“It’s a little bit dangerous, but I capture the moment.”
In a world in which speed increasingly seems to be the be all and end all, it is nice to know that some folks sometimes take a timeout from the incessant pursuit of whatever.
That is one of the ideas Stu Gherman is looking to convey in his forthcoming “Sanctuaries of Time” photography exhibition which opens at Hechal Shlomo’s Museum of Jewish Art gallery on October 3, running through to November 11.
The title for the show comes from the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a celebrated Polish-born American rabbi and one of the foremost Jewish theologians and philosophers of the 20th century, who was also a leading figure of the American civil rights movement.
In fact, Gherman got a lot from Heschel than just the name for his exhibition. “He is one of my favorite writers,” says the septuagenarian Brooklyn-born and bred Jerusalemite photographer who made aliyah with his wife, Arlene, 15 years ago.
“He writes so poetically and beautifully. That turned me on to Judaism. He called the Sabbath ‘a sanctuary in time.’ And that’s what I am basing the whole exhibition on – moments in time.”Stu Gherman
“He writes so poetically and beautifully. That turned me on to Judaism,” says the kippah-wearing retired dentist, tzitziot draped down on the outside of his pants. “He called the Sabbath ‘a sanctuary in time.’ And that’s what I am basing the whole exhibition on – moments in time.”
The latter is pertinent on several levels. Naturally, when one snaps an image, it freezes “a moment in time” for perpetuity – or, in this virtual day and age, at least until we hit the Erase button on our cell phone or computer.
For Gherman there is something deeper and more spiritual at play here. “The exhibition is taking place during the [religious] festivals [of Yom Kippur and Sukkot], and the festivals themselves are sanctuaries in time because we take our [timeout] sanctuary during the festivals. We live by the [Hebrew] calendar.”
What made Stu Gherman start taking pictures?
SNAPPING BEGAN for Gherman many years ago, prompted by a happy change in his familial circumstances. “I got started when we began having kids,” he says. “They were my best subjects, along with my beautiful wife.” Before long, the new dad went beyond the hit-and-hope stage. “People starting saying, ‘Wow you really captured the essence of a person.’ OK – so I just continued with it.”
He began to spread his thematic wings, and develop his technical skills. “Then I got into nature photography. I upgraded my equipment along the way. I got a darkroom, too.”
That proved to be an immersive and engaging pastime, which also led to some logistical shenanigans. “We had an apartment, and we only had one bathroom. I would spend hours in there. My wife had to go to the neighbor if she wanted to use the bathroom,” he chuckles. “You get lost in a darkroom. It is absolutely amazing; it’s addictive.”
Gherman soon hit the streets, toting his camera and zoom lens waiting for something to catch his eye. In these days of telephone cameras, when everyone is a potential paparazzi party pooper, it is somehow comforting to know there are folks out there with the real thing, an actual camera complete with bulging lens, viewfinder and all the other requisite accessories. There is, however, a downside to carrying around conspicuous snapping paraphernalia, as Gherman discovered a few years back.
There he was, in the playground of the New England rich and famous – on Martha’s Vineyard. Naturally, he had his trusty camera slung over one shoulder when he came across a bunch of youngsters having a fun time. One of them in particular caught his discerning street photographer’s eye. “I had a long lens, and I used it sometimes out on Martha’s Vineyard. I’d go out really early in the morning, maybe at 5 a.m., to catch a sunrise and that sort of thing.”
On that particular occasion he struck gold, but almost landed himself in hot water in the process. “I was mainly taking pictures of nature at that time, but wherever I went, I had my camera. I spot [former US president Bill Clinton’s daughter] Chelsea Clinton just hanging out with friends. There’s a place there called Oaks Bluffs. Chelsea’s sitting there on a banister with friends.”
Gherman’s seasoned eye and shutter release button finger clicked into top gear. “I spot her and I take my camera and, boom, snap,” he says. “The next thing I know I am surrounded by Secret Service agents.” Fortunately, the opportunist from Brooklyn got off lightly. “They grab me and say, ‘Don’t ever do that again.’ They didn’t take my camera, and I still have the picture.”
The shutterbug duly took the lessons of that scary incident on board: basically, that he should steer clear of subjects who may come furnished with a coterie of henchmen, and to be light on his feet. “I learned how to be quick with taking candid shots. You see something, you spot something, and boom,” he says, putting on a pretty convincing imitation of a sharpshooter firing off a rifle. “Take the picture and go – as fast as you can.”
