Photos capture numbers and words of Nazis’ Final Solution
Every now and then, a momentous life chapter can be triggered by a seemingly insignificant occurrence. That’s what happened to Dr. Richard Ehrlich on a plane a few years ago. The monotony of the flight was broken by skimming an issue of the International Herald Tribune. A small item mentioned the Holocaust archives at the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Germany.
For most of the past decade, Ehrlich, a urological surgeon, has enjoyed an avocation as an art photographer. He’s been widely shown and published, preferring nature and travel subjects.
A selection of 52 color digital images from Ehrlich’s documentation of Nazi bureaucracy from Hitler’s Final Solution will be on display in “The Holocaust Archive Revealed” at the Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica beginning Tuesday.
Relaxing in a UCLA examining room, Ehrlich — dressed in green scrubs — took time recently to speak about his portfolio of enlarged photographs documenting the assembled archive.
“My interest was piqued,” he confessed. “The idea that all of the data concerning the Holocaust was stored in one place stirred something compelling in me.”
A “60 Minutes” segment on the International Tracing Service (ITS) further inspired Ehrlich to access the archive. He set about petitioning the ITS, but even with the help of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Ehrlich was blocked. He’s quite circumspect about how he gained access, offering obliquely that a friend in the State Department was involved.
A meeting was arranged between Ehrlich and the director of the archive. He filled out the requisite forms and was granted two extended sessions to take pictures. Although the materials he photographed amounted to little more than printed words and numbers, the staggering volume — six buildings (including a former SS barracks) and 16 miles of records — impressed upon Ehrlich the huge effort that went into eradicating European Jewry and other “undesirable” minorities under the Nazi master plan.
Ehrlich came to photography through an evolutionary process. He has a background in painting, and the works of Paul Cézanne were his first important sources. Cézanne, the 19th century post-impressionist painter, took everyday elements and scenes — people, landscapes, objects — and subtly reordered them. Hard edges found their way into figures, fruits and face planes. Multiplicity of viewpoint, a defining element of 20th century modernism in all the arts, first surfaced in Cézanne.
The California abstract expressionists Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn were Ehrlich’s next great influence, and their input can be discerned in his photographs. Through positioning and scale, Bischoff’s figurative work looked abstract, and his abstract paintings looked figurative. Diebenkorn could reorder the space of a picture — thereby abstracting it — simply by the way an open pair of scissors or the head and legs of a figure diagonally touched the plane’s edges.
While his painting satisfied a personal need to make art, Ehrlich first turned to photography as a byproduct of his professional work. Documentation of his surgeries was a practical application of picture taking. At some point, the two merged. Ehrlich’s love of travel fit nicely with his interpretive photographs of far-flung locales. Thus was born Richard Ehrlich, serious photographer.
Longtime observers of Ehrlich’s work know him as a colorist. His landscapes are often imbued with brilliant hues, some of the most intense found in nature. His studies of the Namibian outdoors contain breathtaking vistas and swaths of color. A series of Malibu sky and horizon studies are turned into a homage to the stark format that painter Mark Rothko settled on in his final phase through clever cropping. Graffitied walls in Belmont Park are riots of color and kinetic energy, although they’re held still and silent by Ehrlich’s exposures.
His focus is always sharp, and Ehrlich stays clear of lens trickery. The viewer need never wonder what is being depicted. Angles may be skewed (the legacy of Bischoff and Diebekorn at work) but never to the point of fool-the-eye dynamics. It also seems to be a point of pride that Ehrlich’s light is natural and never manipulated. He clearly has the eye and the patience to mentally frame the photo and to wait for just the right moment.
At the same time, the human element is mostly recessed. People are not out of the question in his picture planes, but most often it’s their handiwork that stands in for the human form. The starkness of handmade houses in Namibia, their floors deep in sand, suggest past lives and actions — ghosts if you will. The same applies to the tagged Belmont walls. History is implied as much as it is notated.
As artist Tony Berlant has said of the photographs: “In Ehrlich’s work, what you see is who you are.”
Those longtime Ehrlich observers may be thrown by his Holocaust archive prints. The manmade spaces are constricted and viewed head-on. Overhead fluorescent lighting gives the materials — shelves, boxes, stacks of files and rows of ledgers — an appropriately institutional pallor. Gray greens, metallic blues, muddy taupes all denote a place far removed from nature’s extravagance.
As he flipped open a large, black box on an examining table, Ehrlich explained some of his prints. He began by saying, “I went to Wannsee, a beautiful little town outside of Berlin. There’s a nice old hotel there, where they held the Wannsee Conference in 1941. That’s where they planned the Holocaust. Here’s a shot of the minutes of the meeting, including a break for lunch. In the middle of the planning of the systematic murder of millions, they had lunch.”
Moving through images of ledgers, official papers that dispassionately note the minutiae of the Final Solution — including Anne Frank’s transfer papers to Bergen-Belsen and the actual Schindler’s List — Ehrlich’s calm demeanor developed an incredulous edge.
“You see this much detail,” he noted with suppressed pique, “and you have to understand that this massive effort wasn’t just carried out by a small group of people. It required an enormous amount of work by tens of thousands, if not millions.”
At the time of the Nazi takeover, Germany had the most educated population in all of Europe. “It’s a chilling thought, and it makes you wonder how that level of evil could flourish in such a place,” Ehrlich said.
Asked what it was that sparked him to the extraordinary effort that produced his Holocaust images, Ehrlich was hesitant.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, I’m not particularly religious, and I didn’t lose any relatives. I went to Auschwitz when I was a student at Columbia in 1959, and I was moved, but the Holocaust is not something that I’ve been obsessed with all these years.”
“Look,” Ehrlich said, sitting forward in his chair. “People read about what’s going on in Darfur, and they often can’t relate to it. And at the same time, we’re hearing the voices of Holocaust denial again. This is a concrete record of something that the world is in danger of forgetting about.”
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