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Portrait of the artist as ... well, everybody

Our past can be as unknowable as our future. For every family with rich stories passed from generation to generation, another sifts through fragmented memories. For every home with a gallery of framed family photos, there stands another with bare walls.

Photographer Rafael Goldchain faced his past and was dispirited by what he saw: too many painful gaps, too few records of his Polish-Jewish family, many of whom perished in the Holocaust after others had settled in South America. These absences were more apparent, the silences more amplified, when Goldchain became a father. As his son's identity took shape, so did Goldchain's need to connect him to his family's roots.

  • I Am My Family: Photographic Memories and Fictions, by Rafael Goldchain, Princeton Architectural Press, 168 pages, $42.30

Goldchain's bridge to the past is unlike any other. I Am My Family is a collection of self-portraits in which Goldchain poses as his ancestors, real and imagined. In his journey toward the vanished lives of a Poland he never knew, the Chile-born Goldchain - he now lives in Canada and teaches at the Sheridan Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Oakville, Ont. - uses digital tools and a seasoned actor's bag of old tricks: makeup, props, costumes, wigs.

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He transforms himself into a great-great grandparent holding a Yiddish newspaper, a musician wrapped in the joyful sound of his clarinet, a grey-haired, bearded elder like a thousand others from the shtetls of Eastern Europe.

Most of the portraits marry a sense of theatricality - some playful, others poignant - with Goldchain's mission, a process he describes as "an attempt to return to a historical/mythical place of origin from which I am irretrievably exiled." A few attempts fall short - Goldchain remains Goldchain - but most appear to be true to their time and are profoundly powerful as past and present merge before our eyes.

This faux authenticity can be genuinely affecting, as in the arresting portraits of Baruch Rubinsztajn and Zyndel Baumfeld. If a picture is a worth a thousand words, each of these men born in the late 1800s has a gaze worth a thousand more. Baumfeld stares at us with a simmering intensity that is discomfiting. Rubinsztajn looks baleful and resigned, as if breathing the damning air of Auschwitz itself. We forget that both are Goldchain himself, a tribute to his gifts as a photographer, and his will to inhabit an elusive moment in time.

Goldchain's imagination and technique seem boundless. In several portraits, he appears as a female relative, often to remarkable effect. Fur coats and stylish hats are only part of the package. The faces of these women - a tentative bride, a wistful great-aunt - have been shaded and sculpted as surely as if Goldchain had been using charcoal or clay.

Pushing boundaries further still, Goldchain creates memorable photographs of family members who never existed but might have found a place in the bough of his family tree. The book's subtitle is Photographic Memories and Fictions. In Goldchain's hands, fictional lives are made real as a tribute to those whose images and stories were extinguished. Left to absorb these fictions, one can't help but contemplate the questions they spawn. As curator Martha Langford notes in her introductory essay, I Am My Family "is as much about imagining as remembering, though this kind of imagining is a way of remembering."

One of the most striking of these fictions is Doña Reizl Goldsjazn Rozenfeld (as with many Jewish families, Goldchain's family name went through its own migrations). Goldchain describes her as a "middle-aged, stylish woman suffering from chronic, mild depression," while Langford sees her as a "slightly mad sister who fascinates her cousins, exasperates her parents, and brings her siblings regularly to the boil."

In "reading" this portrait of a woman who never was but might have been, Goldchain and Langford impose their own story on her. Inevitably, portraits are but one piece of a narrative we build to fill the unknown and unknowable landscape of past lives, real or imagined. Langford challenges us to move beyond the present tense as we construct these narratives. "It is not just a matter of 'Who are these people?' The real question, bursting the binding of the Goldchain family album, is 'Who did they dream of becoming?' "

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This haunting, unanswerable question frames several portraits, but another runs like a river beneath all of them. Each self-portrait doubles as a mirror for Goldchain and his son to stare into and ask: Who am I? The past is irretrievable but the search for identity remains timeless. I Am My Family is an invitation to reconstruct who we were to better understand who we are, and to consider the price paid when we forget.

Emil Sher is playwright-in-residence at Studio 180.

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