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Orthodox Art Photographer Spy

The Russian immigrant Anna Shteynshleyger, a formerly observant Jew in the contemporary art world, creates lush, melancholy, Edenic works

Samantha M. Shapiro
May 01, 2012
All photos courtesyAnna Shteynshleyger
Detail, 'City of Destiny (Covered),' 2007.All photos courtesyAnna Shteynshleyger
All photos courtesyAnna Shteynshleyger
Detail, 'City of Destiny (Covered),' 2007.All photos courtesyAnna Shteynshleyger

Twenty years ago, when photographer Anna Shteynshleyger emigrated with her family from Moscow to suburban Maryland, she spoke no English. But her father bought her a camera at a pawn shop and the family lived next door to a public library, and these two resources helped the teenage Shteynshleyger make sense of her new surroundings and cope with her isolation. Much to the surprise and dismay of her secular family, trips to the library led to an interest in Judaism that culminated in Shteynshleyger becoming strictly Orthodox by age 17.

The camera bore the weight of all she was unable to say in English, and her photography eventually landed her a spot at Yale’s renowned Master of Fine Arts program. In the last few years, Shteynshleyger, 34, has received numerous accolades: She was awarded the prestigious John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship and a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation award and had a solo exhibit at Chicago’s prestigious Renaissance Society. Her photos are in several museums’ permanent collections, including that of the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Jewish Museum in New York, and the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, where Shteynshleyger now lives.

For 15 years Shteynshleyger was, it’s fair to guess, the lone pioneer attempting to straddle the utterly incompatible worlds of Orthodox Jewish life and serious art-world photography.

“To function in the contemporary art world while being a practicing Jew is like being a spy,” Shteynshleyger told me over lemonade at a Soho, New York, café, when she was on the east coast to guest lecture at Yale. “You can’t reveal your true identity because you’d get laughed at in one world and excommunicated from the other.”

The work Shteyshleyger has made from this precarious position is at turns Edenic and melancholy. An autobiographical body of work called “City of Destiny”—some of which is currently on display at New York’s International Center of Photography—contains many photos taken in the small Orthodox community in Des Plaines, Ill., where Shteynshleyger lived from 2003 to 2006 with her then-husband and two children. (She moved to Des Plaines because her then-husband wanted to live in that satellite to the larger Orthodox community in Skokie, to be closer to his family.) The series contains portraits of Shteynshleyger in a long skirt, pregnant and stony faced; images of their religious friends in a rowboat; a withered etrog in its box; and a jarring image, “Covered,” which shows Shteynshleyger wearing nothing except both of her sheitls, one of which obscures her face. “City of Destiny” is named for Des Plaines—it’s the unincorporated town’s motto—but some of the pictures were also taken in Moscow and Baltimore, where her family is from. Although they were taken over nine years and two continents, the images seem to be of one place.

“Jewishness is the red herring in the work,” Shteynshleyger told me. “The ‘City of Destiny’ is not about Des Plaines or Judaism or the Jewish community. It’s an allegory or a metaphor—not about a specific location—but about a bigger place. A person’s story is that person’s place.”

By contrast, “Siberia,” an earlier group of large-format, often beautiful, photographs of Siberia, has no overtly Jewish content, but Shteynshleyger feels the work emerged directly from her religious experience.

The images of the prison camps—empty landscapes, oddly beautiful, out of time—hint at the possibility of redemptive beauty within exile.

“My interest in Siberia, in the idea of exile, came through Judaism,” she said.

The landscapes of Shteynshleyger’s Siberia have a dark undercurrent that’s hard to put a finger on. “The emotional content is all very restrained,” Susan Kismaric, a former curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, told me. “She forces you to look carefully. It’s not sensationalistic, not like a lot of work we see now.”

Shteynshleyger’s more recent work often focuses on the darkness that can underlie much domestic life: “domestic dentate”—in reference to the Latin for teeth—as she called it. This element was present in “City of Destiny,” but it is brought to the fore in new work, in which Shteynshleyger recreated safe houses that terrorists used to assemble homemade bombs and photographed them. The rooms she designed—based on images she found on the Internet from newspapers and released court documents—were so realistic that in August 2010, a Chicago bomb squad actually evacuated the whole block around her studio based on a tip from a neighbor.

The work is inspired by her failed marriage and also, she said, “by how the world has been changed by terrorists. I am fascinated by the fact that domestic objects, which represented safety and comfort, have been given different missions. I can no longer see shampoo bottles the same way I did 15 years ago. It’s a potential detonator, and you’re confronted with that every time you get on a plane.”

In the last two years Shteynshleyger has drifted from Orthodox observance, although her children still go to day school and her best friend still wears a sheitl. “I am just a confused Jew at this point,” she said.

But Shteynshleyger said her art practice and religious practice “always shared a wall” and continue to do so.

In the throes of Orthodoxy, Shteynshleger said she held a belief “in the realness of things, the belief in the fact that that etrog really does symbolize the heart, that pictures I make really do symbolize something. The element of faith used to be filled to the top.” She still feels that way now, she said, after letting many aspects of religious practice fall away. “But it’s a different flavor of experience,” she said. “It’s not magical now.”


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Samantha M. Shapiro is a writer and journalist.

Samantha M. Shapiro is a writer and journalist.