Take a Long Look - 5/1/2015

Gay Block
Untitled (Three Men on a Bench)
Negative 1982-85, print 2011
From the series Miami, South Beach
Pigment print
Courtesy of the artist
 
      In the age of selfies, anyone is capable of taking a quick look at themselves at any given moment, but taking a long look with an eye to growth requires effort, courage and commitment. Acclaimed Santa Fe photographer Gay Block has spent her career using her camera in what she describes as a collaborative effort between subject and artist. In the process, Block has discovered herself and learned about love while photographing a wide range of subjects, including: her mother, Houston neighbors, elderly Jews in Miami, young women in the process of discovery while camping in Maine, and ordinary people who risked their lives to save Jews in Europe during World War II.
          The highlights of Block’s journey are included in a special exhibition, To Feel Less Alone: Gay block, A Portrait, of more than forty of Block’s works from 1975 to 2012 on display through July 26 at the New Mexico Museum of Art.
           Inspired in part by Diane Arbus, who specialized in taking photographs of people on the margins of society, Block began to study photography at the at the age of thirty-one. By then, she was married and had two children, which she says was expected of her. “As a girl, I was only going to get married, which I did, at the age of nineteen.”
           Block had great teachers – Geoff Winningham, head of photography at Rice University, and Anne Wilkes Tucker, longtime Curator of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston who also taught at the University of Houston. From the beginning, Block recalls that she knew immediately that she had a good eye even though she hid the negatives of her first series of photographs.
           Those photographs were of Block’s mother, Bertha Alyce, and all of them were photographs of her mother in the nude. “I was trying to figure her out,” Block says. “See if I could possibly learn to relate to her. She was very much a narcissist and ill-suited to be a mother.” The photographs of Bertha Alyce – and she didn’t mind having her pictures taken while nude – were eventually published in a book, Bertha Alyce: Mother exPosed. By then, Bertha Alyce had died and through her photography Block had come to terms with the complicated mother-daughter relationship.
           Block’s first photographic project involved taking photographs at Temple Beth Israel in Houston, where her family worshipped. Block was somewhat critical of the values in the affluent Jewish community where she was raised. Before snapping the shot, Block conducted a lengthy interview with each person, thus making the sitting a collaborative affair. “I loved the way people sounded when they were talking about their lives,” she says.
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Gay Block
Jane Elyse and her daughters, Lynn and Joan, Houston
Negative 1976, print 2013
From the series Jews of Houston
Pigment print
Courtesy of the artist

           As the project proceeded, Block came to understand and like her subjects. “These people’s values were formed from anti-Semitism. They had a tough time being a success,” Block says. “I learned from them not to judge people on face value because each of us comes from a different place which governs the choices we make for our own lives.”
           Block also took photographs at the Jewish Community Center in Houston where she learned about close-knit families unlike her own. She also travelled to Miami, where she photographed elderly Jewish people, who spoke Yiddish and sang Yiddish songs while sunning themselves on the beach. Indeed, Block’s subjects loved life despite their restricted circumstances. Many survived on Social Security alone.
           Block is perhaps best known for her 1992 series Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust. Block and writer Rabbi Malka Drucker interviewed 100 Christians in Europe who risked their lives to rescue European Jews during World War II. Elderly now, the rescuers refused to call themselves heroes. They couldn’t say why they did it, and they didn’t understand why everyone didn’t do it. They did what they felt they had to do, regardless of how dangerous. They were compassionate. “They cared about humanity,” Block says.         
 
Gay Block
Helene Jacobs, Germany
Negative 1988, print 2013
From the series Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust
Pigment print
Courtesy of the artist
 
 The Rescuers exhibition traveled to 50 museums in the United States and abroad before becoming a book. One of the most important lessons Drucker and Block, partners at the time, took away from their experience was a profound belief that it doesn’t take a Hitler for people to do the right thing. “You can do what the rescuers did in your own way in your own neighborhood,” Block says. “We can make a choice: Be a perpetrator or a rescuer. We don’t have to give in to bullying, prejudice or follow the crowd in a negative way.”
           Block also compiled a study in 1981 of young women who went to camp with her daughter at Camp Pinecliffe in Maine, where Block herself had been a camper. She followed up with the same subjects 25 years later, using the camera to denote the changes in their lives as adults. Block will revisit the women again in 2016 and photograph them to note the major changes in their lives, changes that perhaps parallel the changes she’s experienced in her life as she’s followed her artistic path, enriching her own life and the lives of those who have shared her vision.

 

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