Black on White

May 1, 2012
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Silvio Wolf

Photography and Torah are based upon an exegetic practice. Photography bases its investigation on physical data — what is “seen.” But the perceivable appearance of what is seen, what is real, is also the first level of a deep complexity and the root of myriad visual interpretations. Through the contrast of dark and light, photography re-inscribes the alphabet of visible reality. Of all light, only a part is shaped into an image; photographs are the traces of reflected light, that portion of light that the objects give back to us. We see a small portion of the wholeness — the mold, the cast of reality, not its completeness. While we experience absence because of the missing information, this absence alludes to wholeness.

Traditionally, the Torah can be read at various levels of interpretation, the first level being literal. We begin with the written words — black marks on white paper. In the explication of the text, we question the missing parts as if they are invisible signs absent of ink that complete the original text. The blank spaces give meaning to the visible ones and allow further interpretation.

Black and white complete each other as in photography, where shadow and darkness are indispensable to the suggestion of light. The juxtaposition of darkness within the continuum of light generates the image. According to our sacred text, limits create and define space. The Kabbalists write that God — through tzimtzum, the act of withdrawal and contraction — generated a void in which to create the universe.

In photography, the subtraction of light renders the experience of light possible; it creates a symbolic space for the image to be revealed. A photograph becomes a multilayered text waiting to be read, deciphered, and interpreted. Photography is a codified transcription of the “real,” a means to undertake a visual exegesis prompted by its first and literal level: the image of the evident objects. Any subsequent readings and meanings are rendered manifest through a hermeneutic process; new interpretations will spring from the depth of the apparently flat surface of the image. As with the sacred texts, all the meanings are contained within its boundaries, simultaneously present and waiting to be discovered and revealed. As with the Torah, visible reality has an inexhaustible reserve of understandings.

Reality may host infinite images: Photographs are scattered fragments of truth belonging to a unity. Photography explores the mystery of what cannot be seen through its literal vision, the invisible words inscribed in an apparent reality.


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Born in Milan, Silvio Wolf received a higher diploma in advanced photography at the London College of Printing. Over time, he has moved away from the pure two-dimensional format of photography, creating multimedia projects and sound installations. His works appear in galleries, museums, and public spaces in Belgium, Canada, England, France, Germany, Italy, Korea, Luxembourg, Spain, Switzerland, and the United States. He teaches photography at the European Institute of Design in Milan, and at the School of Visual Arts in New York. His work can be viewed at:

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