Making sense of tragedy, and moving on, is difficult for anyone. Lily Gottlieb chose photography as a way to help herself and others process the loss of their beloved Camp Newman, burned to the ground in the October 2017 Tubbs Fire.
Her images, some of which were shared with fellow staff members and teen campers last summer, will go on display at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael starting Thursday, April 11.
“Porter Creek: A Portrait of Home,” a collaborative project of the JCC and URJ Camp Newman, features some 70 photographs that Gottlieb culled from more than 1,000 shots taken during two trips to the Santa Rosa site.
A former Newman camper and counselor and now a staff member and a North American Federation of Temple Youth regional adviser in Southern California, Gottlieb, 26, visited the Jewish summer camp off Porter Creek Road shortly after the wildfire, which burned nearly 37,000 acres, destroyed over 5,600 structures and killed 22 people overall. She returned in May 2018.
Her photos reveal total destruction and renewal.
During her first exploration, “I was wandering around. It was hard to tell where I was,” said Gottlieb. “It was very disorienting.”
But she found her bearings when she realized that she was standing on the ashes of hundreds of burned books: She was where the library once sat.
“I started shooting photos, even though each step I took further destroyed the pages beneath my feet,” she wrote in an artist’s statement accompanying the exhibit.
Wearing hiking boots and an N95 respirator mask, she documented the devastation.
On her second visit, the difference was “striking,” said Gottlieb, who studied photography at California Institute of the Arts.
For one, “there were wildflowers everywhere, all over camp, in places they weren’t before. I found that to be very symbolic and visually stimulating,” she said, representing “hope for the future.”
She also saw beauty in the charred debris and rusted metal that had been piled together during the clearing of the site — which resembled sculptures.
Gottlieb hopes that her before-and-after pictures “highlight the powers of regrowth, without taking away the reality that this bad thing happened.”
At a “pop-up gallery” for campers last summer at Newman’s temporary quarters, at the California State University Maritime Academy in Vallejo, an educational component widened the discussion.
“I spent most of the opening evening watching teens comfort each other as they found the remains of locations they recognized,” Gottlieb said in her artist’s statement. “I listened as they grappled with study questions that included discussion about photography in relation to memory; the broader perspective of the loss of life and homes in the Tubbs Fire, and the fire’s significance in debates about climate change.”
Campers were allowed to hold the photos and create meaningful compositions of the images for themselves,” she added. Some of the campers’ compositions will be included in “Porter Creek,” which will spread beyond the JCC gallery to the first and second floors and the stairway. “Each space will be curated differently,” Gottlieb said.
The opening reception on April 11 will feature a moderated artist’s talk.
Gottlieb hopes that viewers will leave the exhibit with more than a sense of loss.
“We can’t control everything, and we can’t run away from problems. We work together, we continue to be resilient and we’ve also helped others,” she said of the Newman community. ”We’re not the only ones who lost a home.”