During his senior year at Oak Park High School in the suburbs of Detroit, Todd Weinstein’s photography teacher asked him to assist in a photo shoot at the Indianapolis 500, one of the greatest spectacles in American racing. The year was 1969, and Todd couldn’t believe he was credentialed into the event. For a young man not particularly drawn toward academia, it was Weinstein’s strong attraction to visual language that increased his adrenaline flow and earned him acceptance into the photography program at the Center for Creative Studies, then the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts. As Weinstein has described, “… when I was fifteen, I discovered photography. I was struggling in high school, in danger of not graduating, when the high school set up a darkroom. After I had turned a discarded negative into a prize-winning photo by using cropping techniques I had just learned, a spark became ignited in me and photography became my medium. From that moment on, light became my voice.”
By the early 1970s, Weinstein was living in New York City where he worked closely with photojournalist and color photographer Ernst Haas between 1972 and 1986. There Weinstein also befriended photographers Andre Kertesz, Louis Stettner, Jimmy Salzano, and Helen Levitt, each of whom influenced him. So began Weinstein’s successful commercial photography business and a career that would ultimately land his work in numerous collections including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and La Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.
To understand Weinstein’s work, we need to go back to when he first turned his lens towards his Jewish faith. Between 1994 and 2000, he spent six years documenting survivors of the Holocaust living in Germany, a process that led Weinstein to explore Jewish legend. It was here he discovered the 36 Tzaddikim (36 Unknown). In these photographs, which depict bits of stone, metal, wood and glass, Weinstein’s imagery takes on mystic interpretations. Often described scientifically as pareidolia, this psychological phenomenon occurs when people observe details in the natural world that can be said to represent animals or human faces. Mr. Weinstein employed this approach in his conceptual images of the Jewish prophets; in these photographs, a group of rocks, twisted scraps of cloth, or patterns in a broken piece of marble can be interpreted as representing images of Moses and other prophets. These abstract images rely on Jewish folklore to explore themes of suffering and redemption.
Weinstein’s most recent exhibition, Light Is My Voice, currently on view at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, MI, through December 22nd, represents the culmination of three thematic bodies of work: Re-emergence of Jewish life in Modern day Germany, The 36 Unknown, and Faces of the Prophets. In his remarks at the opening on September 20th, Executive Director Stephen M. Goldman stated, “This may be the best one person exhibition we have had to date.” Mr. Weinstein had previously exhibited The Re-Emergence of Jewish Culture in Germany at Janice Charach Epstein Gallery in 1996 and the 36 Unknown portfolio in 2004 at the then newly opened Holocaust Memorial Center. This is the first exhibition of The Prophets. I sat down with Todd Weinstein with a few questions.
Ron Scott: What were your earliest experiences in photography?
Todd Weinstein: I started getting interested in photography back in the mid-1960s. My friend, Larry Ravitz, had a darkroom in his house in Oak Park. We took images of each other in his basement. I also started to study in high school. I was very influenced by a teacher at the school who would take me on photo shoots. It’s all about being influenced by others that gives you the energy to explore your interest.
RS: Talk about what made you leave Detroit for NYC.
TW: I was going to the Center for Creative Studies in downtown Detroit, as well as working in local labs and assisting for a well-known car photography studio called Dick James. This gave me exposure to a wider world… a world that was so magical. As a third assistant, I would get up very early to go to strange place in Detroit to meet a big truck. Then the truck would open up and the new car would appear. I was amazed that we got the first look. As photographers we always get the best seats. I was staying at the studio all night, then going to CCS for classes while shooting for the rock magazine Creem. The best thing that happened to me was when I went to my professor George Phillips and told him that I was going to move to NYC to study with other photographers. He told me if it didn’t work out in NYC, I was welcome back here. Dick James also gave me his blessings. That’s what I needed. I needed the trust of the people around me to give me the push to go for it.
What photographer, would you say, was your most important influence?
My mentor and teacher Ernst Haas…he was the only person that helped me pursue my own vision. It’s not only photographers that influence me. Many painters, poets, and musicians also influenced my work. And many places I have visited over the past forty-four years of taking photographs have been a major influence. Your whole life becomes an influence and part of the composition.
How did you get interested in Jewish themes?
Jewish themes have always been an interest to me. The biggest influence was the Jewish artist Ben-Zion, who was a poet, a painter and a sculptor. He was a founding member of the group “The Ten” in the late 1930’s that included Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko. I was Ben-Zion’s photographer for many years up until this death. I would photograph his artwork and at the same time, I was learning about all the amazing stories of the Jewish culture.
You called your exhibition an installation. What do you mean by that?
Putting the exhibition together was a total installation for me. I was involved selecting the paint colors for the walls, to the layout of the images, captions and wall text. All of the three sections of the exhibition had different frames designed by Anthony Morris, a native Detroiter, to help the photographs to become an independent object. The sound quietly playing the OUE music by Rabbi James Stone Goodman, to the Eternal Light hanging in center of the room, brought the whole room together as one.
How would you describe the transformation in photography over the past twenty years?
I see photography as an ever-changing technology. If you try to stop it or resist change, it will kill your dreams. It is all about seeing…for me seeing light becomes my voice.
What work do you still want to complete?
I never work from a plan. I feed my interest, and that takes me to my new work. One prepares by living life to the fullest to allow the creative voice to come out. I have just begun to explore this amazing time on earth. What is the most magical moment for me is after a night’s sleep… my eye’s open and I see.
Mr. Weinstein’s photographic work spans many years and therefore also various developments in photography. The work on view at Holocaust Memorial Center was created using black and white film, color negative film, Kodachrome slide film, and digital Cannon photography. Some of the images were made from 35mm negatives and printed in a traditional darkroom. Other negatives were scanned digitally to produce archival prints using an inkjet printer.
Weinstein’s career has taken him to France, Italy, and Germany, where he as taught photography workshops, covered events or executed his personal work. His personal street photography has been published in numerous magazines including Blindspot, Forbes, German Life, Popular Photography, Time and Life. His photographs have been exhibited at The Detroit Institute of Arts, the Yeshiva University Museum in New York City, the National Humanities Center in North Carolina, New York Public Library, as well as in New York’s Howard Greenberg Gallery and the Pace/MacGill Gallery. Light Is My Voice is on view through December 22, 2014, at Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, MI. See www.holocaustcenter.org for more information.
Ron Scott is a pseudonym for a writer based in the Detroit area. View more articles by Ron Scott.