Portraits of Undeniable Presence

Shterna Goldbloom | MFA 19 Photography

Shterna Goldbloom MFA 19 PH was in her teens when she moved away from her ultra-orthodox community in Chicago and her world began to expand. “My mother opened up our home to people from all over the US for whom the Hasidic world was too small or boxed in,” says the grad student in Photography. “It was that dialogue that made me decide to start on what I’ve been making ever since.” Goldbloom’s work focuses on the intersection of queer and Hasidic identities and the challenges of finding community in exile.

Having just won the RISD Museum's 2019 Dorner Prize, Goldbloom will have the opportunity to showcase this work to a larger public in the Chace Center lobby this spring. Here the photographer talks about this ongoing project and the community and opportunities she has found at RISD.

Were you a creative kid or did making become part of your life later on?
I think art was a force in my life way before anyone wanted it to be. It wasn’t especially valued in the lubavitch community I grew up in, but my mother is a creative writer—and is really invested in art—so she always encouraged that part of me to develop. When I asked for a camera in the fourth grade, she got it for me—and then I started photographing my family.

“Photography carves out visibility and a physical presence for an identity that wasn’t spoken of in the community in which I was raised.”

Do you think the seeds of your current project were already growing then?
Yeah… but in unconscious ways. I thought I wanted to be a fashion photographer or even a fashion designer when I started my BA [at Columbia College in Chicago]. I think I was pushing away from making work about my community and the way I was raised and my critique of those things.

But then I met Riva Lehrer, an amazing artist from Chicago who makes work about disability. We talked about how hard it was for her at first to paint self-portraits before realizing that was actually the work she wanted to do. I felt a similar hesitation about focusing on Hasidic themes or my own background because I had all of these hangups about how I was raised, how I was weird. But art has a beautiful capacity to allow you to work things through.

work in progress from Goldbloom’s thesis project

What is it about photography that’s suited to your exploration of identity?
There are many other mediums that can speak to these ideas just as well. But the reason I’m particularly invested in photography for depicting queer Hasidism and orthodox/ex-orthodox Jews is that it carves out visibility and a physical presence for an identity that wasn’t spoken of in the community in which I was raised.

That said, photography’s strength is also its weakness. I think a lot about what I should and shouldn’t show in my photos and how to make those decisions ethically and respectfully.

What drew you to RISD?
After I [earned my BA] I began teaching art in an afterschool program at the Jewish Enrichment Center in Chicago and was really excited about the classroom conversations we were having there. I wanted to keep teaching, and RISD offers grad students opportunities to teach, a teaching certificate program and other things that appealed to me.

I also got a good vibe from the interview. [Afterward] I thought, ‘This is a community I really want to be a part of—to be surrounded by people who can push how I think in a positive way.’

Who here has influenced you?
Odette England MFA 12 PH [the graduate program director in Photography] has completely transformed my experience here. She’s so supportive and has offered me numerous opportunities. And if she sees something that she thinks needs to get done or that should exist [in the program], she just creates it. I can’t sing her praises enough.

“I’ve never felt more like a practicing artist than I do here.”

I’ve also found a great community at Co-Works, where I’m an instructor. I love what David Kim MFA 14 DM and Brynn Trusewicz MID 16 are doing to help create a more inclusive future at RISD. I’ve learned about new equipment and found so many friends and peers there to talk with [that it] has helped me think about different ways to work. It exudes inspiration.

How has your work evolved here?
It’s evolved immensely. I had never had a studio before coming here, so trying to figure out how to make that space productive and useful is cool. As far as process, I came here thinking: ‘I’m going to learn 4x5” photography and take formal portraits and it’s going to be kind of simple.’ But my [conceptual] framework has gotten far more complex.

I did find out that lugging a 4x5” camera and equipment all around NYC sucks and took all the joy out of what I was doing—but then I started playing around with UV printing and making narrative manuscripts out of leather pieces, and made a clothing line and a zine based on hair and material culture….

All these playful projects broke up the way I was thinking about my work and will feed into my thesis installation in a very concrete way.

Anything else that has changed by being at RISD?
I’ve never felt more like a practicing artist than I do here. It’s a beautiful thing to think about how this experience might lead to something else.

And what do you see as next after graduation?
I think the work I’ve been creating here is not a two-year project. There are a lot of different parts that I still need to bring to light and will be working on for a long time.

I’m an artist: I’ll make work. I don’t know what it will be or how it will come about, but I’ll make work.

Robert Albanese