I printed these photographs many times and somehow there was always something wrong, they needed to “sing”. The master printer Chris Reid loved the work. He spent three days in my darkroom using high-quality Ilford Gallery paper, but the work didn’t sing. He took the negatives back to Sydney and found the Czech Foma paper, which had the subtlety and warmth, as well as rich tones, which we felt were required for these works. When I saw the photographs I knew that between us we made something very beautiful.
The Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague, 1989
History of the Cemetery
The Old Jewish Cemetery lies in Prague’s Jewish Quarter. The number of tombstones which have survived to this day exceeds 12,000, although it is believed that the cemetery contains more than 100,000 graves. Among the many important personalities buried at the cemetery are included Rabbi Maharal Löw (d. 1609), Mordechai Maisel (d. 1601), David Gans (d. 1613), and David Oppenheim (d. 1736). The oldest tombstone is that of the revered rabbi and poet Avigdor Kara, who died in 1439.
According to halakhah, Jewish graves must not be destroyed, and in particular it is forbidden to remove the tombstones. This meant that when the cemetery ran out of space and purchasing extra land was impossible, more layers of soil were placed on the existing graves. The old tombstones were taken out and placed upon the new layer of soil. This has resulted in the cemetery having at least twelve layers of graves, and explains why the tombstones in the cemetery are placed so closely to each other.
In early 1989, when I was visiting, Czechoslovakia was still under the communist regime. The cemetery was relatively untended; there were few visitors, and even fewer tourists. There was magic to this wilderness, where stone is placed on stone. The sun struck the edges of the tombstones so they glistened and danced. There were questions that I asked myself looking at these Torah-worded Hebraic monuments. My thoughts turned to the Second World War. Why did the Nazis, who set out to destroy Jewish people, allow one of the great monuments, set in prime real estate in the centre of Prague, not only survive but actually to be tended? Allen Ginsberg speaks of the inherent survival power of great art that in some way the art speaks to the potential vandals, and through its own power protects itself from destruction. Does the Jewish Cemetery in Prague illustrate that concept?
I had asked this question of Jewish scholars and the most convincing reply has been that the Nazis intended to create a museum of the Jews, to show what they have destroyed. I have found this argument not fully convincing as I lean to the Ginsberg concept, perhaps due to my own emotional response to the beauty of this strange architecture. One of the theories that I liked most was that the spirit of the Golem of Prague would not permit its destruction.
I returned to Prague in 2007 and was determined to re-photograph the cemetery. I was horrified by the multitude of tourists, the formalised pathways and ropes constraining the mass of people to protect the gravestones. I spent some hours, using both my new digital camera and my trusty widelux but I was discontented with my results.
Making photographs that are memorable requires more than just camera, light and a story. It requires a type of harmony, unity, and an indefinable something, which I can best explain as becoming emotionally attached to the subject so that the images almost make themselves.
Although the cemetery continues to exist and has survived so much adversity it is a different place now to that place I had visited in the spring of 1989. I see these photographs as being an historical record as well as an interpretation of a place of great beauty and emotional charge.
For a full article on this subject written after my 2006 visit to Prague, please click below.