Visu­al Arts

The Borscht Belt

  • Review
By – May 3, 2016

The Borscht Belt, once a thriv­ing resort and vaca­tion com­mu­ni­ty in the Catskill Moun­tains, served as a respite for New York City’s Jew­ry in the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Marisa Scheinfeld’s five-year pho­to­graph­ic explo­ration of the decay­ing remains of the Borscht Belt was a deeply per­son­al pil­grim­age — an homage to her youth and her­itage, and to the gen­e­sis of her cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty as a Jew­ish Amer­i­can. This sur­vey pro­vides a remark­ably com­pre­hen­sive overview of the phys­i­cal spaces that defined this pros­per­ous epoch, suc­cess­ful­ly bridg­ing past and present.

By dis­play­ing her images along­side pho­to­graph­ic ref­er­ences from the peri­od, Sche­in­feld imme­di­ate­ly edu­cates view­ers who may not oth­er­wise share her asso­ci­a­tions. The pho­tographs them­selves are tex­tured, tac­tile, and rich­ly sat­u­rat­ed. Cropped images of detailed objects, wider depic­tions of rooms, and vast por­traits” of exte­ri­or spaces and build­ings are flu­id­ly inter­wo­ven. By alter­nat­ing per­spec­tives, Sche­in­feld con­veys a thor­ough impres­sion of the community’s inti­mate rem­nants and orig­i­nal grand scale. The pic­tures are most effec­tive when she pro­vides view­ers with enough dis­tance to observe her more com­plex com­po­si­tions, in which each visu­al ele­ment is per­fect­ly bal­anced with­in the frame.

A vacant space is more read­i­ly acces­si­ble to view­ers if it con­tains a hint of human inter­fer­ence, such as an old piece of fur­ni­ture or cloth­ing. Per­haps we need these famil­iar objects to engage com­fort­ably with the image because they ground us in our own expe­ri­ences; we instinc­tive­ly rec­og­nize the scene and thus appre­ci­ate the pho­to­graph. View­ers empathize with Sche­in­feld because they under­stand nos­tal­gia for lost youth, pro­found attach­ment to phys­i­cal spaces dur­ing for­ma­tive years, and the com­pul­sive desire to decon­struct per­son­al and more wide­spread cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty. The fear of los­ing these build­ings and spaces that are embed­ded with his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance is some­thing that dri­ves both pho­tog­ra­phers and view­ers to this imagery. These haunt­ing states of decay incite a sense of long­ing and awe that Marisa Sche­in­feld has cap­tured exquisitely.

Anne Brace­gir­dle is an Asso­ciate Vice Pres­i­dent, Spe­cial­ist in the Pho­tographs depart­ment at Christie’s, New York. She has a master’s degree in the His­to­ry of Pho­tog­ra­phy and has con­tributed to var­i­ous pub­li­ca­tions on the topic.

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