Former Yale student mounts photo exhibition in NY
March 28, 2012 by Howard Blas
A religious woman with two wigs, a shriveled etrog in an etrog holder and an unhappy expecting couple sitting on a futon are but three of the riveting photos which greet the viewer of â€œCity of Destiny,â€ an exhibit of the works of photographer Anna Shteynshleyger, a graduate of Yale University School of Art. Shteynshleygerâ€™s photos will be on exhibit at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in Manhattan through May 6.
’Etrog’ by Anna Shteynshleyger
â€œCity of Destinyâ€ is the motto of suburban Des Plaines, Ill., the tight knit Orthodox religious community where Shteynshleyger lived for four years.
Shteynshleyger was born in Moscow in 1977 and moved to suburban Gaithersberg, Md. at the age of fifteen. â€œI didnâ€™t speak English, I couldnâ€™t drive â€” it was awful,â€ recalled Shteynshleyger in a phone interview from her office in Chicago, where she spoke of her first exposure to both photography and Judaism. â€œMy father gave me a camera â€” it was my only way to connect with the world.â€
In order to deal with what Shteynshleyger describes as â€œisolation and loneliness,â€ she discovered the nearby public library and their books on Judaism. While the Shteynshleyger family was not particularly observant, Anna enjoyed books about every aspect of Jewish life. She recounts that she learned both the Shema prayer and the Shabbat candles blessings from books found in her local library.
Shteynshleygerâ€™s Jewish journey continued as a student at the Maryland Institute College of Arts in Baltimore. She spent most Sabbaths with an Orthodox rabbi and his family in the Park Heights section of Baltimore. She then moved to New Haven, where she completed an MFA in 2001 at the Yale University School of Art in the department of photography. She had some involvement at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, though she playfully notes it was mostly around â€œfood and holidays.â€
After graduating from Yale, Shteynshleyger settled in a small Chabad community in Des Plaines. The photographs on display in â€œCity of Destiny,â€ mainly of family and close friends, capture her experience in Des Plaines. One photograph, â€œBackyardâ€ is taken at a distance and depicts a girl with family members, appearing small as they are surrounded by very tall trees. â€œPicnicâ€ captures pink Crocs, dirty paper plates, a beer bottle and package of cigarettesâ€”all sitting on a childâ€™s play table. Another, â€œPortrait with Mordecai,â€ features the artist (pregnant) and her husband.
â€œAnnaâ€™s work offers an almost voyeuristic inside view of her small tight-knit
community of family and friends,â€ notes art collector Mitchell Presser of New York. â€œIt also provides great insight into her personal struggles and development.â€ For example, he says, â€œIn â€˜Etrogâ€™ we see the fruit, once used in religious ceremonies, now dried and shriveled, but still encased in a protective womb appearing as a trophy of things past. The portrait of her with Mordecai, her ex-husband, is a narrative of her life through a single moment in time, without a single word of explanation. â€˜City of Destinyâ€™ is a portal into Annaâ€™s challenges and development. It tells a very personal story.â€
â€œCity of Destinyâ€ will be on display at the ICP in Manhattan, 1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd St. through May 6.Howard Blas
is a freelance writer from Connecticut.