The writer and photographer Jason Francisco has written a powerful text-and-photo essay called “Footprints and Footsteps” centering on his attempts to re-imagine destroyed synagogues (or another building) by closely exploring the space — in many ways now a void — on which they stood. He writes:
Could I create a process of looking capable of conjuring that which was not there to be seen––a visual method that could counter absence? My strategy involved three simple actions: determining the footprint of the non-existent building; walking that footprint; making photographs that would cast the gaze into and through the walked space so as to create a space of conceptual projection in which the lost structure can dwell in the imagination.
The issue of how to mark the site of a synagogue or other building is one that has been discussed and debated for decades — one of the sites Francisco explores is the site of the destroyed Great Synagogue complex in Vilnius, now partially covered by a school. Archaeological excavations as currently under way there, and a conference on how to commemorate the site was held in early September.
There have been various solutions — the outline of the destroyed synagogue in Frankfurt, Germany was traced on the ground. The bimah, the only part of the synagogue in Tarnow, Poland, that survives, also stands in a space that traces the pre-Holocaust footprint. And the destroyed sanctuary of the Oranianburgerstrasse synagogue in Berlin was left open, while the ruined front part of the building was restored: a glass wall separates them.
In his essay, Francisco used maps and old pictures to locate the site of three destroyed buildings: the Great Synagogue in Vilnius, the synagogue in Stawiski, Poland, and the barn in Jedwabne, Poland where local Jews were herded and burned to death by their neighbors in 1941. He then took photographs of the site from various angles — locating those angles on the map.
All three of my experiments failed. None of my studying, mapping, walking, picture-making and geo-spatial imagining––my efforts to wind all of these into a single mental exercise with enough spring and heave to create something in the mind from nothing––none of it was enough. The invisible buildings did not ever really come to mind. At most they came close to coming to mind, the visual equivalent of having a word on the tip of your tongue, almost yours to speak but not quite. And I do not think that they come to mind through the sequences of pictures and maps here, either. I suppose I could ascribe it, at the least, to the cognitive gap that attends all photographs. As a medium, photography pronounces a conceptual space distinct from the optical space it sets forth. As a form of two-dimensional representation, photography is constantly solicitous of the third dimension––of architicture, of sculpture, of theater––just as photography’s strange and mercurial temporal stillness––at once fleeting and indefinite––is aloof toward media that more straightforwardly perform an experience of time, notably cinema.
On the other hand, I could say that all of these experiments succeeded, if it makes sense to speak of giving-shape to the nothing: not converting the nothing to a something, letting the nothing remain a nothing, but not an inert, formless nothing. Each of these experiments did succeed, at least a little, in retrieving the nothing from a condition of mere nothingness. Each managed to dynamize the nothing into some kind of shifting imaginative presence, in the manner of negative representation––the method of describing something by means of what it is not. When it comes to visualizing non-existing religious buildings, perhaps my experiments manage to cross paths with the tradition of apophatic theology, or the attempt to approach the divine in terms of what does not attach to it as being.