In the last three years, Neil Folberg has leapfrogged between synagogues in Mississippi and Uzbekistan, India and Jerusalem, Prague and Amsterdam.
He didn't travel such distances just to rack up frequent flier miles. Instead, Folberg visited the synagogues to photograph them for his new book, "And I Shall Dwell Among Them: Historic Synagogues of the World," published by the Aperture Foundation.
Through Dec. 2, color images from the large-format book — along with accompanying text — will be on display at the Vision Gallery in San Francisco. From a picture of a stately German synagogue with gleaming chandeliers to a shot of a modest Uzbeki synagogue converted from a private home, the photos reflect both the unity of Jewish tradition throughout the world and the striking diversity of environments in which Jews live and worship.
In organizing his photographic mission, Folberg selected synagogues spanning a variety of periods, regions and architectural styles. "We tried to be as representative as we could," said the Jerusalem photographer, in the area last week for an opening reception at the Vision, which his father owns.
It proved challenging to line up subjects in Asia, the Americas, Europe and Israel, he said. Some of the buildings Folberg wanted to photograph were no longer standing; others had been converted to different uses, including an auto parts store and a church.
"A photographer is resourceful by nature. There isn't any other choice," said the 45-year-old artist, a former student of Ansel Adams, and a U.C. Berkeley graduate. "I used all sorts of sources, [including] some travelers and retired couples who travel around and visit synagogues, to line up some comprehensive plan of action."
He also received assistance from the Center for Jewish Art of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which has an extensive database of synagogues around the world.
Folberg's synagogue project is the latest in a career that has focused on subjects related to Jewish life. Born in San Francisco and raised mostly in the Midwest, Folberg made aliyah with his wife in 1976. His previous publications have documented life in Israel, as well as Chassidic communities in the United States and Canada.
"In a Desert Land," a series of Folberg's landscape photos of Israel, Egypt and Jordan, showed at the Jewish Museum San Francisco in 1992.
Before the synagogue project, Folberg had primarily photographed landscapes and architectural exteriors. In tackling interior spaces for the first time for his recent book, he said he felt compelled to create "absolutely perfect images, which you can do when you are in control of the lighting, unlike with landscapes."
But even with the differences in lighting and other photographic techniques, Folberg approached the interiors of the synagogues in much the same way he approaches sweeping stretches of desert.
"I always try when photographing a landscape to give the broadest possible feeling," he said, "an impression of what is beyond the photo that makes the place special. That's no different with the synagogues."