GHERMAN NOT only became adept at the hit-and-run scenario, but he also became well versed in the art of gaining people’s trust, thus gaining entry to places where outsiders are normally barred – particularly strangers carrying cameras. “I was in the Belz [neighborhood of Jerusalem]; that picture is from the Belz Synagogue,” he notes, pointing across his living room at an enlargement of a monochromatic print. It is an evocative and well-structured frame.
“People asked me, ‘How did you get into that place?’ I said I just walked in, and I started taking pictures.” And they didn’t mind? “Some of them did, but most of them didn’t care because they were much more interested in watching the rebbe make blessings over the food and everything.”
By now, he was fully street savvy and had his rapid-fire documentational skill finely tuned. He had an eye for catching compelling aesthetics and, often, dramatic scenes. Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox community living in their pretty cloistered world, not far from the photographer’s Rehavia residence, features pretty prominently in his bulging oeuvre.
Gherman comes across as a genial, wouldn’t-harm-a-fly character whom you would not suspect of malevolent intent. That has been borne out time and time again, and all to his photographic benefit.
“We were in Mea She’arim for Lag Ba’omer a few years ago. I was carrying my camera and taking pictures, and my wife takes out her cellphone to take pictures, of the bonfire and everything,” he recalls. “She is also a very good photographer.”
But she hardly got the chance to put that into practice. “Two men came over to her and very nicely said ‘please don’t use your cellphone to take pictures.’ I had this camera, taking photographs in their face,” he laughs. Their concern was apparently due to technology and the concomitant dissemination facility. “They didn’t want stuff on the Internet, social media and all that.” Makes sense.
IN FACT, Gherman had prior experience of stepping in where others might have feared to tread, although not quite in the Secret Service standoff category. “There were times when I was chased,” he chuckles. “One time, I was in New York and there was this guy walking around with no clothes on – actually without a shirt and barefoot – and he passed by the front of this fancy hotel. And I wanted to catch him, in front of something like the Waldorf [Astoria Hotel].” So, boom, I took a picture. Then he went crazy – literally he was crazy.”
Luckily, Gherman had some backup. “I was with a nephew of mine, and he pulls out a knife – my nephew, not the crazy guy. I can tell you, as a photographer doing this kind of work, it’s a little bit dangerous, but I capture the moment.”
That much is patently obvious from some of the prints I see stacked up along the walls of his living room and, it seems, every which place around the apartment, all waiting to be shipped to Hechal Shlomo.
These days, when technological advancements allow us to take umpteen frames of a scene in the hope of catching something special, Gherman’s work is clearly the fruit of a keen eye and nimble hands. One picture of a tallit-clad bearded figure holding his lulav and etrog close to his face, eyes closed tightly in fervent prayer, is one of those “in the moment” shots. The same goes for a bunch of female soldiers taking a selfie in front of the Kotel, insouciantly hamming it up for a cellphone snap.
GHERMAN ALSO has a well-honed radar for discerning the evolving ambiance. “You could call it a sixth sense,” he says. “There was this one,” he adds, showing me a compelling frame of a young haredi man and a bunch of boys holding hands and putting their best foot forward as they dance around a bonfire on Lag Ba’omer. The sheen of the cobblestones enhances the drama element, as the reflection of the soaring red-gold flames washes across the paved yard.
One of the most alluring works in the exhibition is a portrait of a hassid, streimel tilted to a rakish angle with his piercing eyes and furrowed brow exuding an oxymoronic air of anguish spiced with barely concealed whimsy. “This one is like a Rembrandt,” Gherman exclaims. I could see where he was coming from with that analogy.
“We were sitting inside at the Kotel, and this guy comes in with his son. He starts writing things down, like a mekubal (Kabbalist), and I say to the son, ‘Do you mind if I take your father’s picture?’ And he says ‘I don’t mind – and he doesn’t mind either.’” The result is high drama, and a light-and-dark balancing act which would probably have had the aforementioned iconic Dutch gent licking his lips and enthusiastically mixing his oils.
Gherman feels like he is now at a stage of his photographic pursuit when he doesn’t necessarily have to go looking for his subjects. “These things happen to me,” he laughs. “I’m just sitting there and this guy walks in! You think: how did this happen? That man [at the Kotel] was amazing. He just looked at me.”
Another shot that will be on display at Hechal Shlomo soon shows a bunch of young religious men reclining barefoot on the floor, deep in prayer. “This was on Tisha Be’av. That was inside. What I love about this one is just the bare dirty feet, sitting on the floor, the foreground here. It tells a story.”
That, in a nutshell, is what Gherman is about. There is always a narrative to his images as he roams around his adopted hometown and country catching street-level life – and the characters that make up its multi-hued manifold human mosaic. ❖
For more information: www.hechalshlomo.org.il/exhibitions