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INHERITANCE

ANDREA STERN

MY FATHER was the family photographer. During my childhood, one of his greatest pleasures was documenting our lives. At each family gathering, he was there, camera in hand, ready to capture the occasion and add to an everexpanding and impressive archive of family memories. He brought the same passion and determination to photography that he did to every aspect of his life. He thought nothing of breaking through the spectator barrier at my high school track meet to get the shot he wanted. As an adolescent, I cringed in mortification at such moments of public trespass. In private, though, I

never tired of viewing the bounty of my father’s efforts; the faces of all our relatives surveyed us from every inch of wall space in my childhood home. Surrounded by these pictures, each one a glowing tribute, I became forever captive to the powerful alchemy of family and photography. Away at college and drained by academic rhetoric, I searched for a new way to express myself. I casually chose an introductory documentary photography class and was instantly enthralled by the world that unfolded before me. I reveled in the novelty of learning a new art form, discovering the subtle language of

light and gesture. I photographed my life and friends at school, but from very early on, I knew my true subject would be my family. After graduation, I returned home to begin what would become a fifteen-year photographic record. My family was perfectly constituted for such an undertaking. Most of my twenty-nine first cousins live in New York City, and the habit of showing up to the many family gettogethers held throughout the year was instilled in us as children. One of those was Shabbos lunch at my paternal grandparents’ apartment. Every Saturday, my parents, brothers, and I

I have been profoundly influenced and affected by them. and wherever we gather for bar mitzvahs. and I question what might be left behind. raw and uncensored. in so many ways. While the walk and the two or three hours of Shabbat services seemed endless. our differences surface. As I continue to work. set the course for my life. My mother has always understood this link between the family and Judaism and made it her goal to teach us the importance of preserving those ties. as a commitment both to the family and to Jewish tradition. from childhood. achieving a stolen intimacy. I hear the lore. I wish he were alive today so I could deepen my understanding of the person who. I consider my place within the Jewish tradition. they can inhabit an entirely different persona and approach the world anew. that my beginnings lie with my family as I struggle to understand where their place in my life ends and my own life begins. we continually return to familiar ground. With my camera in hand. In an adopted tongue. and we exist as a tenuous network of individuals. gorging on candy after dessert: I relished those afternoons. Accordingly. imparted to me either directly or unconsciously by those closest to me. funerals. on occasion in unexpected ways. I remember my grandfather as a charismatic and charming man. In this. and the patriarch of our family. The camera does this for me. closely studying those around me. one of the things that fascinates me and informs my work is trying to penetrate the multitude of unspoken messages that family members transmit to one another. He started a company named after the German region that bred the best singing canaries—Hartz Mountain. a place inextricably linked for me. Along with this financial inheritance. I imagine my photographs filling in the answers. In the same vein. aware each time I look through the lens that I discover a world different from the world around me. This is the source of one part of my inheritance. playing with my many cousins. Sitting at the kids’ table. and many unspoken secrets. the beneficiary of those two generations of successful entrepreneurs. Always I experience an exhilarating freedom. a visionary. or sometimes. with my family values and celebrations. my photographs trace my family’s migrations: New York in the fall. and through them my narrative of family dynamics begins to emerge. Germany. These gatherings. drives. As I grew older. with their predictability and uniformity. I received many legacies. Inheritance brings together the photographs I have taken of those closest to me. weddings. Behind the camera. a philanthropist. Although we all live our separate lives. always. I understood that my grandfather. to see ourselves as committed to the chain of Jewish traditions and rituals that create the root center of our calendars each year. in the end. From Hartz Mountain. At times. my father went on to build a significant financial empire. Long Island in the summer. As a young man in Fulda. I am aware. all of us continue. to greater or lesser degrees. I embrace the present. These photographs. Max Stern. The moments that resonate are the private ones. he once collected on a debt with five thousand singing canaries. Taken at family gatherings. .would take the long walk across Central Park to synagogue at the Jewish Center. I experience a unique harmony with those with whom I share a history. I realize that the photographs begin to tell their own story. My generation of the family has been. Palm Beach in the winter. he brought with him a ship filled with canaries—and a grand vision. I try not to draw attention to myself. When he emigrated in 1926. drinking Orange Crush. I take refuge behind the camera. she has been largely successful. a gene pool. each protecting our own frailties. in part because what I am looking for people don’t readily give up. are my gift of love to those who came before and to those who will follow. expected our attendance every week. I always looked forward to lunch at Nanny and Opopi’s. today. and ambitions. I have heard that those who are fluent in a second language enjoy a unique freedom. reinforce the strong sense of belonging to this close-knit community. He was a legendary character: a rugged entrepreneur. At other times.