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Speaking Volumes: 'I Am Filled With Gratitude'

November 23, 2005 By:
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Herbert and Leni Sonnenfeld came to photojournalism quite by accident. The couple, residents of Berlin, had only been married for two years when Hitler seized power. Like most Jews, Herbert lost his job overnight. Being at loose ends with few prospects on the horizon, he agreed to travel to Palestine with the possibility of making aliyah. (Leni's sister just happened to be married to a leader of the Zionist movement.) It was there that Herbert took his first photos. On his return to Berlin, the images were shown to the editor of a Zionist newspaper, who immediately purchased and published them. Thus, began Herbert Sonnenfeld's career in photojournalism.

Leni soon became his assistant and, in time, took up photography as well.

The Sonnenfelds were able to immigrate to the United States in 1939, and their new home provided them with even greater opportunities to practice their craft. The couple spent the rest of their professional lives documenting Jewish communities around the world - in addition to prewar Berlin and early Palestine, they traveled to Iran, Morocco and Spain, as well as taking some of the most powerful and endearing images of Israel's first steps in the experiment called modern statehood. The selection of photos in Eyes of Memory, recently published by Yale University Press, contains some of the couple's finest work.

Leni Sonnenfeld, who died in February 2004, contributes an introductory essay to the volume, in which she sketches in the arc of the couple's two careers, which in time were inextricably linked. But it was Herbert who began in this line of work, and his wife insists that he had an innate sense of the photographic process.

"Though he never had a lesson, he never hesitated. I remember how touched I was when I saw him taking pictures, his hands trembling slightly at the excitement of the whole enterprise, and maybe betraying a bit of insecurity and anxiety about doing the right thing, pushing the right buttons, turning the right whatever-there-was on the machinery. I just watched him, and my heart really went out to him because he was so engaged in what he was doing, and every time it was a full success."

The distinguished Holocaust historian, James E. Young, has written a brief evaluation of the Sonnenfelds' lives and careers, describing as well the indelible quality of these photographs, all of which are marked by an intensity of focus and black-and-white tones of striking purity.

"When Leni Sonnenfeld titled this book Eyes of Memory, she was fully aware of its double meaning: it referred both to the eyes of her subjects (with their memory) and to her own photographic eye (with its memory). Indeed, according to [a close friend] of Leni's, none of these photographs could exist for the photographer without their own, sometimes highly personal stories. 'Whenever you travel,' Leni once [said], 'make sure you get invited into people's homes, so that you get to know who they are and how they live.' That is, find the stories animating these people's lives and then tell them. In the photographs, some of these stories are evoked in the narrative movement between different parts of an image or between images, some of them are related by the photographer herself, and others seem to be implied by what may or may not be happening just beyond the borders of the frame."

Leni Sonnenfeld worked right up until her death (Herbert had died more than 30 years earlier in 1972). And in her later years, whenever she felt down or insecure, she would go up into studio and take out a handful of photos. "I would hold them in my hand and look at them, and suddenly a wave of recognition would flow toward me, and I could say to myself, 'I have made this. I did this.' And like a miracle I felt comforted, reassured, useful, satisfied, uplifted, and that was enough. It was more than enough. I think I've had it all. I am filled with gratitude."

As will be the many readers who should rightly make their way to this exquisite, perfectly balanced book.

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