By Susan Tomchin
For acclaimed portrait artist Gay Block, photography has always been personal—a way to understand more about life, values and her own relationships. A selection of 219 of Block’s most intimate and moving portraits over her 35-year career appear in About Love, an oversized book issued this fall by Radius Books, a nonprofit publisher whose mission is to promote and publish books of artistic and cultural value.
The portraits are organized chronologically and include Block’s landmark work with her partner, writer Malka Drucker: Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust, as well as Camp Girls and her compelling photos of elderly Jews in Miami’s South Beach in the 1980s. Filmmaking has also been an important part of Block’s work. The book includes two DVDs featuring five films associated with her photographic series, as well as a revealing interview with Block by noted photography curator Anne Wilkes Tucker.
Block was already 31, married and the mother of two when she started studying photography, inspired in part by the work of Diane Arbus. Among her first portrait subjects were members of the Houston Jewish community where she grew up. Her approach was in-depth and thoughtful; she conducted extensive taped conversations with her subjects in addition to photographing them. Critical of the watered-down Jewish values and the trappings of affluence she had seen in her parents’ home, she initially disapproved of her subjects. However, as she talked to them and asked them about their lives, she came to understand and like them.
Block’s photos derive power and resonance from her compassion for her subjects, which include Jewish matrons around a bridge table; an artist standing with her canvases, her daughter by her side; the singer Debbie Friedman, with whom Block says she had her first lesbian relationship; elderly Jews joyfully sunning themselves on the beach in South Miami; a French woman at her kitchen table, the set of her chin and her firm gaze offering hints of her wartime bravery; a prepubescent girl lying on her bunk at summer camp; and members of the gay community of Santa Fe, where Block now lives.
Also included in the book are photos Block took of her mother, from her younger years to late in life, after she had suffered a stroke. Block spent 10 years working on Bertha Alyce: Mother exPosed, a book, video and exhibit about this woman with whom she had a deeply troubled relationship. The process, Block writes, was “something like self-analysis” and ultimately gave her the ability to forgive her mother and, in fact, to miss her after her passing.