Adam Golfer

A House Without a Roof

Essay by Janna Dyk

They sat on stumps in the dirt.” So A House Without a Roof begins with these simple seven words, a personal note by the New York-based photographer Adam Golfer, whose project recently migrated to an inter-genre book composed of equal-parts photographs and short stories that function together, published by the Greenpoint-based Booklyn Press and subsequently shortlisted for Aperture’s Paris Photo First PhotoBook Award 2016.

Golfer refers to the work as a negotiation of the memories and mythologies of his own personal past. His family “was implicated by the Nazi Holocaust… and almost everyone beyond [his] grandparents were lost.” The dynamic created for him a “desire to connect the imagined histories that echo back through such places as Lithuania, Latvia, Germany, Israel, and Palestine”. In particular, to trace the histories of violence and displacement that link them and, “…to question and draw connections between different geographies, peoples and times.”

It is through this intrapersonal archive of family photos, mementos, telegrams, emails, and imagined and remembered writings, that Golfer navigates both his family ties and representations of the complexities of Israel’s ongoing military occupation. Many of the book’s images are referenced in the appendix with contextualising information. “I was seeking out images in archives and on the internet that echoed pictures I’d already made, and other times creating new images that looked like pictures I’d found,” he has said. “In these moments, different time periods and places became difficult to distinguish from one another. The boundaries were starting to collapse.”

As such the book resides in the slippery space between reality and fiction, employing multiple, simultaneous narratives. Throughout the pages, there emerges the disorienting sense of locating oneself within a historic ‘home.’ Golfer references the novella, Returning to Haifa (1969), by the Palestinian writer, Ghassan Kanafani, the story wherein a Palestinian couple who fled Haifa in 1948 twenty years prior ventures back to revisit their native land. “The events were mixed up, the past and present running together, both in turn jumbled up with the thoughts and illusions and imaginings and feelings of the past… Had he known?… Sometimes he told himself, “Yes, I knew it even before it happened.”

A sentiment reiterative of Returning to Haifa occurred for Golfer in formulating A House Without a Roof, and is palpable in the book. Recalling the experience of visiting his grandmother’s (formerly confiscated) house in Lithuania, Golfer says, “I had spent a great deal of time reflecting on what it would be like to go to Lithuania and knock to see who was living there. But when I finally made it to the town, there was no door to knock on. This agitated against all these interrelated histories for me in a very tangible, ironic way… In my case, there was no door… It’s a reality that pairs with fiction, and suddenly it became about seeing the irony and tragedy together as a new reality.”

This moment appears in a photograph of the house, over which the addition of orange pencil delineates where once the door may have existed. So too resides an imagined exchange: “A knock on the door. An old man answers looking tired so I say, this is my house, and he says something to me in a tongue I don’t understand… I pick up my camera and click take a picture and now the man looks angry…I keep knocking.”

Perpetual knocking and doorlessness (or rooflessness – the title alludes to the practice of refugees avoiding finishing the roofs of temporary houses so as to emblematically proclaim their temporality), of the unfinished or closed-off, carries the book. Each time a text and following image creates meaning via its pairing, it collides in subsequent pages with material that complicates such reading. In a manner similar to the way text functions within a Walid Raad installation or the poetic compilations with archival images of Susan Howe, photographs appear to inform words only long enough to complicate, assembling, to quote Howe, “the confusion or juxtaposition between living truth or acting life.” Photographs inserted one atop the other become “like histories asserted and recombined over each other.” These seemingly unrelated parts form partial wholes that leave vital, poetic gaps.

Such partial understandings find in the book repeating visual devices, or “echoes,” as Golfer calls them. Two photographs of the same windshield are bound, side-by-side, as if seen from each eye while the other is closed. As the human body holds simultaneously two views with which the brain must negotiate (at times leaving or filling in blind spots), so too function these photographic homonyms as simultaneous perceptions. References to aspects of vision, of seeing and its limitations, gazing, and the tricks one’s perspective plays on itself, undulate throughout the texts and photographs. Two neighbouring blown-out windows in a depopulated 1948 house visually mimic a delicate pairing of David Ben Gurion’s dishtowels, creating emotional and philosophic blurring between them. In another spread, the eye-holes cut out for the mask of a Palestinian prisoner are repeated on the next page in an ocular shape within a house’s gate. So too a text relays, “a cat is staring at me. She is black with a white belly. I blink and she is grey. I cock my head to be sure, and she is black and white again.”

This perspectival uncertainty – actual grey area – is also relayed in abrupt, cinematic-like shifts detonated by flips between the images and text, interjecting narratives, and repeating onomatopoeic words such as “click,” “clack,” “BOOM,” “wham,” and “bing…” They serve as poetic devices that alternately reference an exterior eye’s view from a camera, the noise of military conflict, the mental-scene shifts that occur while wandering through free-associative thoughts, or the psychological syncing when something clicks that puncture and punctuate.

Golfer seems to suggest that such holes resemble the way that memory and history reside, as incomplete or non-wholes. This intuitive incompleteness reiterates in one of the final texts, a humoured exchange between three generations of individuals attempting to resolve an unspoken question about what is was like to live in Kaunas, Lithuania, before the war. Remaining unanswered, the section ends: “I look at Dad and he is laughing and then Poppop starts laughing too and I start laughing and I feel a bit embarrassed but somehow relieved. There is a roll of paper towels on the table, and I am not sure why, but I pick it up and throw it at Poppop. He catches it and laughs, and then something clicks.” Metonymically, a lot clicks in this moment, leaving one to return again.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Adam Golfer

Janna Dyk is an artist and independent curator based in New York. In 2015 she received a MFA from Hunter College, after studying Photography at the School of Visual Arts, and Literature and Spanish Linguistics in undergraduate.