“Jewish Cincinnati: A Photographic Record,” a photo exhibition by J. Miles Wolf opened last Thursday, October 27. The exhibit features images that depict Jewish life in Cincinnati from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The current exhibition is an expansion of Wolf’s 2018 presentation titled “Jewish Cincinnati: A Photographic History.” The 2018 exhibition showcased Jewish Cincinnati through its congregational life, exploring synagogues and temples, the places they popped up and where they expanded as the Jewish population in Cincinnati grew. Wolf’s new exhibition includes eighteen works from the original show as well as images of other places crucial to Cincinnati Jewry, such as the original offices of “The American Israelite,” the Manischewitz matzo factory, King records, Pike’s Opera House, and many more.
J. Miles Wolf, a photographer born in Cincinnati, has works on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History as well as in the Cincinnati Art Museum. The current exhibit, housed at the Skirball, marries Wolf’s keen eye for architectural photography with his love of Cincinnati history. Each piece is a collage of past and present, often showing the original site or building superimposed over the current location. “I welcomed the opportunity to revisit this photographic style of historic collage. The ability to use photographs from different time periods has fascinated me. The style helps me tell stories about the people and places I have featured,” Wolf said during his remarks at the exhibit’s opening. This new, expanded exhibit spans one hundred and sixty years of Jewish Cincinnati, from as far back as the 1860 location of this newspaper to the 2019 graduating class of Hebrew Union College, which Wolf superimposed in the HUC photograph alongside a photograph of the 1920 graduating class, which included Jacob Rader Marcus.
While Wolf specializes in architectural photography, his artistic eye is not directed solely at the buildings and their subsequent changes from past to present. Wolf also includes in his art photos of members of synagogues, child workers pushing carts in the streets of downtown Cincinnati, the bullpen at the Israelite, and more. “This research has had an impact on my life. I feel a deeper connection to my Jewish roots and a great appreciation for what our ancestors endured to provide a peaceful, prosperous future for us all. It has been so exciting digging back into the early history of Cincinnati and learning about the significant impact the Jewish population had on the success of our great city. These early immigrants embraced the opportunities that were not available to them in their home countries. Things we take for granted, like the ability to own real estate or to start your own business, the ability to gather and practice the religion of your choice. These are rights that were embraced and celebrated by these European and Russian immigrants,” Wolf said.
In order to build his photographic record of Jewish Cincinnati, Wolf “spent months building a database of dates, names, locations and facts.” From there, a story of Jewish Cincinnati took form. “It’s a fascinating story of immigration, assimilation, migration, and religious reform,” said Wolf. The collages are meant to tell a story of a place and of a people, and thus Wolf had to draw on many different kinds of resources other than his own photography to bring this narrative to life. Three key elements shaped Wolf’s approach to each work: time, place, and historic facts. “Time is the range of years that the building was an active place for the business, congregation, or featured person,” Wolf said. “I try to take you back in time by showing people from the precise years that the business or congregation was active.” Place, for Wolf, is the site itself wherever it is located in the city. Wolf incorporates current-day locations into his works to give viewers a sense of place and to provide them with a sense of the original site’s location when it was built. The notion of place also may provide a hint of what has become of the building. For example, Wolf superimposes an image of Mound Street Temple, located just three blocks from Plum Street at the corner of Eighth and Mound, over an image of I-75 taken with long exposure photography. The Mound Street Temple collage features the temple, a long exposure image of I-75, and the confirmation class of 1897. “This is my attempt to show what it looked like back in the day and where it was located,” said Wolf. The temple, built in 1869, was demolished to make way for the highway. The exhibition features an interactive map that allows visitors to look at an old map of historic locations in Downtown Cincinnati and the West end and slide over to a new map to see what has changed, what has been demolished, and what still stands.
The exhibition also expanded on Wolf’s 2018 exploration of Cincinnati congregations, with the inclusion of several lesser-known congregations from Northern Kentucky and Price Hill, in order to “present a broader picture of early Jewish Cincinnati,” said Wolf. The artist has also created a timeline of Jewish congregations in Cincinnati. “This comprehensive chart shows all the congregations and time periods and locations over the last two hundred years,” Wolf said. The timeline is on view on the second floor of the Skirball Museum. Wolf encouraged visitors to trace their family’s congregational history through the chart.
This photo exhibition is the last event of the Jewish Cincinnati Bicentennial year, and it is a fitting one. It celebrates the rich history of Jewish Cincinnati but, just as importantly, it serves as a reminder that the preservation of that history is key to the next two hundred years. “We must save our historic buildings,” Wolf entreated the audience as he concluded his remarks. “There are other former synagogues and churches in danger of being torn down. Please join me and the Cincinnati Preservation Association in trying to stop the destruction of our historic buildings here in Cincinnati.” Wolf’s photo exhibition occupies two floors of the Skirball Museum, located on the HUC-JIR Cincinnati Campus. It runs until January 29, 2023.
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