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Review – Rafael Goldchain

I Am My Family

Photographic Memories and Fictions
By Rafael Goldchain

“Photography is like a mosaic; it achieves its full synthesis only when presented en
masse.”
August Sander

I Am My Family Photographic Memories and Fictions, a reconstructed family album
created by Toronto-based artist, Rafael Goldchain is one of the most multi-layered,
engaging, photographic books I have come across in a long time. It contains an
introduction by art historian and author, Martha Langford, a statement by the artist and
56 plates of portraits, in each of which, the artist, appropriately and professionally made-
up and costumed, photographs himself posing as one of his ancestors or relatives. There
is also an appendix containing examples of project sketchbooks, production stills from
the photography sessions, charts of the Goldchain family tree and historic photographs of
some of the family members Goldchain has chosen to recreate.

Born and brought up in Chile, Rafael Goldchain came to Canada in 1975 after studying
for five years in Israel. The son of exiles and an exile himself, he could be a poster child
for our ongoing, diasporic age. Jewish and originally Polish, many of his family were
fortunate enough to leave Europe in the 1920’s and 30’s with most settling in South
America. Of those who didn’t emigrate, we are told none survived the Shoah, a word
Goldchain makes a point of substituting for Holocaust because of its Jewish specificity.

Before going on, I feel I should say that I almost recused myself from writing this review.
The cynic in me was deeply dubious about the idea of manufacturing an after-the-fact
family album. It sounded as if it could be too contrived, too much just an art project. I
wondered too, whether my inherent distrust of the photographic portrait should disqualify
me, for, apart from its earliest examples and possibly photo-booth pictures, I consider
the formal, photographic portrait to be a seriously suspect form. The one attribute
common to all such images is that without exception, they are a record of a performance,
a photograph of a person or persons having their picture taken. Here I am, they all
say; this is me being photographed; this is how I look or, more accurately, choose to
present myself and that, most often, for only some tiny fraction of a second. Trouble is,
because it is the photographer who creates the context and chooses that tiny fraction of a
second, usually what results is more a record of the photographer’s performance than the
subject’s.

Self-portraits though are different and the ones in I Am My Family, substantially so. The
images both parody the portrait form and expand upon it, with the whole becoming a
collective self-portrait that simultaneously encompasses the photographer/subject, his
family, his heritage and his culture. This conflation is in itself an impressive
achievement but, even more remarkable, is the way the work also conflates time. While
the book’s title addresses only the present – I am me, yes, but me is also all of those from
whom I come – what the title doesn’t imply and the photographs clearly do, is not only, I
am, but also, I have always been and will continue to be. This is not an understanding
easily grasped by Western thought, although it is integral to other cultures. In The City of
Words, the book version of his 2007 Massey Lectures, Alberto Manguel describes Inuit understanding of memory and imagination as being “…exactly equivalent to present

experience…”. For Inuit, he says, “… that which is remembered is the reality in which
we live, physically and imaginatively… what is imagined and told as happening takes
place…all at once, past, present and future”.1 As a consequence, looking into these
photographs is frequently unsettling. At the simplest level, we know that all we’re really
seeing are recently made images of someone playing dress-up in a studio. Yet,
somehow, the images themselves are so engaging that rationality is constantly being
overwhelmed by illusion, an illusion frequently reinforced by an accompanying story
about the purported “subject”, the performer/photographer or both. More surprising is
that even after comparing Goldchain’s re-creation to the image of the original, as
revealed in one of the appended, historic photographs, often it is the re-creation that
seems more true.

There are a number of reasons for this, but foremost must be Goldchain’s extraordinary
ability to perform for the camera. Even in those rare instances where the costuming
and make-up are less than perfect it just doesn’t seem to matter for Goldchain inhabits
his creations so absolutely, any imperfections seem to reflect more their character than
any failure of process. While all of the photographs are in one way or another striking,
for me, two in particular stand out. The subject of the first, Self-Portrait as Doña Reizl
Goldszajn has no precedent; she is a fiction, a representation of what Goldchain describes
as, “…the middle-aged, stylish woman suffering from chronic, mild depression common
to every family”. She looks down, away from the lens into a distance beyond the camera,
her eyes and mouth tinged with resignation. What we see of her dress is a high, circular
collar, chosen no doubt to pair with a string of pearls to emphasize and lengthen her neck.
Her lipstick is just a little sloppy and her luxuriant hair, a straggling mass of careless
disarray. Photoshop has smoothed the skin, softened the forehead the nose, jaw and neck.
She is imagination brought to life.

The subject of the other is one of the only two children Goldchain portrays. The first,
and first in the series, is his grandfather, whom he presents as a fourteen or fifteen year
old Polish schoolboy. The second, and last in the series, is titled Self-Portrait as Chaim
Goldszayn (Laughing). In common with the other relatives Goldchain performs, we are
also given the dates and locations of this boy’s birth and death: b. Poland, early 1930s,
d. Poland early 1940s. An astonishing, daring image, the apparent spontaneity of this
portrait differentiates it from any preceding it. It shows a man facing the camera. His
eyes are tight shut, his mouth wide open. The curled Peyos of Jewish orthodoxy spring
out from beneath his cap. He is clearly not a child and there is no apparent effort to make
him appear so. This is the photographer as himself, being his relative, who died at the
age of ten in Nazi-occupied Poland. “Laughing”, the title reads, yet it is impossible to
view this image without seeing also the wrenched distortion of a Baconesque scream.
It is an ambiguity that thrusts the image far beyond its Jewish referent, making of it as
well, an acknowledgement and passionate celebration of the dichotomous existentiality
common to us all.

Richard Holden

I Am My Family Photographic Memories and Fictions, Rafael Goldchain, New York,
Princeton Architectural Press, 2008, cloth, 168pp
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1. Manguel, Alberto. The City of Words, House of Anansi Press Inc., 2007 pp 79-81