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by Bill Lasarow

"Canton Synagogue, Venice, Italy",
color photograph, 1995.

"The Place of the Maharal, Altneushul, Prage,
Czech Republic", color photograph, 1995.

"Szeged, Hungary",
color photograph, 1995

"Rubinov House Synagogue, Bukhara,
Uzbekistan", color photograph, 1995.

all photographs © 1995 by Neil Folberg

(Peter Fetterman Photographic Works of Art, Santa Monica) To say that photographs of architectural interiors devoid of human presence amount to a portrait sounds absurd, but that is the primary effect of Neil Folberg's carefully "posed" family of Jewish synagogues. The individual images form a collection of details that directly convey a sense of the psychological, historical and spiritual journey of the Jews.

While making a point of including selections from virtually all corners of the globe represents a didactic choice and metaphorically addresses the diaspora, Folberg's main purpose is not documentary. Character permeates the preponderance of subjects. Camera angles and compositions are consciously pushed to sell us on the character of each specific locale.

The ornate splendor of the Szeged, Hungary synagogue stands in contrast the worn. heavy austerity of Mad, Hungary's synagogue. A shot of the bimah (podium) and ark area of the Florence, Italy synagogue subsumes a chorus of heavily decorated surfaces into a dense unity. The light-filled interior bathing the two banks of pews that face one another in the SpanishPortuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, Holland conveys the community, almost democratic spirit of Jewish worship.

Knowing that Folberg made a project of selecting and photographing each synagogue over a three-year period is a partial antidote for the lack of human and community context offered here. If he is going to place the burden for telling a story on the architecture, something of the seeds, the flavor of the wider context of place must be allowed to enter the images. Here he is only partially successful.

Grand vistas of architectural space at times fail to resonate with the life of its congregants. For example, the interior of the Temple Solomon in Montreal, Canada sweeps the eye vertically out of the darkened main floor to the ark and above to a shining mural. Prayer books and tallisim (prayer shawls) left to punctuate the pews diffuse this focus and become props rather than found objects.
There are lots of dramatic moments--the glowing firelight that spills from the interior of the ancient Synagogue of Bar Am in Israel, a muscular menorah lifting us up towards the distant blue dome of the Szeged, Hungary synagogue, the tilted overhead shot of the bimah at the Plymouth Hebrew Congregation of Plymouth, England to name a few.

On this world-wide tour that takes us to Europe, the Americas, North Africa, Asia, India and, of course, Israel, it is easy to see how local influence and thinking play a role in both total appearance and particulars. Eighteenth century neo-classicism is abundant in the Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island, as is the Italian Baroque at Casale MonfelTato's synagogue. It is the compendium of particular elements, treated with endlessstylistic variety, that provides the tran-scendent unity: the menorahs, ark, bimahs, torah scrolls, eternal lights. It is exactly this constancy as it has adapted itself to so many host cultures that defines the framework of Jewish life, and for which these images provide an imaginative spark.

The craft and beauty of these photographs is undeniable. The selection of each site is judicious, the compositions carefully Planned (if at times too cerebral), and the exposures--often difficult long and multiple exposures--precisely executed. As art objects they are conventionally beautiful images that, both individually and collectively, add to our understanding and appreciation of the chosen subject matter.