The Heat

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But one booth displayed intimations of another kind of paradise altogether: huge reproductions of stunning photos Katzman had taken at Christian revival ceremonies in Florida. LexJet, a Florida-based imaging technology company, had made the unusual decision to show these images to debut its new Spectrum Pro 5.0 software, which Katzman had used in printing them. These were not just any art photos, but life-size images of people captured in the throes of religious ecstasy, openly weeping, or in uncontrollable fits of "holy laughter," or overcome by the spirit and struck to the ground. Photos as striking and powerful as anything brought back from a Voudun ceremony in Haiti, say, or a primitivist church in Sicily. Yet they make no pretense of the documentarian's ethnological distance; they're snapped right there in the midst of the action?in the center of the mosh pit, let's say?and convey a raw, uncensored passion clearly indicating that the photographer himself has felt something of the experience that has swept these people up. In the wholly secular, hi-tech context of that photo expo, these insider's views of an atavistic spiritual world startled and mesmerized.

For both LexJet and Katzman, the decision to display these images on such grand scale was almost literally an act of faith. Katzman, who's relatively new to computers, ruefully admits that he was learning how to use Spectrum Pro right up until the day he left Florida for New York City. "It ain't plug and play," he joked to me, when he was still in the middle of that learning curve. "It's plug, crash and burn."

And, of course, the project was a leap of faith on an entirely other level.

"When I began this project, I thought it was somewhat limited in its appeal," Katzman says. "Probably because I felt uncomfortable with what I was personally going through?because I was just uncomfortable with the feelings I was having. As I started to get more photographs, show them to more people who were in secular society, I started noticing their reactions. They were very emotional, because of the strength and impact of the photographs, but also because it was striking a chord in them. And it was a chord that they realized that they were not experiencing?that they were really on the outside, looking in, and felt left out... So I started noticing that there was a bigger audience for this than just Christian book publishers. That it appeals to everybody who has a question about faith, a question of themselves. It all gets back to one thing?your belief."

Katzman, 52, has been based in Sarasota, FL, for some time. But he was born and raised in Omaha, in a well-to-do Conservative Jewish family.

"During my growing up, my father was very involved with UJA," he recalls. "That was during the Six Day War. My grandparents on my father's side came from Russia, from the pogroms. My grandparents on my mother's side were already here in the States. My mother's mother, during the Depression, supported her family by writing pulp fiction."

Katzman did not expect to become a professional photographer?he's largely self-taught, and still admits, despite years of memorable work, to large gaps in his technical knowledge. He got his degree in political science instead, from the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, in 1973. At 21, with no formal background in photography?"Just knew that everything was correct when the meter setting was correct. Not over, not under, wherever you pointed the camera, as long as that meter said okay you took the picture."?he took a camera he barely knew how to use to a reservation of Oneida Indians and began taking pictures.

"I stepped out of a motor home. Now, here I am?privileged, white, upper class?stepping out of a motor home, Indian reservation, dirt, newspaper insulation, no plumbing?and I was accepted. I was invited to christenings, weddings, outings. From that point on, I've never had a problem gaining access to whatever I photographed. Maybe it's a sense of sincerity, a sense of honesty."

Although his work since has ranged from insightful portraiture to grotesque set-pieces reminiscent of Joel-Peter Witkin, there's a strong vein of the sociopolitical running through it all?an urge to investigate, and understand, and reveal the outcasts and edges of mainstream society.

There are, for example, two series of portraits he shot of long-term prison inmates at the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola and of "cowboy convicts" at a prison rodeo in McAlester, OK. Prison authorities allowed him only a few brief minutes alone with each prisoner (with Katzman's second wife, Sharon, assisting), but in that extremely limited space the inmates could step outside of the institutionalized anonymity of prison life?they could, for the shortest moment, be and reveal themselves as individuals, to someone who was paying them the closest attention.

The resulting portraits are almost viscerally intimate. One inmate vamps and vogues like a pretty woman. At the other end of the machismo spectrum, a tough-looking hombre pulls down his lower lip to flash a painfully defiant FUCK YOU tattoo inside his mouth.

