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Katz ponders a subject more weighty than wine

Stewart Oksenhorn

Standing among his photographs of sun-dappled California vineyards, discussing wine and the books he has made of the world’s wine-producing regions, Andy Katz talks about past and future projects in which he tackles a heavier photographic subject than grapes. It might be easy to dismiss this as the vague musings of someone who seeks artistic weight in life’s darker corners. Or it could be the wine talking; it is, after all, day one of the Food & Wine Magazine Classic weekend.But Katz has more than talk to offer. At the David Floria Gallery, next to a room full of his luscious color photos of the good life, is another room of images revealing that Katz has already visited the flip side of California’s glowing wine country. These photographs are black and white and gray. Instead of evoking issues of growth and nurturing, they speak of decay and neglect. The photographs – taken from three of Katz’s series from the 1980s – depict places in the world where Judaism has been practically wiped out of existence.In the early ’80s, Katz hadn’t yet found his niche documenting the wine world. But neither were his pursuits particularly deep; he specialized in shooting album covers for rock albums, including works by the Doobie Brothers and Dan Fogelberg. But in 1982, Katz stumbled across an image and idea that struck him.Traveling in Cairo, Katz visited a synagogue. “There were six men there, and they said, ‘When we die, the religion will be over here. There will be no Judaism in Egypt,'” recalled Katz. “I’m not a religious person, but that was an incredibly powerful statement. Horrifying, in a way.”A year-and-a-half later, Katz spent six weeks in Eastern Europe, making images of decrepit Jewish cemeteries and forgotten synagogues for his series, “Vanishing Jewish Societies of Eastern Europe.” He continued the theme two years later with “Vanishing Jewish Societies of Russia,” and took a variation on the theme the following year with “Israel: The Western Wall.” The first two series portray the near nonexistence of Judaism in places like Poland and Czechoslovakia, where the Jewish populations were wiped out by the Nazis and not welcomed to return in the 60 years since.”I meant to, I guess, put this horrible thing that happened into a visual,” said Katz, who has a selection of new prints from the three series at the Floria Gallery through June 30.Finding remnants of the vanished Jewish communities was easy, said Katz. But digesting what he found there – and why the societies had disappeared – was difficult.”These are places that, at one time, were synagogues where people came,” said Katz, who was raised a nonobservant Jew – his family celebrated Christmas and Easter – in New York’s Westchester County. “But a lot of them are abandoned or looted or flooded with no one there to clean it.”Among the most striking photographs is “Jewish Star,” with a Star of David carved in rock, now crumbled. Katz found the image in a Czech cemetery that was, in fact, not destroyed by the Nazis.”Hitler wanted to keep it as a museum of decadent religion,” noted Katz. “It was totally preserved – and now the Jewish Quarter in Prague is a major tourist attraction. Because it’s a bizarre idea, that this was preserved to portray a decadent religion.”Similar images include “Jewish Sand,” a Jewish cemetery in Poland with the gravestones nearly covered by sand, and “Jewish Papers,” a pile of burned pages from a Torah.A photograph with a different effect is “Three Jews and An Arab,” a shot from overhead of three Jewish men in prayer clothing walking in one direction, and an Arab in traditional headdress headed the other. “I thought I captured something that was going on,” said Katz, adding that the image has only gained a measure of truth over the years, as the Arab-Israeli conflict has escalated. The shot was taken from a rooftop near the Western Wall in Jerusalem; in the current tense climate, the photograph would be impossible. “Now, I’d be shot,” said Katz.From grim to grapesAround the time of the “Israel” project, Katz was contacted by a friend who was opening a restaurant in Vail. Katz, who moved to Boulder in 1974 after dropping out of Los Angeles’ Art Center College of Design, was hired to shoot images from the Napa and Sonoma valleys for the restaurant, the defunct Michael’s American Bistro.Katz wasn’t much of a wine drinker then. Still, he fell in love with the region. He took his photographs around to the wineries, and a career was born. He said goodbye to his “Vanishing Jewish Societies” projects and stepped into the lush world of vineyards. His first book was 1989’s “A Portrait of Napa and Sonoma.” He has since published “Tuscany and Its Wines” and “Vineyard: A Year in the Life of California’s Wine Country.”Katz has hardly grown tired of wine. Two years ago, he moved to Healdsburg, in the Sonoma Valley. Recently, he bought an acre of vineyard there, and has just begun growing cabernet grapes. And he is not done with photographing grapes and wineries. “I take my wine photos very seriously, and there’s a lot that can be done. The people in this industry are passionate about what they do,” he said.But Katz is aching to adjust his focus, and the book of nudes he has scheduled to come out next year isn’t going to do it for him.”You get in a a really crowded space and then you need to do something else to give yourself a kick in the ass,” said Katz. He adds that he doesn’t know what that something else will be. But he wants to do “more than just the soft, pretty wine images. That to me is easy. It’s pretty; it’s all set in front of you. You just get the beautiful light and there’s nothing disturbing about it.”That’s a long emotional distance from the abandoned Jewish societies he has explored. “That was brutal,” said Katz. “You go to some of the darkest places on Earth.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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