also noted the purely physical nature of traditional (i.e.: non-digital) photography the physical work involved in making prints in the darkroom as almost a "description of the physical world."
"My photographic work, then, is a process of re-encounter, of synthesis, and of re-creation," Hasbun has written. "Through it, past and present become interlaced in a renewed configuration: the Palestinian desert and the Eastern European ash sift, shift and blend in the volcanic sands of El Salvador, to form the texture of the path on which I define and express my experience."
Memento: Muriel Hasbun Photographs. Corcoran Gallery of Art, through June 7. New York Ave., and 17th St. NW. Open every day except Tuesday, 10am-5pm; 9pm Thursday. Admission: Free to members and children under 12. $5 adults, $4 seniors, $3 for students with valid ID. For info: 202-639-1700. www.corcoran.org
Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.