Katzman produced his most challenging and overtly shocking photos for what he calls simply the Death Series.

"After the cowboy convicts there was a period where I started to deal in the whole question of death," he explains. "My wife Sharon lost her brother and was in mourning, and I hadn't been around somebody who had been mourning, other than, say, my parents mourning a parent. She took this very hard. I wanted to start to try to deal with death pictorially. I think it had to do with my own personal faith?or rather lack of faith. I had no faith."

He started with small-d deaths, doing things like arranging the corpses of rats in bizarre mandalas or sunflower shapes. He went on to pursue death straight to the source, spending a year and a half photographing the unclaimed corpses of poor John Does and stillborn babies in morgues and at a crematorium. He went so far as to shoot the actual cremation process?oven door open, flames engulfing the corpse and licking the flesh off the bones.

"It singed my tripod and smoked my lens shade and I got blisters until I used welder's gloves," he recalls. Asked how it felt to be watching this gruesome process, he replies candidly, "It was a total rush. I have never seen or experienced such concentrated energy. You've got the flame over the body, that igniting, the gas?it was a rush, just an incredible rush. And that's probably why I kept shooting it." He adds that as a Jew, naturally, the ovens struck all sorts of cultural chords as well.

His most controversial photos to date are Witkinesque tableaux he created with those dead babies?stillborns he'd found in little pine boxes at the crematorium, waiting to be incinerated. The most heartbreaking one was the tiny child he found with a cross of ugly autopsy scars scored into his abdomen and chest. He posed them with wooden crucifixes, with the wings of a dead bird. Exhibited in Sarasota, they raised a public furor, some viewers decrying them as exploitation or desecration, others seeing them as almost religious icons that transcended the shock value.

Maybe it was inevitable that Katzman would next be drawn to suggestions of a spiritual life, and afterlife. His revivalist series?and his own conversion experience?began simply enough, when he opened a Sarasota newspaper and "I saw this ad that said 'Come witness the miracles. The blind see. The crippled walk. Come to the miracle tent.' I said, 'This has gotta be a trip.'"

It was a traveling fundamentalist revival tent, set up on the parking lot of a Sarasota sports stadium.

"I go to the tent. I walk through, I've got all my equipment. I'm standing there, checking out this lousy organ music, and it was just a strange thing... But one thing I observed was this passion these people had?and it wasn't directed at the evangelist?it was directed toward God. I said, 'How strange. If I could just have that much passion in my work, I would be so far ahead of the game.' ... I'm watching this and I'm kind of staying out of the way. I go in and go out. Then the minister comes over and he says, 'What are you here for?' 'Well, I'm here to take photographs, and I'm going to give you some of those photographs.' 'Well, that's great. Praise God!' And I would always do that. I always give them photographs of what I have shot. Evidently, they liked to see the spirit moving in their house."

Despite having lost touch with his own Jewish faith, Katzman says, his background had left him supremely suspicious of Christianity and all its trappings?crosses, the very name of Jesus, all of it. Yet, no doubt precisely because he had drifted away from his own religious upbringing, he felt powerfully drawn to that revival tent?and not just as a photographer. The revival went on for a week, "And I would keep going back, keep going back. I would be getting on with my own life and I'd be processing the film and I would just be amazed at the results I would be getting. Seeing the crying, seeing the screaming... This was the Primal Scream in front of me. I couldn't believe that I was witnessing this. Not just once, but in repetitive mode, on call. Gradually you would see this emotion build up and bang!?they would be on the ground, twitching, withering, balled up in a fetal position. That's where you get this whole concept of rebirth. Being reborn. Because anybody who puts themselves in that position is going through some change in their life."

Fascinated both professionally and personally, Katzman continued to research the revivalist community. In 2000 he took a trip to northern Florida, to the Brownsville Assembly of God church in Pensacola. As it happened, he gained access there through another man who'd been raised Jewish but had converted to fundamentalist Christianity and was now running the church's school of ministry.

