Photographer David Kaufman looks at the world through a historical lens. Quite literally, in fact, as he shoots with bellows, the folding attachment used on cameras since the Civil War. Though Kaufman is fascinated by the past, his old-fashioned equipment has a more practical purpose: the bellows prevent the converging vertical lines that would otherwise distort his architectural photography.
The subjects of Kaufman’s images are also defiantly pre-Modern, buildings that challenge what he calls the “creeping homogeneity” of newer cityscapes. “I’m interested in vernacular architecture,” the Toronto-based photographer explained. “[The] ordinary buildings, brick factories, houses, storefronts, that characterize the mid-20th century urban landscape.”
Kaufman’s series on Jewish historical sites dates back to 1992, when his decades-long career as a documentary filmmaker took him to Poland. While researching hidden Jewish children, he stumbled upon a Jewish cemetery that had been unearthed during the construction of a hot water pipe at a local school.
“I saw on the edge of the field about 300 Jewish gravestones, stacked in a pile… It was the first time that I’d actually seen Jewish gravestones in Poland, and I was just knocked out by the quality of the calligraphy on the stones and the artwork,” Kaufman recalled. “I thought they were incredibly beautiful.”
By 2007, Kaufman had visited both the Warsaw and Lodz Jewish Cemeteries and realized that “there was a very rich treasure trove of Jewish material culture in Polish cemeteries and other parts of Poland.” Having received a “strong Jewish upbringing,” including 12 years of Hebrew school in his hometown of Montreal, he was thrilled to have found a means of exploring his Jewish identity through photography.
Kaufman has since returned to Eastern Europe seven times, with the goal of capturing Jewish heritage sites before they disappear. As much as he appreciates the “combination of order and disorder” that has emerged in neglected Jewish cemeteries, synagogues, and former Jewish neighborhoods, he hopes that Poland and its neighboring countries will recognize the value in preserving these markers of pre-war Jewish life.
These Jewish spaces are “an embodiment of the history of the community,” Kaufman said, “posthumous landscapes” that document a monumental loss.