Monday, November 7, 2016

Interview With Photographer & Author Marisa Scheinfeld

The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland

1.      What is your new book about? 
The Borscht Belt: Revisiting the Remains of America’s Jewish Vacationland (Cornell University Press) presents a contemporary view of more than forty hotel and bungalow sites of the former Borscht Belt, a resort area located in New York’s Catskill Mountains. It is also the region where I grew up. 

Today the Borscht Belt is recalled through the nostalgic lens of summer swims, Saturday night dances, and comedy performances. But its current state, like that of many other formerly glorious regions, is nothing like its earlier status. Forgotten about and exhausted, much of its structural environment has been left to decay. The Borscht Belt, which features essays by Stefan Kanfer and Jenna Weissman Joselit, presents my photographs of abandoned sites where resorts, hotels and bungalow colonies once boomed in the Catskill Mountain region of upstate New York. 

The book assembles images I shot inside and outside locations that once buzzed with life as year-round havens for generations of people. Some of the structures have been lying abandoned for periods ranging from four to twenty years, depending on the specific hotel, or bungalow colony, and the conditions under which it closed. Other sites have since been demolished, or repurposed, making this book an even more significant documentation of a pivotal era in American Jewish history. 

From entire expanses of abandoned properties to small lots containing drained swimming pools, the remains of the Borscht Belt era now lie forgotten, overgrown, and vacant. In the absence of human activity, nature has reclaimed the sites, having encroached upon or completely overtaken them. Many of the interiors have been vandalized or marked by paintball players and graffiti artists. Each ruin lies radically altered by the elements and effects of time. My images record all of these developments.

2.      What inspired its creation?
Four words: “Shoot what you know.” These words came from a mentor/friend when I was quite confused about my next project.  I knew my hometown region had a vibrant past that in the physical sense was slipping away. The sites and locations where the Borscht Belt occurred, if they hadn’t been repurposed or knocked down, were lying in various states of ruin throughout the county. Eyesores to many and signs of stagnation and lack of development to others, but to me, places of intrigue and narrative. 

3.      What was the book process like--- how hard was it to select what to include or exclude? Was it challenging to put words to images for the book? 
It was easy to select certain images that had to be included – for various reasons but mainly because they were great photographs. Others were harder to let go of; whether the idea was redundant (a plant growing through floor, an outdoor pool that had morphed into a pond, etc.) or the photograph just wasn’t as good as it could be to grace an entire page. Sometimes, this meant not only cutting a specific photograph but also a specific hotel or bungalow colony. In total, the book contains 40 hotel or bungalow colony sites. Of course I wanted more, but I needed to make edits, and only could include so many images in the book. 

4.      Your book pays homage to the Catskills world. What was it like in its heyday?
I’d say the book is an elegy to a lost world, and in many ways about loss and change. 

The Borscht Belt was the preeminent destination for tens of thousands of predominantly east coast American Jews from the 1920s through the mid-1960s. Located ninety miles northwest of New York City, it was known internationally as a summer retreat for entertainment and leisure, though the tourism industry operated year round. For more than forty-five years, the Borscht Belt reigned supreme in the American Jewish experience, exerted a strong influence on the cultural and economic landscape of New York State at large, and shaped popular American culture and imagination. It has been said the Borscht Belt was comprised of over 500 hotels and 50,000 bungalows. During its heyday it was the place to be, frequented by celebrities, entertainers, musical acts, singers, dignitaries, individuals, and families. It forged many social and cultural bonds that extend to the present day. The era also hugely impacted American popular culture with many of the said entertainers, singers, comedians who got their start on the stages of the resorts (Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Jackie Mason, Rodney Dangerfield, Joan Rivers, and even, Jerry Seinfeld played the hotels in the early 80s). 

5.      There's something haunting but romantic about your images, kind of like looking at images of recovered Titanic remains, no? 
It’s a peculiar beauty, spooky, eerie, and yes, romantic. I think the ruin evokes the gamut of feelings from light to dark. Remnants, relics, whatever you want to call them, initially there’s a basic wow factor and questions of why and how this happened, then the feelings shift to those of sadness, sublime, and sometimes confusion, or utter bewilderment. No matter what feelings are stirred, I do look at the ruin as a place of vitality, and not one that is dead or inert. These sites have withstood time and are still active powers, collapsing and regenerating with each season. From the research to the image making to the final edits on the photographic prints, each return to the ruins of the Borscht Belt reveals an outer landscape that is continually changing. 

