Faith on Film: Anna Shteynshleyger’s photographs examine Orthodox Judaism

“Art is a kind of religion, in a sense,” said photographer Anna Shteynshleyger in a public conversation with Renaissance Society associate curator Hamza Walker last Sunday. “For me, there’s not just an overlap–there’s similarities.” Not something often heard coming from a successful contemporary artist, but Shteynshleyger, it seems, is an exception. A practicing Orthodox Jew and the author of an eponymous exhibit that opened at the Renaissance Society on January 3, Shteynshleyger has spent the past seven years making photographs that deal directly with her religion. Along the way, she has deftly avoided the pitfalls that often prevent vocally religious artists from making universally meaningful art and from being accepted by curators, gallery owners, and the contemporary art scene.

Born in Moscow in 1977, Shteynshleyger embraced Orthodoxy at the age of 16. Around this time, her family moved to the United States, where Shteynshleyger attended the Maryland Institute College of Art and received her MFA from Yale University in 2001. Since then, she has produced two full bodies of work. Her first, “Siberia,” captured the natural beauty of the land that had once hosted the gulags, the string of forced labor camps for criminals and political prisoners during the reign of the Soviet Union. Her second, “City of Destiny,” deals with the Orthodox community in Des Plaines, Illinois, in which she lived for four years, as well as her surroundings on Chicago’s North Side where she has lived since. While “Siberia” was simply photographs of nature, “City of Destiny” includes both portraiture and still lifes, and addresses the issue of Shteynshleyger’s religion head-on. It is from this later body that the exhibition at the Renaissance Society has been curated.

The presence of Shteynshleyger’s religion in her art is obvious. Not only do overtly Jewish objects (religious texts and challah bread) and persons (wearing yarmulkes and Orthodox beards) appear in her photographs; her work is also graced by the contemplative seriousness that is a hallmark of her faith. Stark, white light illuminates Shteynshleyger’s subjects, casting upon them an aura of solemnity. Each work is thoughtfully and intentionally positioned, whether it shows a couple in a rowboat or an abandoned picnic table. This positioning, however, is not only intentional but necessary, as Shteynshleyger shoots with a 4×5” view camera mounted on a tripod, a setup that forces its user to be deliberate. “When you work with a view camera, it has a presence of its own. There’s you, the subjects, and the camera,” said Shteynshleyger of the process. It is to Shteynshleyger’s credit, then, that despite her medium, her photographs rarely look overly staged.

But the presence of the camera, and the distance that it puts between artist and subject, is something more easily noticed by viewers of Shteynshleyger’s work. “I do partially hide behind the camera,” Shteynshleyger admitted. “I always thought of myself as an outsider [when taking a photograph].” This self-imposed disconnect is, perhaps, a function of the continuing struggle that Shteynshleyger feels as an artist who openly acknowledges her religion: “The Jew in me is not embarrassed about being an artist–it’s that the artist in me is very embarrassed about being a Jew.”

Perhaps, though, it is this distance–the distance that the embarrassed artist puts between herself and her faith when she steps behind the camera–that makes these photographs different and new, that has helped Shteynshleyger escape the usual downward career trajectory of overtly religious artists. It creates a tension in her photographs that lends them an interesting and unexpected aspect; it elevates them from being simply declarative religious art to being serious art that addresses faith as a complex, and sometimes alienating, experience.
Renaissance Society, room 418, Cobb Hall, 5811 S. Ellis Ave. Through February 14. Tuesday-Friday, 10am-5pm; Saturday-Sunday, noon-5pm.