For over three decades Gay Block sectioned society into groups that she could then portray through acute photographs of its members. Some of the projects were commissions. She began in the mid-seventies with members of the Jewish community in Houston (her hometown), which was a project for a significant anniversary of her synagogue. Other commissions in the eighties included work-and-home portraits of employees of a Texas grocery store chain and portraits of Texas artists. She has produced two books in collaboration with her partner Malka Drucker: Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust (1992), for which they photographed and interviewed 105 rescuers from 10 countries, and White Fire: A Portrait of Women Spiritual Leaders in America (2003). The traveling exhibition for Rescuers has been to over 50 venues in the US and abroad. In 1981, Block photographed girls at Camp Pincliffe, and has recently sought out those same girls to investigate who they are now, twenty-five years later. Also in the early 1980s, she photographed Jewish pensioners in South Miami Beach, and most recently, she has photographed lesbians in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She photographed her mother from 1973 until Bertha Alyce’s death in 1991.
Block started working in black-and-white, but switched primarily to color in the 1980s. She often videotapes interviews as well as photographs her subjects and has edited those tapes into four different documentaries. Her most fully realized project was the three part remembrance of her mother: an award-winning video, a traveling exhibition of video, appropriated images and portraits, and a book, Bertha Alyce: Mother ExPosed in which she searched for a way to redeem her difficult mother. While she works in series, her camera is usually close at hand and many of her most piercing images are single portraits of people, ranging from a friend of 30 years to a young girl whom she saw in a parking lot and asked if she minded being photographed.
The title of Block’s exhibition is Portrait Projects, but it could also have been Close to Home. Even when she is photographing rescuers or spiritual leaders in distant locations, she has selected themes that embody her own personal quests. She has always said, “My portraits are my truth, not necessarily THE truth”. Photographing different Jewish communities was part of her coming to terms with being a politically liberal, Jewish woman in the second-half of the twentieth century. An early project photographing people nude and clothed related to her questioning values associated with body image. Her photographs at Camp Pincliffe relate to her own attendance at that camp decades earlier and the subsequent attendance of her daughter the year she photographed the campers. Many of the women in Out in Santa Fe are her friends or they are lesbians who frequent the same dance club as she and her partner. Block is a wise, empathetic woman who connects with her sitters and through that connection engages them in ways that engage us.
Anne Wilkes Tucker