Growing up in Beverly Hills, Marissa Roth remembers her father and mother, both European refugees, as parents who repressed their emotions and personal suffering, and forbade their children to cry.
So there is some irony, or perhaps compensation, in the title of Roth’s one-woman photo exhibition, opening Aug. 16 at the Museum of Tolerance, titled “One Person Crying: Women and War.”
The exhibit consists of 88 gelatin silver prints, culled from some 27,000 photos taken over 28 years in a dozen countries torn by fighting, massacres and natural catastrophes.
Almost all the subjects of Roth’s lens are women, in order “to reflect on war from what I consider an underrepresented perspective,” she said. “The project brought me face-to-face with hundreds of women who endured and survived war and its ancillary experiences of loss, pain and unimaginable hardship.”
There are photos so eloquent that no explanations or commentaries are needed, such as the picture of Sara Duvall, holding a flag and a photo of her Marine Corps son killed in Iraq.
Or the two fully veiled Afghan women, who make Roth wonder what lies under the burqa. Also, the 12-year-old Pakistani girl, her head completely shaved, who, Roth said, “implored me to continue my project and kept me going.”
Los Angeles Times international correspondent Carol J. Williams, who has seen her share of wars, commented, “Marissa Roth’s images of women who’ve survived war are alternately disturbing, inspiring and illuminating of the staggering burdens borne by those fighting with their hearts and minds to protect home and family.
“The battle to restore normalcy drags on for years after the shooting stops, and women’s forced roles as provider and protector forever transform their relationships and family status when the men, whether victorious or vanquished, stagger back home.”
Over nearly three decades, Roth and her 35mm Nikon FE2 camera have portrayed women’s lives amid war and the aftermath in Serbia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Albania, Japan, Northern Ireland, Germany, Cambodia, Bosnia and The Philippines.
In parallel, she had covered on-the-spot news stories across the globe for major publications and was part of the Los Angeles Times photo team that won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
And, particularly in the early 1980s, there was Roth, the commercial photographer, who shot high society fashions and red carpet Oscar receptions, as well as the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
By inclination and family background, Roth seemed fated to become a roving witness to history in the making.
Both parents separately fled the gathering European storm clouds in late 1938, her actress mother from Budapest, and her father from Novi Sad, then part of Yugoslavia and now Serbia.
They met during a trans-Atlantic voyage aboard the Queen Mary, but then lost sight of each other after landing in New York. Five months later, they bumped into each other in — where else? — Times Square, and the shipboard meeting eventually culminated in marriage.
Roth’s paternal grandfather had been a textile manufacturer in the old country and her father followed up in the new California home by establishing a clothing line in West Hollywood.
Another member of the family was Roth’s uncle, violinist Feri Roth, founder of the famous Roth Quartet.
Born and raised in Beverly Hills, Roth went through the city’s renowned public school system, augmented by private finishing school classes.
At 10, she was given a Brownie camera and started snapping pictures of family and friends and taking photo classes in school. At 17, she got her first 35mm camera, “instantly taking to it,” she said, and set up her own darkroom.
However, showing an early rebellious streak, she said she “loathed Beverly Hills as soulless and phony, the whole status thing. I was conscious of the civil rights movement and very aware of Vietnam and the woman’s movement. I yearned to be a hippie. I was wild inside but a good girl outside.”
Another factor was the impact of the highly popular illustrated magazines of the time, such as LIFE, Look and National Geographic. Through them, she said, “I began to understand visual language, and the magazines’ coverage of world events probably turned me into a journalist, rather than an artist.”
After high school, she left “phony” Beverly Hills for the real world and people at the University of Colorado, but after two years found Boulder a bit too “small townish.”
She transferred to UCLA and launched her future career as a staff photographer on the Daily Bruin, covering the campus but also the Hollywood film and rock scenes.
Twice married and divorced, Roth is quite open about her age (55) and personal relationships.
“Photography saved me when I was in my early 20s and I met a lovely guy, who was killed in a plane crash,” she recounted. “That event changed my life and shattered my innocence. It pushed me to live my life flat out, to seize life’s moments.”
Among Roth’s emotional impressions during her career, a few stand out.
“In late 1984, I went with my father to his birthplace of Novi Sad, and we found the house where he grew up,” she recalled.
That was also the house where her grandfather and great-grandfather were killed by rampaging Hungarian troops, who staged their own pogroms of Jews and Serbs in January 1942, dragging bodies across the ice and dumping them into the Danube.
A few years later, she traveled to Afghanistan and met some of the 100,000 women widowed during the nine-year war (December 1979 to February 1989) between their country and the Soviet Union.
“Something happened to me there,” Roth said. “I found a completely different world, where women were completely segregated.”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Roth photographed the bombing of Kosovo, wedged between Serbia and Albania, and atom bomb survivors in Hiroshima.
After reading the book “A Woman in Berlin,” which described the mass rapes by Soviet troops immediately after the conquest of the city in the spring of 1945, Roth traveled to Germany in 2008 to meet and photograph some of the victims.
“I had seen Warsaw and Auschwitz, and it was hard for me to go to Berlin. I kept seeing the ghosts of the past, but I tried to be as nonjudgmental as possible,” she commented.
The Museum of Tolerance also hosted Roth’s 2005 photographic exhibit of 70 Holocaust survivors serving as volunteer guides and lecturers.
“One Person Crying: Women and War,” curated by Howard Spector, opens Aug. 16 and is scheduled to run through Oct. 18 at the Museum of Tolerance. For more information, call (310) 553-9036 or visit jewishjournal.com.
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