Go to www.markodashev.com to see “The Rabbi Project” as an accompaniment.
I really didn't expect to take so much of his time, but, Alex was a gracious subject. And who says Mondays aren't awesome?!
I'll say this first, I usually don't research the background/life story/achievements/fame/notoriety of the portrait subjects that I approach. I try to stay away from all of that noise because I'd rather meet and interact with a subject in a present, unfettered way. I like to think that getting to know someone for the first time is a timeless event, no matter who. There's this great chance to have a unique experience disconnected from history and future. The classic form for an interviewer is to know as much as possible about the subject, and then prod and push to get some juice out of them. In my way, I get to create a portrait that is of the moment.
Now that I've said that, I'll give you some Alex Clare background, in brief: Born 1985, London. Colorful upbringing. Became musician. Dated, for a time, a famous singer in her own right. Struggled for his art. Had a huge hit single in 2012,"Too Close." Alex continues to write, perform, and tour. Alex is a Frum (orthodox) Jew, and he blew off a record deal and many concert organizers (I'm sure this never felt easy) because he does not work on the Shabbos. He Lives with his wife and children in Jerusalem.
Alex agreed to a portrait sitting months prior. He was in Israel. So, we conditioned the meeting on the chance that he will be in or near New York City.
Motzei Shabbos, March 4th, 8pm. I was looking at facebook and saw that Alex appeared in a video, posted moments prior, performing the Havdalah ceremony ending his shabbos in the Poconos at a "Project Inspire" event. I immediately dispatched a message to him asking if he will be stopping in Brooklyn before heading back to Jerusalem. Alex messaged back saying that we could possibly shoot the portrait Sunday night, or Monday. Sunday didn't work for me so we settled on Monday night. Monday day, I had a shoot for a commercial client, and kept loose tabs with Alex throughout the day. I got the feeling that the shoot might not happen. My wife steadied me and said,"Prepare, it's going to happen." 9:15, I got a call from Alex, asking if I could pick him up in Crown Heights. I told him I'd be there in a few, packed the car, confirmed with my friend that we will shoot in his house in Park Slope, and ordered up my assistant Daniel to meet us at the house of the shoot. I didn't tell Daniel who we were shooting.
I picked up Alex, who was visiting family. He greeted me with a huge smile. Popped his bag and guitar (classic) into the back of the car and we drove off to the location. We spoke a bit about our histories, really just a little, and arrived in Park Slope. Daniel, a bit dumbstruck, shook Alex's hand, and we all shlepped the gear in to the house, to the second floor. I told Alex it will take twenty or so minutes to set up. Alex took out his Talmud, and sat in the adjacent kitchen and studied, with singsong, until I had built the set and invited him over.
The next hour went by without notice. And for almost that entire time, Alex retold stories of tzadikim (righteous) men from centuries past, all of them with intricate detail and finesse. It became clear that the inspiration that Alex draws into his Judaism is tightly intertwined with these stories. Stories that are rife with Kabbalah, and intrigue. Looking back, I think that if I had kept shooting, the storytelling would have gone on indefinitely, but as it was, I was already feeling guilty for the indulgence of his time. For the portrait's sake, these stories infused the images with the essence of Alex.
It was 11:30pm when I closed the camera and started to pack up. Alex went back to his Gemara. Daniel and I got everything out to the car. Daniel went home, and Alex and I started to drive.
"Where to, Alex?"
"Cedarhurst, the Five Towns. I'm hungry, know where we could get a bite?"
"Sure, let's take Coney Island Ave, and stop at Schnitzi's, I'm pretty sure they're still open."
We drove for a few minutes, and there we were, at midnight, eating the greasiest chicken and fries known to the Jewish world. Good times had by all. We had a great conversation about praying, learning, Hassidus, and our respective travels into the spiritual life of orthodox Judaism. We bentched, drove to Cedarhurst, and continued our convo.
We got to the house where he would spend the night, and parted ways as friends.
Two summers ago, over the course of an afternoon, I photographed the band Zusha. My assistant and I built a set on the unused balcony of an old shul in Park Slope; Congregation B'nai Jacob. No air conditioning, it was hot.
