Inspired by a collection of objects left behind by her grandmother, Hannah Altman builds a visual world to explore the customs retold and translated over time across the Jewish diaspora.
Standing in the middle of a room previously inhabited by a now-absent figure can conjure an eerily potent atmosphere, traceable through sensations rather than words. Perhaps it’s because so much of what shapes the edges of any individual’s persona resides within the colors they prefer, their cooking and cleaning smells, or the sounds they regularly hear emanating from the pipes in their walls or a creak in their floorboards. When a person’s body exits their habitat, all the things that previously swirled in and around their tangible body remain, suspended in the air in a thick, viscous hum. These remnants permeate the objects the person leaves behind, too, charged with energy, appearing as sentient creatures rather than a lifeless pile of stuff.
When photographer Hannah Altman’s grandmother passed away in 2017, she left an interesting collection of objects in her home, some detailing her life, some used for Jewish ritual, and some broken and incomplete. The objects felt like a composite of her grandmother’s life, and as a photographer, Altman decided to document them with her camera. “I started photographing the Judaica in her collection, thinking about how objects are used and what stories they tell,” she explains. After establishing familiarity with the remnants, Altman shifted into world-making beyond the isolated documentation of trinkets, initiating a ripple effect in her own understanding of her new visual world. She reflects, “I photographed the Jewish objects, and then Jewish rituals, and then Jewish folklore, and it became clear to me that this idea of storytelling through Judaica extended beyond my immediate bloodline, into the collective Jewish community, which is deeply shaped by customs that are retold and retranslated over time.”
The images in A Permanent Home in the Mouth of the Sun tap into that thick, sentient atmosphere that replaces an absence, the glow and magic of natural light warming the skin of her subjects. All senses are engaged in Altman’s visuals: you can feel them, smell them, and hear them, too. This representation of Jewishness has everything to do with its mystical components, rather than the contemporary identity checkbox on a government form. “For much of my life, my entry points to Jewish identity existed at the edge of a few very narrow pathways,” Altman explains. “American conversations about Jewishness often revolve around corporate Holocaust education, arguments about Israel-Palestine, and fabricated ‘Judeo-Christian’ values. We talk so much about loss, land, and American assimilation. These are substantial topics with a lot of important discourse, but Jewish spirituality and customs are often missing from these conversations.”
Seeking out this sacred space, Altman found the energy and intention behind the project shift into something more meaningful. “I want my work to start to fill these mysticism gaps,” she explains. “I want these images to function as a site that emphasizes Jewish ideas beyond the physical by photographing folklore, sacred time, community rituals—the aspects of Jewish practice that are full of ghosts, but they themselves do not die.”
As I look through Altman’s photographs, their metaphorical allusions feel so natural that they sometimes go unnoticed. The scenes feel slow and measured, almost like slo-mo stills from a tumbling, energized film. Out of all the ways to approach the topic of folklore, the mechanistic technicalities of photography are not an intuitive choice. When I bring this up to Altman, she reflects, “I agree that more folkloric and narrative Jewish practices are not heavily documented with photographs. However, luckily for me, they are thoroughly documented through oral and written word.” Her answer makes me realize why these photographs activate every one of my senses, the visuals themselves almost emerging as a footnote—a counterintuitive ranking of senses for images, for photographs.
“Because so much of folklore undergoes constant retranslations and takes on different meanings, there are so many ways to approach these Jewish stories,” Altman explains. “In this setup, the camera is the constant and the interpretation is the variable. Much of Jewish mythology emphasizes a spiralling, cyclical nature of time. There is a deep sense of memory that transcends one person’s experiences and becomes living historical content. I love this idea in relation to photographs, because images also bear the weight of being documentation of the past, viewed in the present, to shape the visual landscape of the future.”
In fact, Altman’s photographs pull me out of the technological understanding of her medium, almost like I envision her making images without a piece of machinery at all, instead capturing the photos through her retinas and sharing a glimpse of the stills in her mind’s eye. When asked about how these themes naturally dance with photography, she again speaks as though standing in a delicious, fantastical realm. “Jewish ritual and photography are both so much about time. They revolve around the sun and its relationship to action, they pose questions about motifs and interpretations, and they value the creation of an archive and how we can commit it to memory.”
After spending years creating her own mythical archive in A Permanent Home, Altman hopes that her images can help expand the narrow perception of Judaism that she herself felt confined by before pursuing its ephemeral components. “Jewish writer Dara Horn published a book about similar ideas called People Love Dead Jews, which includes a quote about Jewish identity politics, saying, ‘Sometimes your body is someone else’s haunted house. Other people look at you and can see only the dead.’ The way that Jewish identity is explored and visually represented shapes the way we see ourselves and the way others see us. Jewish bodies may be seen as a haunted house, but this project leans into this past and presents Jewish practice as a many-storeyed home, teeming with life, not limited by a ceiling.”