At Brownsville, church leaders instructed Katzman that he was allowed to shoot "only during praise and worship" at the beginning of the service, "and you have to shoot from the outer aisle, and you can't use flash." Still the non-techie, he borrowed a 35 mm camera. His unfamiliarity with it would prove fateful.

"I get there, and I am immediately entrusted to this woman who's the church photographer, Cathy Wood... I start to take photographs, and I'm just amazed at the sense of power going on during this praise and worship session. I have never experienced that before. So it comes time for me to rewind the film. The last 35 mm camera [I had used] had a rewind crank on it, and I'm looking for the crank. My glasses are in the car, and I don't know how to get the film out of the body. And I just drove eight hours to shoot this?and I was pissed."

Unable to shoot anymore, he went with Wood up to the church balcony to observe the increasingly intense activity below as the hours-long revival service cranked into high gear.

"Well, all of a sudden I realized that one hour turned to three hours, and I was obviously moved and captivated by what was going on there. And about the fourth hour into the service, I start hearing this screaming and I hear this shouting and I look down over the railing and I see another photo-op that obviously I can't get for two reasons?(a) I don't know how to work the camera, and (b) I don't have permission. I see bodies just all over the aisle. I see the eye of the storm. The preacher, Steven Hill, laying hands on people, people dropping on top of each other, no one's catching them, screaming, wailing?I was like, 'This is so intense!'"

Seeing his absorption in the scene?and no doubt a chance to win a new soul for the church?Wood asked him, "'Would you like to go into that?' 'Yeah, I would.' Downstairs, in the main entrance. A couple of ushers. Double doors slam open. Here comes the storm. Steven Hill. Bang! People around him dropping like flies. And he comes up to me, and I said to myself, I said 'Even if he says the J word, I will accept his prayer.' And he grabs me and he spends time and he's praying for me, and all of a sudden I feel this heat come down from where he's laying his hand on my head, down my shoulders, down my hands, and it comes to my knees and I am out on the floor. And I sit up and I'm crying. I'm sobbing, I'm embarrassed, but everyone around me is out. They're out. They can't see me. Cathy is out. I'm looking down. And she says, 'Steven, you've gotta let the Lord work inside of ya.' I say, 'No way. I'm out of here.' I just crawled to a chair and I just sat there and I sobbed. I sobbed for about five minutes.

"This is around midnight. Went back to the hotel, following morning, called my wife and I said, 'You won't believe what just happened.' She said, 'You did it, didn't ya?' I said, 'Yeah, it was just amazing.' And Sharon knows enough about me, she said, 'You have to do this by yourself. I'll join you later.'" (Sharon, by the way, was raised a Christian.)

"The following night I figured out how to rewind the camera... Same thing goes on, but now I'm not with Cathy, I'm with her best friend... Praise and worship. Shot a couple of rolls and, I can't shoot anymore. So I've gotta listen to this sermon... You really can't take any during the part where they come up to the 'blood line' during confessional, where they want to be prayed for and ask Jesus for forgiveness."

The theme of that night's sermon was "Die Right." As in get your life in order, right any wrongs you may have done, clean up any messes you may have left, because you never know when it's going to end.

"Now I'm thinking about that," Katzman recalls. "I'm saying, 'Die right. I could die right, doing what I'm doing right now. I'm shooting, taking pictures. I just told my wife I love her. I speak to my parents.' But then this shit started coming up. I don't talk to my sister. I don't talk to my son?I'd just kicked my son out of the house. I would only talk to his mother during court custody cases. Now I'm in a bad state, because whether or not you believe in meeting your maker, I couldn't die right. I had issues to deal with and I wasn't doing a very good job of it. And I'm very upset right now. I'm real upset?to the point where a young man comes over to me as I am sobbing [and asks], 'Would you like me to take you to Christ?' And I said, through short breaths, 'No, but thank you anyway.' And it just so happens that Cathy Woods' friend, her name was Sharon, too. She said, 'Steven, would you like me to go up there with you?' And I said, 'Yeah.'

