iShadow knows

Nadine Epstein’s “Shin/Heh” features silhouettes of the photographer’s hands.
Photo courtesy of Nadine Epstein

In the play of shadow and light, sun and shade, photographer Nadine Epstein discovered inspiration.

“I was transfixed by the fleetingness of shadows,” she wrote, “… about how shadows marked my existence as a person, particularly as a woman.” Thus Epstein has made impermanence fixed. Using her iPhone, she has been shooting her own shadow and the shadows of ordinary objects — buildings, trees, window panes, monuments, fallen leaves — for nearly a decade.

At the recently inaugurated AG Gallery in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, 11 of Epstein’s photomontages are on display. The private gallery owned and operated by Washington super lawyer — and artist — Allan Gerson is open weekdays during business hours by appointment only.

The show, “In a Woman’s Shadow,” is aptly named because each work features Epstein — or, actually, Epstein’s shadow. One might call them selfies, but that is far too simplistic for what happens in her well-considered and mediated photographs.

Epstein noted that she had long been a quiet multimedia artist, sketching, collaging, painting, but with the demands of writing, editing and publishing, she had to set aside her sketch books and canvases. The iPhone became her medium of choice for its ease and portability.

By day, Epstein is editor and publisher of the Jewish magazine Moment, but she squeezes in time for art-making, sometimes between, or even during a meeting, or on a reporting trip to Israel or Europe. It might be a breeze through a window in Israel, the light play of the curtains and the shadow of her torso looking like a darkened marble sculpture.

Later she’ll work with the photos as a collagist — aligning them in grids, duplicating them, or flipping and mirroring images, like modern-day Rorschachs. She calls it “folding the photos into each other or even into themselves.” The results: evocative, mysterious, captivating, often mandala-like in the rhythmic repetition of images.

“Uman,” one of Epstein’s first iShadow photos, was taken on Rosh Hashanah in 2008 during a reporting trip to the Ukrainian city where chasidic master Rabbi Nachman is buried. Annually, tens of thousands of chasidic men make a pilgrimage to his grave. But the photo, a self portrait, is not of crowds of black-coated men. It’s Epstein’s shadow on the rough white concrete, a dozen or so fall leaves punctuating the heavy blackness of the cloaked, shadowy figure.

Stolpersteine are the stumbling stones placed on sidewalks and pathways of German cities to mark where Jews once lived or worked. In “Stolpersteine” Epstein captures and produces a pattern — the mundanity of walking steps — by repeating the image until it transforms into something completely different and feels more like a woven tapestry than a photographic image. And, not coincidentally, the geometry of the duplicated image resembles a series of stars of David.

While she does not necessarily set out to craft images with Jewish themes or subjects, because her work and life revolves around Jewish culture, history and politics in producing a Jewish magazine, Jewish themes seemingly foreshadow most of her works.

These works often dance, as motion, light and darkness are captured in a flash of the camera.

“Shin/Heh,” shot in 2011 features silhouettes of the photographer’s hands, her profile and the Hebrew letter shin. “Blue Talis,” too, captures a sense of movement. Epstein describes the shooting, outside her New Jersey childhood home as taking place during the “Golden Hour,” that time of day when sunlight is lower in the sky. She played with the drape of her dress and a scarf to again capture an effect that is evocative of hands poised in a Jewish priestly blessing, enwrapped in the shadowy cloth that resembles a tallit.

Literature, film, even Torah, tend to regard shadows in a negative light. Light equals godliness while shadows symbolize distance from God. Yet, Epstein has found in light and darkness not an allegory, but a metaphor for the interplay between them. Her iShadow Project reveals the beauty, the symmetry, the dance between light and dark.

Rabbi Nachman said: “When you succeed in nullifying the shadow completely, turning everything into absolute nothingness, then God’s glory is revealed in all the world.”

Epstein doesn’t nullify the shadows, she underscores them, to bring to bear the beauty and mystery that shadows convey in the light.

“iShadow Project: In a Woman’s Shadow,” photography by Nadine Epstein through Dec. 4. AG Gallery, 2131 S St. NW, Washington. Open during business hours by appointment only. Call 202-234-9717 or email [email protected].

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