Passing Through Zero

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

Editor’s note: Earlier this year, I connected with Susan Bittker in the chatrooms of the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2020, as it was being held digitally this year. We became Twitter buddies over our shared love of literature and once, when I tweeted my dismay at Damian Barr’s ‘You Will Be Safe Here’ being unavailable in Pakistani bookstores, Susan immediately picked up a copy at her local bookshop and sent it my way, along with two brilliant photography catalogues. One of these was of the work of her late father, Boris I. Bittker, a renowned legal academician from the U.S., from his posthumous exhibition presented by Attic Salt Gallery at the Edinburgh Festival in August 2011.


His raw, candid (in the truest sense of the word) photographs in black-and-white of people from times gone by captivated me, and I knew they had to be shared with our readers. Susan kindly agreed to send across a selection of heretofore unreleased photographs from her father’s travels. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.


Susan herself is an accomplished photographer (the second catalogue she sent me was of her own work. You can her work at: http://www.dailyshots.co.uk).

Hassan Tahir Latif


Susan Bittker: One of Dad’s great loves was travelling; once my brother and I were in our teens and no longer amenable to being photographed, his travels became his major photographic focus. He was always interested in just about anything and tended to look deeply at things that captured his interest, in particular architecture, people going about their everyday business (i.e., not posing for the camera), aspects of places that are not necessarily picturesque, but which are more expressive of a sense of place. Towards the end he photographed a lot of monuments and memorials which, incidentally, became the title of two exhibitions of his work.


Dad never studied photography, and as far as I know, never systematically looked in-depth at the work of any particular photographer, except Ansel Adams. We did have a few of those big photographic books, such as ‘100 Greatest News Photographs 1900-1950’ and ‘Photographs in Vogue’, but I can’t remember others. I think Dad was primarily influenced by himself, which sounds like a funny thing to say, but I can see a progression in his photographs. Initially, he was documenting the activities and development of his children and the children of friends. In 1955 and then in 1962, when we lived in Italy, even at a young age, my brother and I were profoundly aware that these were opportunities of a lifetime to absorb a different culture—Dad certainly treated it as such, taking lovely photographs of Hadrian’s Villa (which I think was then in the process of being excavated) with the architectural historian of classical Rome, Bill McDonald, as well as other Roman and Etruscan ruins.


In subsequent trips, to England, Greece, Turkey, Morocco (again, with Bill McDonald, I think) and India, I can see the development of an interest in people in their places, which became the title of another exhibition. Around ten years before his death, aged 89, he began systematically taking photographs of monuments and memorials: the ways in which we remember our dead.


Dad worked almost exclusively in black-and-white, most of which he printed himself—often assisted by me—in a tiny ramshackle darkroom in the basement of our house. Long before such things became fashionable (perhaps in the 1960s), he took slides of some graffiti around New Haven, Connecticut, and had several of these enlarged and printed up as Cibachrome prints. Apart from these, I believe he never shot a single colour photograph.


The vast majority of his photographs date from between 1948 and 1994.



Rome, 1962

Rome, 1963

Italy (probably Rome), 1963

Italy (probably Rome), 1963

Italy (place and date unknown)

Istanbul, 1964

Istanbul, 1964


Istanbul, 1964

Istanbul, 1964

From the archives, date and place unknown

All photography is credited to Boris I. Bittker and is courtesy of Susan Bittker.



Boris I. Bittker (November 28, 1916-September 8, 2005) was a prominent legal academician from the United States of America. A professor at Yale Law School, Bittker was a prolific author, writing many textbooks and over one hundred articles about law.


Born in Rochester, New York, Bittker attended Cornell University (’38) and Yale Law School (’41). From 1942 to ’43, Bittker worked as an attorney for the Lend-Lease Administration in Washington, D.C. During the next two years, Bittker fought and was wounded in World War II, receiving a Purple Heart.


Bittker reluctantly returned to his alma mater as an Assistant Professor in 1946. Eventually he gained tenure in 1951, became a Southmayd Professor in 1958 and Sterling Professor of Law in 1970. By the time Bittker retired from teaching in 1983 to pursue scholarship full time, his was one of the most recognizable names on the illustrious roster of Yale’s faculty.


Bittker was also a dedicated environmentalist, serving as a trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council.


Susan Bittker: I choose to use an inexpensive compact camera, set on automatic, and I don’t crop, straighten or enhance my photographs. This is the only way I’ve found to capture the immediacy of what interests me.


I try to be open to what is there already, which I might not notice without my camera. To see and shoot without manipulation, to relinquish technical control and to accept the accidental in the images which result. This is what my work is about.


Find her work at: http://www.dailyshots.co.uk