Let Us Be Grateful by Raphael Shevelev
It is so easy for us to forget that every photograph we make is an historical document. As we are in the midst of our creative process, making our fine art photographs, playing the "art game," we are simultaneously creating a glimpse into the past that will only be fully appreciated with the passage of time. I've often fantasized about Eugene Atgét's state of mind as he wandered the streets of Paris making those wonderful photographs. We now appreciate his historical glimpses into a Paris that no longer exists. But to him, at that time, he was photographing what did exist and probably could not imagine — at least not fully — the impact that his images would have on us 100+ years later.
This portfolio by Rafael Shevelev, Let Us Be Grateful, was a powerful documentation of the remains of that massive Oakland, California fire in 1991. For him, the fire was not merely an opportunity for documentary, but also touched him personally in that the home of his parents-in-law was completely destroyed. His photographic project was immediate, contemporary, personal. In the 10 years that passed between the time he made the photographs and the time we published them in LensWork, some perspective had become possible. He refers to it in his introduction. Now, over 20 years later — now, when the remnants of that fire have been repaired and recovered — now, when the tragedy that cost the lives of 21 people and some 3000 homes are no longer in the news but have become a distant memory — now, his photographs have become a powerful way for us to remember something that has become completely invisible by the passage of time. Whenever I think about the power of photography in this way, it takes my breath away. Think how we can use these readily available tools to peer backward in time — an impossibility for countless previous generations for whom such magic was completely unimaginable! It almost pains me when today people take photography so much for granted. It is truly magical.
Another aspect of this project from Shevelev is the way in which he demonstrates the cost of this tragedy in human terms. His photographs are almost exclusively of small things, details, things that we would touch in everyday life, things that we would use everyday and even take for granted. This two-page spread from LensWork with a pair of eyeglasses on the left and a charred book on the right tell us so much about the event in ways that larger views may miss. So often I find the most powerful aspects of a photographic project are when it includes details, at least some, to complement the larger more sweeping viewpoints.
More recently we published a similar project by photographer Burk Uzzle in in LensWork Extended #98. It's a testament to the power of details to communicate human emotion that both of these photographers used a similar point of attention and that both have the power to move our emotions. It's an interesting exercise to compare these two projects both of their similarities and for their subtle differences. All photographers and all photographic projects have fellow travelers. I would love to sit in on an evening's conversation with Shevelev and Uzzle as they compared notes, experiences, and showed each other their photographs.
The portfolio can be seen in its entirety in our back issues — print (while still available) and our PDFs for computer, iPad, Android, and other devices. Plus, bonus audio commentary about this image is available to full-access members of LensWork Online.
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