Interview | Darren Ching on Richard Tuschman’s “Once Upon A Time in Kazimierz”

Photo: The Potato Eaters, 2014

“Once Upon a Time in Kazimierz” is the story of a Jewish family in 1930s Poland. Dark shadows abound, portending the inevitability of fate that retrospect affords. Conceived as a visual novella by photographer Richard Tuschman, each image is made through a meticulous process that marries miniature dioramas with life-size models, reaching new heights in staged photography. The work is currently on view at Klompching Gallery, Brooklyn, now through April 2, 6016. Gallery Owner Darren Ching speaks with Crave about Richard Tuschman.

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Working Morning, 2014

Working Morning, 2014

I love the idea of a visual novella. Can you speak about the elements that transform a photographic series into a work that embodies the principles of literature?

Darren Ching: The novella is a literary form, whereby the story is written to be short enough to read in one sitting. It’s also a narrative with fewer subplots and points of view—generally taking a personal viewpoint rather than a wider social outlook. Richard Tuschman’s “Once Upon A Time In Kazimierz” is a visual equivalent. This new body of work consists of 17 photographs, that do adhere to a linear narrative structure and is very much informed by the artist’s personal connection with Jewish culture, and the neighborhood of Kazimierz in Krakow. In this work, he is exploring his own family history and that of his wife. The narrative is simply a structure that enables this exploration. 

I’m very touched by how timeless the story feels, going beyond the immediacy of the narrative. What do you think it is about this story that speaks so beautifully to the present times?

“Once Upon A Time In Kazimierz” resonates so successfully with a broad audience because Tuschman has masterfully weaved a fictional story that also has universal appeal. The narrative follows the central characters of a young wife and her tailor husband, whose religious and moral conservatism is tested following the loss of a child. Sensibilities of loss, love, faithfulness are known to and experienced by people from all cultures and religions. The poignancy of the work also lies in the knowledge that the Jewish family is situated in a pre-Holocaust Europe. While it’s not overtly stated, the pending doom of the characters taps into the humanity of present-day audiences. Another wonderful asset of Tuschman’s work is his inspiration by and homage to painters such as Vermeer, de Chirico, Van Gogh. A good example is his “The Potato Eaters,” its title borrowed from Van Gogh’s painting of the same name, in the image we see a family eating a humble meal of potatoes and carrots, a reference to the economic depression that engulfed Europe at the time—though in the background we can see the size and architecture of the family’s apartment, which hints at a more affluent past. The authorship and aesthetic of this art history echoes through the work, making these photographs, although new, also quite familiar to our visual sensibility. The audience feels comfortable with this work, fascinated and enthralled. 

Pale Light, 2015

Pale Light, 2015

Please speak about the preparation and planning that goes into the creation of an individual image. How does Tuschman combine aesthetic and narrative elements in each photograph?

A common thread throughout the series is Tuschman’s sophisticated use of symbolism, to depict the mores of Jewish life in Europe, and some of the narrative’s broader themes. He plans out the work very carefully beforehand. As you know, the photographs are highly constructed tableaux vivants that combine a staged set with live models. In the case of Tuschman, he begins with hand-building miniature dollhouse-sized dioramas which he photographs. He then separately photographs live models, who take on the roles of the different characters in the story—the key protagonists in this case being the tailor, his wife, his mother and an unidentified male. The two elements are brought together by digitally superimposing the models onto or into the diorama and completing the scene. Much time is spent preparing details for the initial shoot, including the costuming, styling, lighting, etc.—so that there is very little amendments made later on. His approach to creating the artworks reminds me of that of a cinematic director. In many ways, this high level of craftsmanship and meticulous attention to detail, is what makes the photographs so special and successful—as photographs they are incredibly lush to look at. The “hand of the artist,” or the “labor of the hand” is evident, even though we can’t always quite work out how Tuschman made it—there are mysteries that reverberate through the work. And that is a good thing. 

: Somewhere In Kazimierz, 2016

Somewhere In Kazimierz, 2016

All photos: © Richard Tuschman/Courtesy Klompching Gallery, New York

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.