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Bob Shamis is an independent curator, consultant, and photographer. As an independent curator he has organized photography exhibitions for galleries and museums, including the National Gallery of Canada and the George Eastman House. In 1991 he was the first recipient of the Lisette Model/Joseph G. Blum Fellowship in Photography at the National Gallery of Canada. From 1998 to 2006 he was the Curator of Prints and Photographs at the Museum of the City of New York where he organized more than a dozen exhibitions including New York Now 2000: Contemporary Work in Photography; The Last Days of Penn Station: Photographs by Aaron Rose; New Yorkers; Subway: Photographs by Bruce Davidson and The Destruction of Lower Manhattan: Photographs by Danny Lyon. He is the author of New York In Color which was published by Abrams Books. His latest book project, a monograph on the American street photographer Leon Levinstein, will be published by Steidl Publishers in 2012.
Honored and acclaimed long before the project was even completed, Uncle Charlie is the culmination of more than thirty years of work by photographer Marc Asnin. This exhibition presents a richly textured portrait of a very disturbed and extremely complex individual, Charles Henschke, the photographer’s uncle and godfather. This body of work also serves as a remarkable in-depth study of a family caught at the nexus of poverty and mental illness. Given complete access and freedom to photograph, Asnin rewards both his subjects and the viewers with images that are compassionate and respectful, but at times searing in their intensity and unflinching honesty.
As a child Asnin looked up to his uncle as a streetwise tough guy with a gun. By the early 1980s when Asnin was studying photography, the reality of his uncle’s life had trampled this boyhood fantasy.
Frail, depressed and emotionally vacant, unable to work, unable to even leave his apartment, Charles Henschke was a shell of a human being. At a point when Charles’ brother, sister, and wife had pretty much given up on him, Asnin decided to make the attempt to reach out to his uncle. Motivated by strong family ties and inspired by Bruce Davidson’s classic photo essay East 100th Street, Asnin chose to use photography as the means to reconnect with Charlie. Thus began a journey that became a nearly quarter-century obsession to confront, examine, and understand some very disturbing truths about his uncle and family.
Uncle Charlie is an unprecedented long-term documentary project; but this does not begin to describe the depth, revelations, and intimacy of the images that have resulted. The raw emotions and dynamics of family bonds are all played out in front of the camera, as we witness the heartrending consequences of Charlie’s illness and his emotional void on the lives of his children. Asnin’s dynamic images also give us a visceral sense of Charlie’s self-confined world–his apartment and his neighborhood–in which a disturbing family saga unfolds with the seeming inevitability of a Greek tragedy.
With a minimum of background and description the viewer can follow the narrative of Uncle Charlie in the approximately eighty black and white photographs that will comprise the exhibition. However, the photographer has assembled an extraordinarily rich collection of family snapshots, recorded interviews, and other documentary material that will be interspersed within the exhibition to augment and enhance the portrait of Uncle Charlie.