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Predicting the Past.
Zohar Studios: The Lost Years.

Photographs by Stephen Berkman.
Hat & Beard Press, 2020. 368 pp., 11x14".

Publisher's Description

Predicting the Past takes us on a discursive journey through the 19th century into the world of Shimmel Zohar, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe who came to America in the 1850s. Already an accomplished silhouette artist, he became the proprietor of eponymous Zohar Studios, a storied photographic establishment­ located on Pearl Street in the predominately Jewish Lower East Side of New York. Traveling through the portal of this enigmatic studio into the past, we encounter a Balzacian cavalcade of characters, both winsome and whimsical. This immersive panorama of personages includes phrenologists, ventriloquists, painters, poets, spiritualists, artists, bon vivants, merchants, luddites, and many more, each tableau composed like a single cinematic frame from a long forgotten nitrate film.

Berkman resurrects this vanished world in a tribute to Zohar Studios, working with the archaic glass plate process and photographing through period lenses, still coated with the dust of the 19th century. While Predicting the Past is at times oblique, it is never opaque. Panoramic in its construction, the book fulfills Guy Davenport’s model of assemblages of history combined with necessary fictions. Not content to be an interloper in the 19th century, Berkman is a temporal explorer, excavating enigmas engraved on blocks of ice. He seeks to reclaim the lost world of the mid-19th century, even as our own world seems to be disappearing all around us.

Extensively annotated and profusely illustrated, this immersive volume contains nearly 200 images comprising both original photographs and ephemera. They are meticulously reproduced in four-color and tritone.

Predicting the Past culminates with an afterword by award-winning author Lawrence Weschler. Written in rhapsodic prose, his essay fills in pieces of the puzzle while perhaps creating a few new ones. With a keen wit and a nose for the apocryphal, Weschler’s essay follows Berkman’s quixotic quest down the rabbit hole, retracing detours and digressions to discover the story behind the story of Shimmel Zohar, while anchoring the book in the pantheon of photography.

Reviewed by Kim Beil on photo-eye Blog.

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