Several years ago, nationally renowned architectural photographer J. Miles Wolf was scoping out the Sherith Israel synagogue in Cincinnati’s Central Business District when he realized there was a problem.
Built in 1860, the Sherith Israel building is one of the oldest synagogues still standing in the United States, and the oldest west of the Allegheny Mountains. Now it houses condominiums – which makes for a less-than-satisfying view.
“There’s a big garage door, and there’s a couple of first floor windows that are bricked up,” Wolf said. “So when I photographed the building, I’m like, ‘these are kind of eyesores.’”
While editing the photo, Wolf turned to a familiar technique to try and make the image more appealing: Collaging. He overlaid historic black and white photos of Orthodox Cincinnati Jews who might have attended the synagogue, covering up the garage door and bricked windows. The end result told a story about the building that connected past and present. “This is really cool,” Wolf thought.
The collaged look has come to define Wolf’s photos of Jewish Cincinnati, compiled in the “Jewish Cincinnati: A Photographic Record” exhibit, a collaboration with the Cincinnati Skirball Museum and part of the FotoFocus Biennial project. The exhibit, featuring 36 photos of historic synagogues like Sherith Israel and Jewish institutions like the Jewish Hospital, runs through Jan. 29.
Wolf connected with the Skirball to photograph historic Jewish life after one of his images of a Cincinnati synagogue was featured in a Smithsonian exhibit on Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C.
“That really turned into one of the highlights of my career,” Wolf said. “So that generated some interest in exploring Jewish Cincinnati further. But really, it was just the desire to work with the Skirball Museum.”
Despite the subject, Wolf says there’s no deeply Jewish reason for his wanting to document historic Jewish buildings, like reconnecting with his roots or finding God. But he does have a newfound appreciation for how Jews have contributed to Cincinnati, and the community’s immigrant history – including his own family’s story.
“One of the really good finds that I came up with was in digging through a congregation’s archives that I knew my grandparents were members of,” Wolf said. “When I went to visit there, I was kind of excited. ‘Maybe I’ll find some photos of my grandparents.’ And, in fact, I did find photos that I had never seen before.”
Wolf incorporated his family’s photos into the collages for the exhibit, helping to build a deeper attachment to the photos he took. Personal connection to the synagogues, some of which are no longer standing, also define many of the conversations Wolf has around the exhibit.
“There’s still a lot of people alive that grew up here and that remember these buildings, but none of their kids or their grandchildren remember these buildings,” he said. “I really love the opportunity to meet with these people and discuss what it was like back then…[they light up] when they’re discussing their childhood and their memories of going to these synagogues.”
Wolf has been making collages for roughly 40 years, since he was a student at Tulane University, doing multiple exposure photography to manually overlay different images on one piece of paper. By the time of his first collaboration with the Skirball in 2018, he had left film photography and the collages behind. But working with digital images and Photoshop enticed him back into the practice.
“Once I revisited it…I’m like, ‘wow, this is so much easier doing this digitally than what I went through in the darkroom,’” Wolf said. “And it just opened up more avenues for doing some of these collage techniques.”
For Wolf, collaging is also a way to turn otherwise straightforward photos into works of art that appeal to a broad audience. Overlaying photos of the people that attended or built historic Jewish institutions in Cincinnati helps audiences relate more to the history they’re looking at, like seeing an image of Rabbi Dov Behr Manischwitz, who founded the kosher food juggernaut named after him, next to a historic photo of his original matzah factory.
“I admire [the buildings that were] there in the past, but by adding people to the compositions…I feel like I’ve kind of broadened the reach of the Jewish history of Cincinnati by making this art that I really feel is gonna survive well beyond my years,” Wolf said. “I feel like I’m doing a good mitzvah for the Jewish community by having this history have a new look to it.”
Documenting Jewish Cincinnati also fulfills another mission for Wolf: Preserving historic architecture. Many of the synagogue buildings he documents no longer exist, swept away by urban renewal projects, including the demolition of the 155-year-old Ahavath Achim synagogue in 2020.
As a member of the Cincinnati Preservation Association, Wolf advocates for old buildings to be repurposed rather than destroyed, like the Sherith Israel synagogue was after a contentious battle in the late 1990s over officially declaring the building “historic.” Though the City Council voted against the historic designation, it narrowly avoided being demolished.
“It’s great to save the old architecture, and if there’s a story behind it, that just adds to the value of that building,” Wolf said. “There are a few former synagogue buildings that are right next to an area of development right now. And I feel that they are in danger. If I get the opportunity and the platform, I would encourage [the city] to save these buildings.”
Find more information about exhibit programs, and plan your visit to the Skirball, at this link.