Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015 12:01 am
A Soviet immigrant in Springfield
David Brodsky finds his photographic voice in central Illinois
Before David Brodsky and his family immigrated to the United States almost exactly 25 years ago, with the help of the Springfield Jewish Federation, he was literally a man without a country. “In Soviet Union, to be Jewish was a nationality,” he recalls wryly, “the same way Ukrainian or Russian was a nationality – on your passport, it was the first thing people saw. When we came here, that was the first time we were ever considered to be Russians.”
In May of 1990, David Brodsky and his then 18-month-old-son, Tim, were on the cover of Illinois Times for a story entitled “Soviet Jews: Finding hope and a home in Springfield,” detailing the triumphs and ordeals of Brodsky’s family, and others, freshly delivered from the anti-Semitic, totalitarian Soviet government in their home of Kiev, Ukraine, to the welcoming prairies of central Illinois. The story found the Brodsky family in transition, and still not confident in spoken English (“It’s not very accurate,” he says of the story now. “I just couldn’t explain at that time, so it was more a guess by the gentleman [Rich Shereikis] who wrote the story.”) At the time of the original article, he says, people were more interested in the politics of the Soviet Union than his family’s specific experience, something which is still sometimes the case.
Now he says they were motivated to come to the United States by basic safety concerns, along with a desire for greater educational opportunities for their two sons. “The country was very unstable,” he says of the Soviet Union at the time, “and people were always looking for a scapegoat. Of course, the Jews were always at the center with a target on their backs. It’s nothing new.” A distant relative put the Brodskys in contact with the Springfield Jewish Federation. “They have a very long history of helping Jews from all over the world to escape,” David says. “It’s a small organization but they were really taken very seriously.” On March 1, 1990, they arrived in Springfield. “From Rome to New York to St. Louis to Springfield in 24 hours,” he marvels. “With little children!”
People sometimes assume that Brodsky will be an expert on ongoing issues in his former homeland, something he finds somewhat baffling. “I got a call from Bernie [Schoenberg] at the State Journal-Register when the war started in Ukraine – he wanted my opinion. I said, ‘I get my information from the same sources as you. I got out of that place 25 years ago!’”
Now, after a quarter-century in Springfield, with two successful, grown sons and a full-time job doing graphic design for the state, the 61-year-old Brodsky’s sights are firmly fixed on the future, with a focus on his passion for photography.
There are two distinct modes to Brodsky’s photographic work, much of it available to view and to comment on at www.brodskyphotoart.com. He tends to downplay the gorgeous, full-color, travelogue-style images – which apparently come to him, with his practiced graphic designer’s eye, quite naturally – in favor of his grittier and more dramatic, emotionally charged black and white photos, which are closest to his heart. “I don’t know how to classify them, they are pretty precisely framed and cropped so it’s not documentary or street photography, exactly,” he explains. “I always try to compose the image in a way that will emphasize what I felt or want other people to see. If I see that people don’t get the feeling I have, it didn’t work.” If you decide to visit his website, bear in mind that Brodsky has little time for faint praise. “I like to get people’s honest response, not just ‘nice pictures.’”
Brodsky’s father had been a graphic designer in the old country (“It’s a disease that runs in the family,” he jokes), and when the 38-year-old David arrived in Illinois, he found employment difficult to come by, even having already amassed 20 years of experience by that point. “I never thought we were gonna stay in Springfield, honestly. When we came here, on my resume, the last point was Rome, Italy, and people would always ask me, how did you get to Springfield, Illinois, from Rome?”
Indeed, after transitioning in Springfield the family had intended to eventually settle in Chicago, where higher-level graphic work would be more plentiful, but life got in the way. Brodsky’s wife and muse, Alla, had gotten a job with the state – she is currently an information systems analyst for the state – and when she got sick they were unable to leave due to health insurance issues. “I found my first job pretty quickly, it was a surprise,” he says. “But they paid me very poorly considering my experience when I came here. I had been working on a lot of projects on an international level but life is very unpredictable – so I started looking for something more stable.”
Contacts made through the Jewish Federation put him in touch with members of the medical community, and he started to do freelance design work for them. Springfieldians have probably seen examples of Brodsky’s graphic work without realizing it. For instance, in 2004 he designed the logo for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, which is still being used today.
