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 “City of Destiny,” an exhibit of the works of photographer Anna Shteynshleyger, a graduate of Yale University School of Art. Shteynshleyger’s photos will be on exhibit at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in Manhattan through May 6.
“City of Destiny” 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. “I didn’t speak English, I couldn’t drive — it was awful,” recalled Shteynshleyger in a phone interview from her office in Chicago, where she spoke of her first exposure to both photography and Judaism. “My father gave me a camera — it was my only way to connect with the world.”
In order to deal with what Shteynshleyger describes as “isolation and loneliness,” 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.
Shteynshleyger’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 “food and holidays.”
After graduating from Yale, Shteynshleyger settled in a small Chabad community in Des Plaines. The photographs on display in “City of Destiny,” mainly of family and close friends, capture her experience in Des Plaines. One photograph, “Backyard” is taken at a distance and depicts a girl with family members, appearing small as they are surrounded by very tall trees. “Picnic” captures pink Crocs, dirty paper plates, a beer bottle and package of cigarettes—all sitting on a child’s play table. Another, “Portrait with Mordecai,” features the artist (pregnant) and her husband.
“Anna’s work offers an almost voyeuristic inside view of her small tight-knit community of family and friends,” notes art collector Mitchell Presser of New York. “It also provides great insight into her personal struggles and development.” For example, he says, “In ‘Etrog’ 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. ‘City of Destiny’ is a portal into Anna’s challenges and development.
It tells a very personal story.”