They were really singing. And, they were creating a new song. A song I wouldn't hear again for nearly two years, until a JTA interview; "Marko's Nigun."
See JTA's Zusha interview video here, for Marko's Niggun go to: 14:40
So happy I was there for nigun creation. Keep Jamming guys...
6:41 pm 6/8/16
This evening was supposed to be a date with my wife.
I've been in complete standstill traffic for over an hour inside a pitch black tunnel in Manhattan. Somewhere between 33rd street and 40th street on Park Ave. This tunnel opened in 1834, 143 years before I was born, 160 years before I got my driver's license, and 182 years before this afternoon.
I started learning photography when I was 16. Photography was invented in 1822. 12 years before this tunnel was unveiled. Without any perceptible forward movement, I'm left to ponder my place in the world.
Duane Michaels shot this iconic art photo in this same tunnel in 1968.
I'm driving a 2016 Honda CR-V, that I leased, through it.
I remember meeting, 18 years ago, makeup artist Jesus Abreu. He was very happy to tell me all about his close friendship with Duane Michaels over many decades.
I think of Jamie Hankin, the photographer that got me obsessing over context and legacy.
It's pitch black, save for the lights in the Cadillac In front of me, and the headlamps of the Tesla that's crawling up the shoulder from behind, because why shouldn't he get there sooner.
I'm back to the time I assisted Arthur Elgort, on a long slow drive from the Bronx to his Soho loft. We talked about his childhood, his parents' mixed marriage- Jewish and Italian, and early career. I assisted more than thirty photographers on my way to shooting and making a living. That car ride is one of the more memorable moments. I look him up on wikipedia, which says that Arthur is "an iconic photographer". I remember an old ambitious photography project idea about iconography that I never did.
I met Jamie Hankin, photographer, ten years ago at the Saks 5th Avenue photo studio.
I was shooting there as his hire. We had, and still have an ongoing conversation about photography, ourselves, the contextual realities. Yesterday was film, today is digital, tomorrow will be robotic models and "operators" who snap the picture.
I tell Jamie that the daguerreotypists probably had it easy when their mode of photography became obsolete. Mainly because developing a daguerreotype requires fumigating the latent image with mercury vapor. So, by the time that their time was up, they were mad as hatters...literally.
I posted today to Facebook lamenting the adoption of robotics instead of live models and experienced photographers. Whoopee.
When I was 20 I had this idea to remake, in photographs, a book that was printed in Italy in the early 1500s. (Around the same time that Jewish men were forced to wear yellow hats, Jewish women had to wear a yellow kerchief, and they were forced to live in a "Ghetto" that was locked at night, from the outside.)
Cesare Ripa's Iconologia; an artists guidebook for iconography for visual representation. I even had a college friend, with access to a later edition containing the original etchings, photocopy the whole book and mail it to me (thank you Miriam Lapson (née Parker). You can view on request an original edition at the Frick.
The idea for the photo project was good, but the scope and production necessary was totally above my abilities. Ten years later, I related to Jamie Hankin, photographer, the project idea, and he happily showed me, on the spot, an iconography photo project that he had poured years into. Kindred spirits. This was the same conversation that brought up our desires for legacy...professionally speaking.
Children are the true legacy, our only connection to infinity, but that's a discussion for another time.
I think that my pursuit of iconography has become manifest in portraiture. I think.
I started out today's present portrait adventure while shooting at Saks for Jamie Hankin. The call, to shoot the Prime Minister of Uganda at the Waldorf Astoria, came in at 3pm. I hired an assistant to go to my place, grab the gear that my wife prepped for me, and drive to the Waldorf. The shoot was scheduled to start at 7pm. I had to drive from 23rd and 5th, to 49th and Park. It took one and a half hours, Obama was at the UN, all streets shut down. The Prime Minister never showed, even though he strung us along until 11:30pm. The man who was arranging the meeting with the PM was Motti Fried, a chassid of Belz.
My wife's grandmother survived the holocaust escaping Poland at the advice of the Rebbe of Belz, Aharon Rokeach Z"L. (Around the time that the Jews were forced to wear yellow six pointed stars, and live in ghettos.)
