Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hansi Durlach’s Photographs of Sharon Springs, N.Y.

By: Michelle L. Murdock, Curator of Exhibitions
We all know the feeling. You’re driving along, maybe exploring a new route leading you to a familiar place, when you discover something new. Or you happen to notice something – really notice something – for the first time. Several years ago I had this experience driving through Sharon Springs, New York, a few miles east of Cooperstown. Most folks only know the Sharon Springs that sits right on Route 20, a major East-West thoroughfare through central New York. But just a very short way off of 20, north on Route 10, is one of the most haunted places I’ve been. Not Halloween-haunted, just resounding with the murmurs of a life (two lives, in fact) long gone. I knew there had to be more to this place.
The second of those two lives was captured on film by the photographer Hansi Durlach who was born in 1930 in Vienna, Austria. From 1968 to 1972, she shot the majority of the Sharon Springs photographs and they were eventually published in the 1980 book The Short Season of Sharon Springs: Portrait of Another New York. Stuart Blumin, professor of history at Cornell University, wrote the text of the book. In October 2001, Durlach gave the Fenimore Art Museum a collection of over 300 of her photographs and negatives of this small town. After having just fell in love with Sharon Springs, I was so excited for the museum to receive this collection.

In the 1960s while Durlach was studying photography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under Minor White, she applied for a Radcliffe Institute grant to conduct a socio-photographic documentary of Sharon Springs. Her interest in the village initially stemmed from her husband’s family, who had summered there beginning in the late 1800s, and grew based on her own ethnic heritage, the variety of people in the community, the architecture, and the natural environment of the rural village. Her goals as outlined in the grant narrative were to create a permanent visual record of the people and environment of Sharon Springs that conveyed a sense of place, and to position the unique qualities of the village into a larger context.
Sharon Springs began its history as a spa resort in 1825 when a David Eldredge set up a boardinghouse there, almost a quarter century after Saratoga Springs, 60 miles northeast of Sharon Springs, became a resort town. Eldredge’s investment was meant to attract visitors to the natural mineral springs located in the village. During the heyday of Sharon Springs’ popularity, the majority of the visiting population was Protestant. Also included, however, was a population of upper-class German Jews from Manhattan who were accepted into the Protestant society. When spa-going fell into disfavor, the Jewish population chose to continue visiting Sharon Springs and by 1900, they comprised the majority of the summer population. After World War I, less prosperous Eastern and Central European Jews from Brooklyn replaced the wealthy Manhattan Jews. More specifically, the Sharon Springs Jewish population was Hasidic Jews of the Satmar sect. In the late 1950s, a Satmar Rabbi from Brooklyn, Yoel Teitelbaum, began visiting the village and many of his followers followed suit. Even after his death in 1979, a few Satmar continued to visit the baths, sustaining Sharon Springs’ status as a resort for a few more decades. They found the new solitude of Sharon Springs a welcome change from the hectic pace of life in the city – a place where they could enjoy the health aspects of the town without the social pressures of the previous era. At the time of Durlach’s project, Sharon Springs’ visiting population was a largely older group of Hasidic Satmar Jews who had been coming since the days of Rabbi Teitelbaum. There is no question of her success in achieving her goals. Durlach’s photographs are infused with the strength, spirit and passion of a people committed to the memory of the past, the distinction of the present, and the optimism of the future.
All photography is from the collection of Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY.

1 comment:

DDanD said...

Thanks for this wonderful piece about photography's capacity to document history.
I was wondering if you've been following the five-part piece in the NY Times, "The Case of the Inappropriate Alarm Clock;" especially in light of your Walker Evans exhibit. The Times piece explores the expectation we have for historical images and the ethics/boundaries that photographer must evaluate in creating their work. Good stuff.

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