Dear Robert – Joel Kantor


‘Dear Robert’ is Joel Kantor’s most recent iBook, released just earlier this month.

“Along the way an exhibit, a letter or an award helped me to accept photography as a central part of my life.” (2010) Joel Kantor uses photography as a way to collect what he thinks is memorable and interesting; from looking at his work he has worked with subjects to tell their story. Such as an interview with an Auschwitz survivor who works as a shoemaker for his neighbourhood and also Dan Fenigstein, a survivor of torture from the Israeli Secret Service. Many of his earlier projects sought to tell stories about Jewish communities. Looking at some of his other photographic projects such as ‘Memorabilia’ it appears that Kantor has been working with his own archives to create a narrative of his life. The project hasn’t got an artist statement and so the viewer is drawn into the details of the collages he has photographed.

© Joel Kantor, Memorabilia
© Joel Kantor, Memorabilia

‘Dear Robert’ explores the growing relationship Kantor had with Robert Frank over several years of letter correspondences. Unlike any of his previous publications, ‘Dear Robert’ takes form of a digital iBook, allowing for these letters to come to life.

An artist’s book based on letters and meetings between Joel Kantor and Robert Frank between 2001 and 2014. Several hundred letters were exchanged, some of which form the core of this book. A record of the friendship that developed between the two artists, the letters are extensively illustrated with photographs, videos, sketches, stickers, watercolors, polaroids and postcards. They are laced with humour and speak about daily trials, surroundings, health, projects, travel, and family, as well as exchanging thoughts on art and whatever else gives life meaning.

Robert Frank reflects on his life in an uninhibited manner, writing generally from Mabou, Nova Scotia, but also from New York, Switzerland and China. Health issues accompany him on his travels but do not stop him from appreciating the beauty of nature that surrounds him. Joel Kantor writes a lot about Israel, and particularly Jerusalem, where he lives; he describes his daily life during a period of terror and war in the Holy Land. Inasmuch as Robert Frank lived in Zurich during the Second World War, issues of Jewish identity arise in the correspondence.

Politics and racism are discussed in a non-academic manner and from the gut. The book raises questions about being Jewish in the life of two men who are not in any way religious. It notes the rise of antisemitism at a time and in a world where it is generally not politically correct to speak in these terms, though it is acceptable to speak of anti-Zionism. It focuses on a shared concern for the survival of the State of Israel in a rapidly changing world where, in shaping opinion, the virtual is often more powerful than the real. 

This book is a curation of a mass of content: condensing several hundred letters into a narrative is no feat. In the introduction, written by Kantor himself, he explains the relationship and his attachment to the letters as ‘a shelter of loneliness’. This instantly makes the viewer intrigued into how significant these letters and conversations were to Kantor.

Kantor and Frank both talk about their religion, Judaism, and the struggles they face with their identity and threat of terror. On just page 5, Kantor writes about the destructive destiny of ‘Our people in their homeland’ and that the ‘impressive fog that settles on Jerusalem’ is the only thing that is clear. It is clear that Frank and Kantor are visual artists, working with metaphors to portray their political thoughts about their religion.

With such a strong start to the book, highlighting Kantor’s fears in Jerusalem, it is soon uplifted with dry humour: “did anyone ever take a better picture of you?”. We see a post-it note style note with an image of Robert Frank, I assume taken by Kantor. Following on, a letter from Frank talking about the weather and his happiness of Kantor’s letters. The viewer is really pulled into this friendship, captivated by different emotions in three words.

Interaction/ Digitisation

Several pages which are of photographs of the artefacts, be it short notes, postcards of full letters from Robert, there is a book icon for the user to press to read the typed version, should Robert’s writing be difficult to read. This interaction and transcription means that Roberts words can be translated into other languages; but the original artefact is still on show.

The photographs of the artefacts can be pressed and enlarged to see the finer details more closely. The book is also responsive to whether you hold the iPad portrait or landscape. I believe that having the option to enlarge images makes the viewer really become as involved in the story as Frank and Kantor. The hand written notes really adds this sense of ‘identity’- being able to see the different writing styles rather than strictly seeing the typed versions. The writing also brings validity and truth: the ‘evidence’ (so to speak) isn’t tampered or misquoted.

Kantor has also included short videos into the iBook, this gives a rest for the viewer as although enlarging pictures and letters is engaging, it can also become rather a chore. I find myself having to read short passages at a time. But, considering that Kantor does to a lot of work with moving picture, having this included in the book really shows us that he not only wants to include his ‘identity’ but he also embraces a new form of showcasing work this work.

Like with a lot of talk about digitising archives, what is the permanence of this book? Will it stand the test of time as iPads become more sophisticated? Will this book always be compatible? Needless to say already that there is a narrow audience available to access this project: iBooks is an application for Apple iPad and Mac, unavailable to Android. The iBook making software is great: as shown by Kantor himself, displaying how well an iBook can be made; but it is a shame that this book cannot be distributed to the masses.

I think that this iBook is fabulous. It allows us to reconsider how current audiences can interact with archives. But I can but help think that experiencing these archives in a form of exhibition would be amazing: instead of keeping the archives digitally at arms length, allow audiences to see the real thing. I think this iBook has the capability of increasing interest and intrigue in this collection, thus in the future, making a successful exhibition.

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