Brodsky’s second job in Springfield ended disastrously. “It was my first computer experience, they had very primitive equipment at that time and I was interested in how I might replicate what I had done before, by traditional methods, on the computer.” One day during his lunch hour, Brodsky was redesigning an old poster he had made for an Italian jazz festival, “trying to figure out how to do these curls,” when he was found by the owner, who thought he had caught his employee using company equipment for an outside project. “He fired me and I couldn’t get even the unemployment benefits. I never had such a slap in the face before. They wouldn’t even let me back in to pick up my stuff.”
Oddly, this was not the only dramatic incident centered on that particular jazz poster. Many years later, Brodsky received a phone call from his elder son, Eliot, who had spotted his dad’s distinctive work in the background of a scene on the Showtime series United States of Tara. Needless to say, the image was being used without permission, but there was little to be done. “I was trying to contact them but Spielberg was the executive producer, and the lawyers they have – we don’t have lawyers like that here – so it was a no-win situation. I didn’t care about money, really, just credit,” he shrugs.
While their parents, particularly Alla, would have preferred for Eliot and Tim to pursue more practical career paths than graphic design, both Brodsky boys ended up gravitating toward even riskier creative fields. Eliot had been 13 at the time of the family’s move to America and eventually graduated from Springfield High School. He studied advertising in college, dabbled in filmmaking and is now video strategist, creative director and multimedia producer for Blue Cross Blue Shield in Chicago. As a byproduct, Eliot and his wife have provided the elder Brodskys with two “American-made” granddaughters, Ruby and Edith.
Eliot’s younger brother (and former Illinois Times cover model), Tim, studied at Columbia College in Chicago, where he received an internship with Lion’s Gate Entertainment. This led him to Hollywood and work in special effects on major motion pictures, including The Chronicles of Riddick. Tim is currently working as “VFX assistant data coordinator” on the upcoming Disney remake of The Jungle Book, working on state-of-the-art computer effects. Brodsky visibly bursts with pride in his sons’ accomplishments, while quite aware the cookie could have crumbled a different way. “In Hollywood, you could be Fellini but if you don’t know anybody, you’re just another schmuck,” he says.
An experience a few years ago watching what Brodsky describes as “a very mediocre Broadway play” starring Tom Hanks proved to be a life-changing experience. Mediocre or not, in the play there was a scene that stuck with Brodsky. “There are two guys in their 60s who have both had heart attacks, and they’re talking and one of the gentlemen says, ‘I’m 65, I’m not buying the green bananas anymore – I don’t have time.’ This line inspired Brodsky to start taking his artistic life more seriously, eschewing freelance graphic design work in favor of cultivating and displaying his photography.
For many years, Brodsky treated photography as what he referred to as “a kind of a visual notebook” for studies to be made eventually into paintings, which had been his first artistic love back in Kiev. It was only more recently that he realized photography itself was indeed his ideal creative medium. “I was taking pictures with a small camera and I noticed a few times that people with good cameras were following me,” he says. “One time a guy noticed that I noticed him and he apologized. He told me I had a good eye so he was following me, taking the same shots as me. I don’t know whether to consider it a compliment or not. But I started to take it more seriously. A lot of people these days don’t see photography as art because everybody has cameras,” he says. “Some people think the criteria for a photograph is technical quality – which is probably good for professional photography. But when you look at photographs made 100 years ago, there’s no sharpness, no resolution, but there is so much more to them.”
Brodsky’s primary ambition at this point is to find venues to show his photos in Springfield. He is a member of Prairie Art Alliance but has found their limited space frustrating at times. Other arts organizations in town seem to have similar space limitations or other problems. A recent interaction with the Springfield Art Association seemed promising, but Brodsky is not resting on his laurels. “Springfield is tough,” he sighs. He has displayed at Andiamo before and will soon exhibit at the Sangamo Club, with his eye also on the new Widow at Windsor location.
David and Alla travel the world as often as they can, and have even been back to visit their native Kiev. (One great advantage of living in the United States as opposed to the former Soviet Union is the ability to travel freely.) Something which caught him by surprise is how no matter where he goes, the specter of Abraham Lincoln seems to follow. “Twelve years ago I was in Palermo,” he says. “One of their major streets is called Lincoln.” On the same trip, he and Alla attended the grand opening of the Palermo Opera House, the third largest in Europe. The opening performance was Madame Butterfly. “It was great, but we had never realized before that the battleship in the story was named the Abraham Lincoln. We can’t get away from him! We were in Austria, checking into the hotel in Salzburg and the receptionist asked my address and when I said Springfield, Illinois, she informed me, ‘Oh, that’s a famous place! Lincoln’s from there!’”
Scott Faingold is a staff writer for Illinois Times. He can be reached via email@example.com.