The Jewish Museum’s Falk described Polt as a walking museum. She said Polt has the eyes of a curator and is able to take photographs and mesh them together to tell a story. She is preserving her family’s memories, said Falk, but she is also telling the story of Baltimore’s Jewish community.
A few years back, Falk determined to put together an exhibit about the Jewish people’s relationship with food. She put out a call to the public, looking for pictures around food — people eating with their families, celebrating holidays. Polt responded.
“I went over there, and I spent most of a day looking at her family albums. … I was in heaven, in hog heaven,” recalled Falk, who took back close to 50 prints from Polt’s albums and scanned them for use in the exhibit.
“One picture became, in my opinion, the iconic image and face of the exhibition. It was of her mom serving matzo ball soup on Passover in 1954.”
Polt smiled at the thought of this.
“My mother died very young and no one ever really got to know her. She was at home and she never left the house,” said Polt. “For her to be the face of the exhibit was a real honor and a tribute to her.”
Also, when the museum put on “Jews on the Move” earlier this year, Polt again contributed an iconic photo. The exhibition was about white flight from downtown Baltimore to the suburbs. Polt’s photo of her husband and his brother mowing the lawn, said Falk, “was this image that was in people’s imaginations, and there it was in reality. … It is a fantastic picture of suburbia. You don’t mow the lawn in the city.”
It’s not a stretch to understand Polt’s vocation as making history. As Billig put it, “You never know who will read your album in 30 or 50 years.”
Elaine Witman, former director of Shofar Coalition, a program of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, said she worked with Polt to create a farewell album for Joan Kristall, a Shofar therapist, before she moved to Israel.
Witman said the goal of the album was to give Kristall a window into her accomplishments with Shofar, to serve as a platform through which her colleagues could let her know how much they valued her work. The album, more than 30 pages of personal notes, artistic expressions and photographs, tells the story of how Kristall inspired, motivated and guided her staff. But it also tells the story of how the Jewish community of Baltimore is dedicated and committed to the healing and wholeness of each person who has suffered from a traumatic experience.
“If it was found in 150 years,” pondered Witman, “it would show the dedication and conviction for each and every member of Jewish Baltimore, regardless of age — that they deserved to be healthy.”
Polt has an album chronicling 9/11 and her feelings about the attack. She has another, which focuses on the turn of the century. In that one, are pictures of what things cost in 2000, news clips of world happenings, pictures of the kinds of foods that people ate at the time.
Said Polt, looking back at her album: “Now, 2000 seems an innocent time.”
There is one more layer to the work Polt does, and that stems beyond the written word or images to what preservationists call “the writing support.”
According to Abigail Quandt, head of Book and Paper Conservation and a senior conservator of manuscripts and rare books at The Walters Art Museum, the paper (or in Quandt’s specialty, the parchment) “is a critical part of the whole artifact. If the parchment itself is damaged by whatever means, then the information that is written upon its surface is lost. So it is really critical to preserve the parchment and to keep it stable for the long term.”
In Polt’s case, this means using acid free paper and other decorations. She purchases all of her supplies in bulk and provides those to the people for whom she makes albums; those who want to can also purchase them from her for their own album projects. She noted that albums should be stored in a cool, dry place.
Quandt noted, however, that modern day problems relate less to paper and more to electronic media. She said there are conservators around the world dealing with “this difficult problem.”
“With digital copies, you rely on machines to read them. If the machines themselves or the software isn’t kept up to date, we’ll have a problem,” she said.
It’s a problem not lost to Polt, who has recently begun creating digital albums, too.
“What is happening today, is we have a generation of young people with pictures on their telephones. They are not printing them and they are forgetting their stories because they are writing them and sharing them on Facebook,” she said, noting this new line is meant to make album making more attractive to young peoples — making albums in less time, but still meaningfully.
Where is the place for Polt’s work in the future? Rich Polt said he can imagine his sons and their first cousins gathering in several decades, sitting down and opening their albums.
“They’ll look at pictures of their moms and dads — maybe we’ll still be around, maybe we’ll be gone — look at pictures of their bubbies and of their great-grandfather, and they’ll have that narrative, the stories right there,” he said. “It wouldn’t be the same if these stories were housed — or lost — on a hard drive or sitting on a backup drive in a fireproof cabinet or safety deposit box. It will be alive, a living record of the past. And they’ll be able to gather around it, laugh, tell the stories and learn.”
Rich Polt said he doesn’t like to think about it, but he knows that one day his mom will be gone. Then, he’ll inherit more than 200 albums, but the onus will be on him and wife Jennifer to pick up the mantel.
“There is no way I can do it with the same energy and passion my mom brings to it,” said Rich Polt. “But I have a feeling the importance of doing it will start to climb on my priority list.”
Reach Audrey Polt at firstname.lastname@example.org.