I owe the previous Belzer Rebbe for my wife's existence, and my children's for that matter.
Motti Fried was very nice to meet and talk to for four hours. He runs an organization that pays medical bills for people who can't pay and need extensive treatments. That's his portrait up on top of this post. I took it in the hallway of the 16th fl. of the Waldorf while we waited for the Prime Minister of Uganda to show up.
I have a hard time bringing on a new photo-assistant. I like them to be friends, contemporaries. People who've fought in the same wars. The latest addition to my roster of help is Reuvain. Perhaps you'll recall him from the Portrait Diary post with Rabbi Boteach (if not, read it). Reuvain is a gem. A really nice, down to Earth bochur (yeshivah student). Follows direction, quiet unassuming demeanor. I knew only a bit of his background before hiring him. I've learned that due to this or that, Reuvain has found himself unenrolled in yeshiva. Some rather unsensitive, or ignorant rabbis might call him a burn-out, scoffer, ne'er-do-well. I call him by his first name.
Reuvain recently joined me for a portrait assignment of the venerable Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, for Ami Magazine. I was hired at the behest of Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter, editor in chief.
I had wanted to shoot portraits of Rabbi Weinberger for a couple of years now. But, knowing how busy the Rabbi is, I didn't even attempt to try and call to solicit a sitting. I'm positive that Rabbi Weinberger has many and much more important things to do than to pose for my portrait project. I was elated when I got the call from Ami Magazine.
Reuvain and I packed out my gear in Crown Heights and sped off to the meeting at Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, Long Island. We chatted about Reuvain's predicament with yeshivas. He was kicked out of a yeshiva recently. A yeshiva that has a reputation for pulling in kids that have fallen out of the system. How he got booted is still a mystery. He's a good kid...who doesn't do his school work, or show up on time. My feeling is the emphasis should be on the good, but I'm not a school administrator. Aaaaaanyway.
Rabbi Frankfurter, as far as I know, was going into the interview with Rabbi Weinberger with an open mind to see where the conversation goes organically.
The Conversation organically INSTANTLY went to the topic of how many yeshiva students go through childhood, and the entire orthodox education system, and come out on the other side burned out, or dropped out without the slightest feeling of closeness to G-d, or even a keen idea of what holiness means on a personal level. The Rabbi precisely addressed the issue of how the yeshivas, and parents, aren't reaching their charge.
I suppose it's plain to see the divine providence of the situation. Reuvain took his position from outside Rabbi Weinberger's study, to a seat close to both Rabbis for the duration of the interview. He was overwhelmed.
So, after all, the whole scenario....the interview, the magazine, my coveted portraits....all nonsense. This all happened for Reuvain.
So there. This one's for you Reuvain.
Celebrity photo-shoots are always fraught with pitfalls. I suppose it's not so different for the world of Rabbi Celebrities. But, let's not generalize. I do think, looking back at this shoot, that the circumstances were exceptional. You'll see.
When I set out to shoot a compendium of orthodox rabbis a couple of years ago, I knew that I'd be aiming to photograph both the hidden/humble and famous/outspoken types of rabbis. I chose to write about Shooting Rabbi Shmuley Boteach now, because my preceding post was about Rabbi Yudkin. The correlation is self evident.
I didn't reach out to Rabbi Boteach or his people on my own, but, the desire was there to take his portrait. And, after much procrastination on making contact, fate delivered an impromptu meeting for me. Divine providence?
In Crown Heights, on the intermediary days of Sukkos, every night until the wee hours of the morning, there's a large raucus dance party commemorating the annual water service in the holy temple. The party during the temple times was "off the Chain" let's say. There's tons of details about this in the Talmud, and easily readable in Ein Yaacov (compilation of story telling from Talmud), really wild stuff. Nowadays, down on Kingston Ave and Montgomery Street in Crown Heights you'll find the same spirit....in a male only, hassidic, Mosh-pit.
My relationship to the hassidic mosh-pit has always been distant. I watch, laugh a little, join for a minute, chalk it up to experience, and walk on. This past Sukkot, my wife convinced me to go. It was the last night to go to the party. So I went, just this once.