"...So here I am, at the blood line. On my knees. And as a Jew, you are not on your knees for anyone or anything. You might genuflect, but that's the extent of it. I am on my knees and all of a sudden, as if somebody literally came behind me and pushed my forehead into the carpet, I am just sobbing, going through my own personal primal scream, and what comes up from my gut is my son's mother?and I sit there and I question this, and before I can come up with another answer, all of a sudden, my sister comes up. And I cannot fathom what is happening. And then [his estranged son] Justin comes up. And by this time, it's a habit. Who else is gonna come up and I'm gonna have to regurgitate?

"And it stops. It just stops. And I see a photo-op, and I'm starting to shoot... And Sharon said, 'Steven, you don't have to shoot now.' I say, 'No, I'm okay, I want to shoot this.' Now, if there's a camera brought out, especially in this church, it's confiscated. I am on the blood line, I'm no longer slammed on the carpet with my forehead, I am now leaning up taking pictures of the people, and I keep shooting. And Sharon says, 'You won't believe what just happened. There were five ushers descending on you, and Pastor Kilpatrick waved them off.'

"I was prayed for, and I went through these just uncontrollable spasms. I was just like the people I was shooting, I was flipping around just like they were. I was frightened. I couldn't answer these questions. I'm a guy, upper-middle class, a Jew. I mean, what is going on with my life?

"And I started to have faith."

That experience would be repeated several times, as Katzman continued to attend?and shoot?revivalist services and prayer meetings as far away as Toronto. One result was a booklength collection of photos he is currently shopping to publishers here in New York.

Other outcomes were less tangible but, for Katzman, no less real. The secular Jew has refound a sense of faith. That he did it through his encounters with fundamentalist Christianity doesn't seem to make it any less valid a religious experience, just a more personalized, less institutional one. He didn't go native and convert. In a way reminiscent of the New Age 80s and 90s, he's crafted his own personal belief system.

Asked if he now identifies himself as a Christian, his reply is thoughtful and provocative.

"No, I'm a Jew. Jewish people believe that the Messiah hasn't come, but they believe in the Messiah. Christians believe that the Messiah has come and the Messiah is coming again. I believe that the Messiah has come. Do I get involved with, well, if you believe this you have to believe in the Virgin Mary, you have to believe in this and that? You know, that's really for somebody else to believe in. You can't tell me that I don't believe just because I don't necessarily accept this or accept that. So, could I be baptized? No. Do I wanna be? That's not going to change or empower my personal belief. We are part of a plan and I recognize that..."

I ask him if all that means he's become one of the "Jews for Jesus." He says they prefer the term "messianic Jews," and admits that he's attended some study groups at a messianic synagogue in Sarasota. At the same time, he and Sharon have been very involved for several years in their local chapter of Planned Parenthood?an activity his fundamentalist friends would surely frown on. On a more personal level, he reports, he took that "Die Right" sermon to heart, and has worked hard to repair his relationships with family and loved ones from whom he'd become estranged.

He speaks of a man he knows who had a similar conversion experience while directing a documentary film on fundamentalists. Katzman notes the director's "newfound faith, not in any particular religion, but in the concept and power of faith. Although he didn't believe in the direction that the ministers were going in the film, he was able to separate himself from his story and look at his faith as a personal relationship with God, and not with those who preach."

Katzman's revived faith is also highly idiosyncratic?yet, one feels, sincere.

"I mean, it's a personal relationship with God," he says. "Do I have a problem proclaiming my love and devotion to him in a crowded room? No, not at all. I mean, this is not about Christianity or being saved, this is about an adult coming to terms with his faith. And realizing that he didn't have any faith, and as a result I feel much stronger in my conviction. Not only in my conviction toward my relationship with God, but my conviction toward man. My conviction just in life in general, making this a better place, okay? And I guess I don't care what religion that is?that's a mitzvah. A mitzvah to God. That's the bottom line."


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