Photographing a Home in the Catskills, Then and Now

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Scheinfeld didn’t want to lose this rich American Jewish history of the Borscht Belt — or her family’s own nostalgic memories — so she photographed more than 40 of these abandoned hotels and bungalow sites in the Catskills for an exhibit.

Just like Maria in The Sound of Music, Marisa Scheinfeld had to start from the beginning.
 
And for her, that meant going home — to the Borscht Belt.
 
Scheinfeld was born in Brooklyn but moved to the Catskills at the age of 6 when her father, a physician, was offered a job in the place where he had his fondest memories.
 
Even her grandparents met in the mountains (well, her grandmother met her grandfather while she was hitchhiking between highways).
 
“For decades, virtually, and for generations, my family had been going up there to visit,” she said.
 
That was in the ’50s and ’60s, when the hills were really alive.
 
But by the time she moved to Sullivan County in the ’80s — she spent a lot of time at the Concord — many had already closed.
 
“I experienced those hotels in their dying days,” she said. “That part of my life is very much infused by my memories of being in that area, being in those hotels.”
 
What’s left of the countryside is deteriorating “eyesores” or, as Scheinfeld called it, “modern-day ruins.” Compounds carry on for acres and acres of decrepit buildings. Stone staircases lead to nowhere. Singular swimming pools leave behind a clue of where buildings once were (many have since been burned down).
 
“You’ll always find a pool. Pools are the one thing that were in the ground and didn’t burn.”
 
Scheinfeld didn’t want to lose this rich American Jewish history — or her family’s own nostalgic memories — so she photographed more than 40 of these abandoned hotels and bungalow sites in the Catskills for an exhibit called The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland, which will be at the Gershman Y from Aug. 11 to Nov. 18.
 
Scheinfeld was always interested in art, but when she attended University at Albany-SUNY, she took on another spin to her passion: a Judaic studies minor.
 
“I always wanted my work to mean something,” she said. “There’s always something I wanted to say, but I needed to find my story and the subject matter that I was compelled to photograph and research and investigate and think about.
 
“If I look back at my work early, early on, I was always photographing this Jewish story,” she added, like photographing motels while in Albany. “So it was already there in a weird way that I was interested in this place.”
 
In graduate school at the University of San Diego, she took on more projects like photographing Holocaust survivors or going to Europe to document concentration camps.
 
But after that, she felt stuck until a mentor gave her the best advice, she said, which prompted this Borscht Belt project: “He said, ‘Marisa, when you don’t know what to shoot, you shoot what you know.’ And I kind of took that and ran with it.”
 
Initially, when Scheinfeld started this project in 2010, she focused on re-photography.
 
“It’s something photographers have been doing for a very long time. It’s very scientific in a way and very mathematically-oriented but visual at the same time. You take an old photograph and you go back to the same place — roughly 10, 25, 50 years later — and you make the same image as that photographer originally took standing at the same place, same vantage point.”
 
She wanted to compare what was there then to how it looks now, but “then I would turn around and see a tree growing out of the floor of some lobby or some really, really beautiful flower growing out of something, and I was like, wow, there’s really much more of a narrative here to tell than the one I initially set out to tell.”
 
So she started driving around to the places she remembered as a kid and investigating others she didn’t know, trying to photograph any “evidence of remaining relics or remnants of the Borscht Belt that I could find.”
 
“Within the decay or the sadness of it, I feel like I found a very peculiar beauty. It’s very odd. It can be very spooky. But to me, the project is obviously about the Borscht Belt. But it’s a contemporary story. It’s not the Borscht Belt as people who lived it knew it.”
 
Certainly not: The beauty of then is now inhabited by wild turkeys roaming the property, Scheinfeld said. Even locals creep onto properties sometimes, like kids who turned a showroom into a skate park, or others who propped up tables in a dining room for a paintball battlefield.
 
“What once was a manicured compound was now like a forest — left by humans and reclaimed by nature. Within all of that, there’s, to me, such an interesting story. And it’s not only a commentary about the Borscht Belt and its impact, but it’s sort of a commentary on the life cycle and the passing of time, how everything does have a birth and a life and a death and a changeover.”
 
Scheinfeld used natural lighting and shot with film for this project, going to each hotel many times during each season to get different textures and colors.
 
“I was totally enamored by it because I’ve done this for five years, and I’ve gone to multiple hotels — and I’ve gone back five, 10 times each to see what changes occurred in a season, in six months, in a year. And always I found something new and different that was interesting enough for me to make a photograph of it.”
 
The Gershman Y will feature about half of her collection, and Scheinfeld will attend the artist reception on Oct. 13 from 5 to 7 p.m. for a meet and greet and book signing.
 
Her work will also be available as a book on Oct. 4 with 129 photos, essays from Stefan Kanfer and Jenna Weissman Joselit, as well as quotes from comedians who got their start at the Catskills like Mel Brooks and Larry King.
 
“Unfortunately, it’s an epidemic of America, where we kind of use and reuse. But for me, I’m photographing in my backyard in a place that is really important to me where my family still lives, a lot of friends live and my friends’ family and their parents live. I have so much love for it that I only proceed with this project with respect for the places and just a wish to document them, because in another decade or so, most of these buildings will no longer be there, and no real physical evidence will ever be there from the Borscht Belt [landscape].”
 
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0737

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