Mapping Identity

July 10, 2009

This summer, the Instituto Cervantes de Nueva York (ICNY) is presenting “El Ojo de Tu Vecino,” an exhibition whose title translates as “The Eye of Your Neighbor” and showcases the work of several of the city’s emerging Spanish-speaking photographers. One of the photographers selected for the show is alumnus Jaime Permuth, who received an MFA in photography and related media in 1994, and is set to earn his MPS in digital photography this summer.

The exhibition, which runs through Saturday, September 5, at ICNY, 211 East 49th Street, features images from Permuth’s series Manhattan Mincha Map, a project for which he documented spots around the city where observant Jews assemble to pray. Permuth spoke to the Briefs about the Mincha Map series and the evolution of his craft.

What is the Manhattan Mincha Map?
It’s a photographic document some of the places in New York where Jewish men gather to recite their afternoon prayers. I was interested in this network of places that are not visible normally. Many of them are businesses that get transformed for 45 minutes a day—they become sacred spaces, and then they go back to being places of business. I was interested in the idea of breaking the material pursuit that is so important in New York, and switching gears to a spiritual quest.

Your work seems to be particularly concerned with cultural identity.
I’m a Guatemalan Jew, which means that I already have a double identity: I’m Jewish and Latin, and I’ve always been curious about those two sides of myself. I would often do projects that had to do with one or the other, but more and more I see the overlap.

What are the factors that make you choose color or black-and-white for a particular project?
The past year I’ve spent as a student in the MPS Digital Photography Department, and digital photography right now is all about color. Even though traditionally in my own practice I’ve gravitated more toward black and white, the MPS program really showed me some of the complexity of color. So all of my MPS work is in color.

Do you see the final image through your viewfinder, or is there a longer process between encountering a subject and producing a photograph?
I would say that there’s a gap in perception in the process. We see the world in 3D; the camera makes it 2D and it also separates it from its context. So what you see in a photograph is always an abstraction, however much it might resemble the outside world. In my process for my MPS work, it’s been very much complicated and more abstracted because I did a series of digital composites where I was combining models shot in the studio with live locations, a variation on the story of Adam and Eve. It becomes very painterly very quickly, but the rules of photography—perspective, lighting, color matching—all of those things still apply.

Images: Jaime Permuth, from Manhattan Mincha Map, 2003.

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