6.      You are Brooklyn-born and attended SUNY Albany. You could be my twin! When did you know you wanted to pursue photography?
I took a black and white photography class at age 16 and was hooked by the magic of the darkroom, the developer, the hands-on process, and even, the smell of the chemicals. I love that smell. I was born in Brooklyn in 1980 but moved to the Catskills (Kiamesha Lake, NY) in the mid-1980s. My dad didn’t want to raise his family in the city and accepted a job up there. He took it, partly because like so many, it was the place where he had some of the best memories of his life. I am a 1998 graduate of Monticello High School, a 2002 graduate of SUNY Albany (B.A. in Studio Art/Photography) and a 2011 graduate of San Diego State University (M.F.A. in Studio Art/Photography). But while I do have the training per se, art isn’t about training, to me, its about feeling and expressing those feelings through one’s medium of choice. For myself, I always gravitated towards the arts, even at a young age. I was never so great at drawing or painting, but when I found a camera and learned how to use it, I also learned that is a powerful tool to convey thoughts, ideas and messages. 

7.      Could you do a photo-book series on abandoned or decrepit homes, bordered theaters, or abandoned places?
Probably, but for this project and during this time, I was solely interested in the abandoned vestiges of the Borscht Belt (i.e.: hotels, resorts and bungalow colonies). 

8.      What do you strive to do with your work?
Make people look at the images I make for longer than one second. 

9.      How is shooting photography similar to writing books?
There are major differences I gather but the parallels that quickly come to mind are about intention, thought, composition on a page or in a frame, and selective, objective editing. 

10.  Is the quality of photography suffering when fewer people buy quality cameras and too many rely on their smartphone to capture the world around them?
Undeniably. We live in such a digital world. It was Erykah Badu who said, “I’m an analog girl in a digital world,” and that line has resonated with me for years. It’s so easy to snap away, endlessly and without thought. The ease of technology has made society at large slower. Photography at large still has so many interesting and thoughtful people working in the field, but to the amateur, or the hobbyist, or the barrage of images on social media, many (not all) are sharp-shooter images made very quickly, and posted just as quickly. Of course, I am a victim of the social world. How can one not be? When I was in high school we had dial up Internet! Could anyone nowadays imagine waiting for a signal! Now, you just click and you’re connected. With regard to photography however, I think it’s essential that photographers are fluent in both languages (film and digital) because for me, film is the language of thought, and honestly, it has more soul. I began this project digitally but soon crossed over to film. It slowed me down, forced me to consider my images (16 exposures on a roll of film vs. thousands on a memory card). It also has truer color, and more detail, and like I said…it has soul. 

11.  Is seeing your images in a printed book better than circulating them digitally?
Without a doubt. For me, there is nothing like the physical action of holding a book in one’s hands, looking through it, spending time with it. While digital circulation is fantastic, and has its pros, a major con of it is a loss of the actual holding & looking experience. Furthermore, it’s rough on the eyes. 

12.  How do you photograph what a person feels or thinks?
You tap into them - you give some of yourself, while asking them to give part of them. It is an exchange, a collaboration, not just a one sided I-am-making-the-photograph-and-you-pose-for-it-sort-of-thing. It’s practically intimate. Henri Cartier Bresson once said, “you have to try and put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt which is not a very easy thing. And the attitudes of people are so different in front of a camera. Some embarrassed, some are ashamed, some hate to be photographed and others are showing off. You feel people very quickly. You see people naked through the viewfinder, you see them strip naked.” The interview is worth a watch, its very inspiring, whimsical 18 minutes of your life and he’s just straight phenomenal:

13.  Do you have any advice to struggling photographers?
My advice is similar to the four words passed on to me when I was struggling with content and subject matter. “Shoot what you know.” I think these simple yet poignant words are appropriate for any photographer, writer, artist, musician, etcetera, who wrestling with a specific focus to pursue. For me, Sullivan County, also known the Borscht Belt was the place I grew up, worked, lived, and in turn, the place I know. Revisiting it was a way to not only reconnect with myself but with the immense history of the area, through a contemporary lens. 

14.  Where do you see book-publishing heading?
This is a difficult question for me as this is my first book and working on it, was like working in a vacuum, albeit the handful or two of (amazing) people from Cornell University Press such as my editor, book designer, copy editor, and also my mentor, who helped me layout the book. Getting the book deal was not easy, but it was something I was not going to give up on. The direction of publishing is a question I think best asked to someone in the field itself, but I do not think people at large will ever cease to put down books in exchange for digital versions. I also think there will eventually be a movement away from technology, and back to the basics – book reading, letter writing, and more one on one communication/conversation, and even phone calls (and not just texting)! We are al victims of a technologically driven society, sometimes to a fault. The other day my grandmother was on the phone with me saying, “all you kids do is text, you’re always with the phone,” from her perspective, it must be very interesting and also possibly overwhelming to witness. I try to look at it from her vantage point. As for book publishing, it’s intense and I learned so much with this first book. I hope to carry that knowledge on to a second.

If you want to check out her work, I encourage you to consult: or! 

Note: I visited her exhibit and bought a copy of her book. It is a truly interesting approach, artistically and culturally, to capture a time and place in this manner. 

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog 2016 ©.
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