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2019 SPE Annual Conference: The Myths of Photography and the American Dream / Major support by The Joy Family Legacy Foundation

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Gail Rebhan

SPE Member since 1999
Member Chapter: Mid-Atlantic

Immigration/Assimilation

Integral to my various bodies of work is an interest in time and change. My artwork examines the specific and presents it in a larger social context. In past artwork, I tell the often-untold story of daily life at ordinary sites in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. I highlight how changing societal values and desires alter the location's function. I employ this same approach in my autobiographical work, using my family and myself as emblematic of an American family.

My projects can take the form of photo-collages, grids of photographs, artist's books, or public art. This allows me to explore time, change, and memory on an intimate or public scale.

In Immigration / Assimilation, I document the experience of several individual Jews under Hitler's reign in Europe and their immigration stories. I began with my parents and relatives. The work has broadened to include other families. I was always aware and thankful for my parent's immigration to the United States. My mother and most of her immediate family came to this country for a better life. Systemic anti-Semitism in Poland restricted their lives. My father and his family fled Nazi Germany in late 1938. Some pieces examine my father's experiences in Nazi Germany. Jewish Schools documents the 1935 segregation of Jewish public students, many of whom did not know and did not consider themselves Jewish. "Dyszman/Dishman" explores my mother's family immigration and assimilation from Poland to the United States. She came to this country with her mother and two sisters. Her four brothers' journeys were more complicated. This speaks, in part, to society's differing treatment of males and females. "Okuniewicz" concerns assimilation. My relative's surname was changed three times, culminating in an Anglo-Saxon version. Humorously, I analogize this to Superman's hidden identity: the creators of Superman were two Jews.

These photo-collages incorporate old passports, shipping manifests, newspaper articles, naturalization papers, photographs, clothing, and objects of symbolic importance. Using layers of various opacities, diverse time periods and objects are blended together. Text incorporated into the image completes the story. These
photo-collages are often the result of extensive historical research.

If my parents were not allowed to immigrate, they most likely would have perished in the Holocaust. People are often surprised to find out that my parents were immigrants. I suspect that is partially because immigration today is primarily seen as a racial issue. Throughout United States history every wave of immigration is simultaneously viewed with hostility and welcomed. Like so many first generation born Americans, my story is one of survival and success that reflects individual, family, and ethnic struggle. The United States is a nation of immigrants. This is what makes America great.

Our physical surroundings and family relationships are products of history. As James Baldwin said, "The great
source of history comes from the fact we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it … History is
literally present in all we do." My artwork attempts to make this visible.

Hitler Speaks

Jewish Schools

Tirza

Banned Books

Textil Wolf

Almost Two Years

M S Pilsudski

Wedding Ring

Hersch/Herman

Szajar/Saul

Dyszman/Dishman

Mom Always Thought She Was Part Irish

Okuniewicz

Funeral

Passover-Mother

English or German or Yiddish?

Diversity

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