Yuri Marder — The Exile Project

Robert B. Menschel Photography Gallery Catalog Essay, 1995
by Jeffrey Hoone, Director, Light Work, Syracuse, NY

Onondaga is the name of the county that encompasses Syracuse, New York. The name Onondaga is taken from Hodinoñshoñni (the People of the Longhouse), also known as the Onondaga Indians, the original inhabitants of the land. Millions of years ago the geography of Central New York was formed by glaciers that slowly carved out long narrow valleys and left behind low tapered hills of glacial deposits called drumlins. If you choose a high enough vantage point and let your eyes move along this terrain as you say the word Onondaga or Hodinoñshoñni, it becomes quite clear that the aural peaks and valleys of these words mirror the landscape and the name of the people they identify. The link between language and home is perhaps the strongest bond of personal and collective identity we have. When the link between language and home is broken, we lose a primal security that may be impossible to recover.

In his series of portraits and text titled The Exile Project, Yuri Marder presents the stories of people who live in one language but have their hearts in another. Each image in the series begins with a portrait of an individual who is currently living outside of their original culture. During each sitting, Marder asks the person to "find a place inside that can be still" while he makes a deliberate and contemplative one second exposure. Portraiture is a collaborative process and Marder establishes a trusting relationship with each of his subjects. The portraits are usually made in the homes of the person being photographed, and nearly everyone in the series displays or surrounds themselves with items of personal and cultural significance. After Marder has finished the portrait session, he asks each person to allow him even closer into the process of storytelling that he began with his camera. He asks them to give him a short handwritten quote in their original language that conveys "what happens to the mother tongue when it exists, isolated or unused in a state of cultural separation." Marder then etches their statement into the emulsion of the film, making it a permanent part of their visual story.

Back in the darkroom Marder continues to work on the negatives, applying bleach to build areas of density, while applying a retouching liquid to other areas to create luminescent highlights. These techniques are employed primarily for aesthetic reasons to enliven the look of the images and establish a singular signature for each portrait. Marder acknowledges his debt to photographers as diverse as August Sander, Joel-Peter Witkin, Jim Goldberg, and James Van der Zee, and by using these techniques, he is able to break the rules of traditional portraiture and pay homage to the photographers who have influenced his work.

Where Marder creates a path of his own, is how clearly he connects the importance of language within our construction of personal identity, and how gracefully he gives that connection a visual form. In each portrait Marder has found an entree across barriers of language and culture to draw out and record elusive emotional and intellectual responses with the same certainty as if he were adding two and two to get four.

In The Exile Project, Marder has brought each person to a place of primal importance. Their faces reflect the seriousness of their thoughts, and their words echo the sentiments of loss, bits of philosophical wisdom, and primitive remembrances that they each hold on to as a staff of their emotional home. As we approach the 21st century and the specter of a 'global village,' Marder's photographs, and the stories they tell, show us that it is difficult enough to hang on to who we are, without having to do so in a voice we used to know.

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