Visu­al Arts

About Love: Pho­tographs and Films 1973 – 2011

Anne Wilkes Tuck­er; Gay Block, photographer
  • Review
By – March 27, 2012

Gay Block­’s col­lec­tion of pho­tographs is apt­ly titled; the emo­tions most of her images evoke, the sense of what Block felt as she took them, are admi­ra­tion and affec­tion. These shots of fam­i­lies, chil­dren, elder­ly peo­ple, work­ing peo­ple, and res­cuers dur­ing the Shoah are shots of real peo­ple, tak­en in their nat­ur­al envi­ron­ments: liv­ing rooms, bed­rooms, beach­es, swim­ming pools. The pho­tos are posed but can­did-look­ing; there’s a real sense that Block has cap­tured some­thing essen­tial about her sub­jects.

Block began shoot­ing when she was in her ear­ly thir­ties, in the 1970s, tak­ing pho­tographs of her moth­er in an attempt to under­stand their dif­fi­cult rela­tion­ship. She moved on to inter­view­ing and then pho­tograph­ing fam­i­lies in her Hous­ton Reform Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, also in an attempt to under­stand.

Includ­ed with the book are a series of five short doc­u­men­tary films on two DVDs, the first of which, A Trib­ute to Spir­it: The Beth Israel Expe­ri­ence, chron­i­cles the his­to­ry of the Euro­pean Jews who first came to Hous­ton in the 1800s. Block recounts the community’s tran­si­tion from Ortho­dox to Reform, and how and why Hous­ton’s Jews were dri­ven to assim­i­late and obscure their Jew­ish­ness.

Her South Beach pho­tos, tak­en in the ear­ly eight­ies, are all in col­or, cap­tur­ing not only the blues of sky and sea, and the pas­tels of Miami’s Art Deco archi­tec­ture, but the bright, col­or­ful pat­terns of her sub­jects’ cloth­ing. Her lens shows the elder­ly enjoy­ing cama­raderie on the beach and on bench­es and lawn chairs. In the accom­pa­ny­ing video, A Bie a Gesunt (As Long as You’re Well), Block inter­views these Yid­dish-accent­ed Jews of South Beach, liv­ing in small apart­ments on Social Secu­ri­ty. She cap­tures them singing, danc­ing, play­ing instru­ments, and doing cal­is­then­ics on the beach. I felt that I was see­ing their secret lives of joy that the young are not usu­al­ly privy to.

In the late eight­ies, Block inter­viewed and pho­tographed one hun­dred and five res­cuers of Jews dur­ing the Shoah. The twen­ty-four por­traits cho­sen for this book of these hero­ic and extra­or­di­nary peo­ple are accom­pa­nied by a video, They Risked their Lives: Res­cuers of the Holo­caust, which con­sists of reveal­ing inter­views with the res­cuers.

Anoth­er series of pho­tos were tak­en in 1981 of girls who attend­ed an elite sec­u­lar Jew­ish sum­mer sleep-away camp in Maine, and then of the girls as women twen­ty-five years lat­er, in 2006. The ear­ly pho­tos show the campers exud­ing ennui, awk­ward­ness, and in a cou­ple of shots, a con­scious­ness of their own beau­ty. As for the lat­ter images, they’re less strik­ing on their own, like­ly because, as Block acknowl­edges, they are women in their thir­ties and for­ties and very con­scious of want­i­ng to look good. Block would have pre­ferred, she says, to go a bit deep­er. It is fas­ci­nat­ing, though, to see the woman in the girl and the girl in the woman. In Camp Girls, the video, these women speak about their mem­o­ries and feel­ings about camp, and about how the pho­tographs make them feel now.

Her last series of pho­tographs spans from 1985 – 2005 and includes pho­tographs of her moth­er, of an array of work­ing class peo­ple at their jobs and at leisure, of sev­er­al female spir­i­tu­al lead­ers, and of les­bians, trans­sex­u­als, and drag kings. The lat­ter pho­tos are no more sen­sa­tion­al than the ear­li­er ones; they are just pho­tos of peo­ple whose essence Block is try­ing to cap­ture.

An addi­tion­al video on the DVDs, Bertha Alyce, about Block­’s com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ship with her moth­er, is dis­com­fort­ing, dis­turb­ing, and mov­ing.

About Love would stand strong on its own, and so would each of the series of doc­u­men­tary videos, but togeth­er they are a unique­ly mov­ing and pow­er­ful experience.

Discussion Questions