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April 7 - March 8, 2008 at L.A. Valley College Art Gallery, Valley

by Daniella Walsh

"Guard Tower and Fence, Birkenau, Poland,"
1992, gelatin silver print, 24 x 20".

"Food Bowl, Gross Rosen, Poland,"
1996, gelatin silver print, 24 x 20”.

"SS Guard House (Death Gate), Birkenau,
Poland," 1992, gelatin silver print, 24 x 20".

"Unloading Ramp, Birkenau, Poland,"
1989, gelatin silver print, 24 x 20".

"Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You
Free), Sachsenhausen, Germany,"
1994, gelatin silver print, 20 x 16".

“Never again!” has been the anguished leitmotif among all who are committed to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. “Lest we forget…” usually accompanies recollections of those who survived, members of their families and all others moved by compassion and a sense that history has an eerie way of repeating itself--witness current genocidal atrocities such as in Darfur that stand as the dastardly offspring of a calamity that many still cannot fathom.

Photographer Michael Kenna lends his voice to “lest we forget” in a series of photographs taken while immersing himself in the horrific atmosphere of the remaining Nazi concentration camps scattered through Europe, from Italy and France to the Polish/Russian border. To some, such a mission might seem intrusive, sensationalist even, a refusal to let the dead rest in peace. But, judging by Kenna’s work, his intent is one of sanctification of the victims, of their journeys into a fate no human being should ever have to suffer.

Thus, “Impossible to Forget: The Nazi Camps Fifty Years After” stands as a laudable tribute. Roughly 80 gelatin silver prints are filled with a lugubrious beauty in settings where no one would expect beauty of any sort. But, Kenna’s aesthetic sensitivity truly makes one think of the photographs in terms of homage. For example, a composition centered on converging railroad lines at the loading platform of Birkenau, Poland also recalls a selection process somewhat different than the one preferred by the Nazis, namely the random machinations of fate--left lane death, right lane labor, center, limbo and perhaps survival.

Railroad lines figure strongly in this body of work, since prisoners were transported to various camps in boxcars normally intended for cattle. A 1994 photograph of rail lines leading to the fogged-in railway station at Buchenwald, Germany graphically conveys the terror of uncertainty that must have overtaken doomed passengers, many of whom were lulled into thinking that they had embarked on a recreational journey or relocation to a better place. The entire region is dreary and foggy during fall and winter and insufferably cold, conditions that Kenna makes one feel throughout.

Then again, there is little else that expresses the linguistic perversion of Nazi doctrine better than the phrase ”Arbeit macht frei (Work liberates).” It was the first one that greeted prisoners passing through the bombastic gate of Auschwitz and more modest editions in places such as Sachsenhausen. Kenna captures both in a starkly simple manner that conveys a multi-faceted sense of finality.

Kenna’s photographs are bereft of physical human presence. Instead, the spirits of thousands pervade shots like that of a single strand of barbed wire, set against an out-of-focus guard tower. Everyone knows what happened to those who tried to escape. Similarly, a close up depiction, “Quarry Steps (Death Staircase) Mauthausen, Austria,” of the roughly four-foot high quarry steps prisoners had to negotiate while carrying countless pounds of stone on their backs will leave an indelible impression on anyone with just a modicum of imagination.

As Kenna’s work illustrates, many of the camps have been left standing and restored enough to serve as monuments or macabre museums. Travelers who have viewed glass cases filled with shaving brushes, eye glasses, cardboard suitcases, worn out shoes or clumps of human hair is unlikely to forget them.

Another image of a barbed wire fence, “Perimeter Fences at Night, Natzweiler-Struthof, France,” shows a convoluted web that one could, with ironic detachment, view as evidence of overkill. Whoever erected this barrier wanted to make absolutely certain that no one escaped.

To his credit Kenna avoids trying to find new angles in settings that have been trod by millions either as prisoners or as current history-tourists. Instead he lets a dark faucet set against pristine tile walls in so-called pathology barracks along with photographs of what is left of wood and stone barracks, haze-shrouded meadows, a lone food bowl, neat rows of latrines and a placid pond surrounded by birch trees but also filled with human ashes provide continuous meaning to the phrase the “banality of evil.”