I got to the party at about 12:30am, watched from outside the crowd for a few minutes, deciding whether or not to actually enter the dance. Fortified my resolve, and entered the crowd. I figured, if I'm doing this, I'll do it right. I pushed as far into the center of the crowd as I could. Somewhere one third of the crowd from the center, the crowd becomes thick, and one's movements are dictated by the sway and crush of the people in the melee. It was at this point that I saw a familiar face, Rabbi Chaim Miller (portrait on view in the rabbi project section). He smiled and waved me over. Rabbi Miller is a gracious touchstone for my rabbi portrait project. And, to my great relief he was there. A mosh pit loves company. After breaking through several sets of interlocked arms and shoulders, being stepped on and kicked, I made it over to Chaim and his posse. Only after I screamed Shalom Aleichem over the din did I notice that Rabbi Miller's guest for the evening, dancing opposite himself, was Rabbi Shmuley Boteach; the most visible rabbi in America. Star of reality TV's "Shalom in the Home," and author of a myriad of books. And we danced...struggled to stay upright I should say....for an hour or so.
As it goes, the dance party breaks up and the participants, ceremoniously/unceremoniously make their way up Kingston Avenue up to Eastern Parkway. During the five minute walk, I talked to Rabbi Boteach. We exchanged information. Rabbi Boteach would be a willing subject, both for the purposes of the project, and as a public figure, always needs new pictures.
I was in touch with Rabbi Boteach's assistant to set up a time when I could come to their headquarters on the upper west side. I remember that we went through two or three broken appointments before we got to settle on Friday, October 23rd, in the morning, tentatively at 11am. Always preferable to set up a Friday appointment in the AM because of the oncoming Sabbath.
On Wednesday prior, I emailed Paige, his assistant, to confirm Friday's appointment. No response. I emailed Thursday, same. Friday morning I decided to push the shoot to happen and started making phone calls, knowing that the shoot would, if it were to happen, take place during the afternoon; Shabbos nerves starting to tingle. Around 11AM, I received an email from Paige apologizing for being out of touch, she had a terrible flu for the past few days and was still out of commission. In the interim, Chloe, Rabbi Boteach's previous long-time assistant was working with the rabbi. Paige, for good measure, set the appointment for the shoot at 3pm. Sundown in Brooklyn would be 5:21pm. This means: shoot fast, pack faster and fly through rush hour traffic from the upper west side to Brooklyn.
My wife, Thursday night, encouraged me to get an assistant to help me schlep. Nobody I hire regularly was available. I asked around the hood (Crown Heights) if anyone had a young able bodied person to suggest for the job. Pinny Rapaport recommended a previous student who could use the work. "His name is Reuven, he can use the work." "How old is he?" "Oh, about 15." Okay, I'll take his number, Thank You." Reuven was actually 14, and very eager to learn, help and get paid. But, Reuven forgot to tell his parents where he was going. And, on late Friday afternoon, I was not only about to break the Shabbos for a portrait, but, in Reuven's parent's opinion, I was a predator. Oy.
Reuven and I packed up the car full of equipment, and we got to the townhouse in the west 70s right on time. at 3pm. But for who? Chloe let us in the house as if it's second nature to let in what looks like a media outlet prepping a video segment. Only after we had brought everything in, Chloe asked," what are you here for?" Paige had not delivered the memo, and might have been altogether delirious when she emailed me confirming 3pm. Rabbi Boteach was at a high profile meeting all the way downtown from 2-3:30, and it was running long. Worst case scenarios started playing out in my head. I told Reuven to set up two sets, I helped get it into shape. Hurry up and wait. Two sets were ready for the Rabbi to walk into and shoot. 3:30, 3:45, 3:55 The Rabbi walked in, mystified that our appointment was set and he had no idea. He had run from the meeting downtown, to the hospital to pay a visit, and then got to us. With one hour and a bit left 'til the shabbos. The Rabbi got changed into another suit. We picked a tie. And we started shooting. I'd say it was about 12 minutes of shooting, beginning to end. He was very professional and a touch self-deprecating. 4:17, I glanced at my watch, thanked the Rabbi, and frenzied the pack-up with Reuven. We used only one set. Reuven had packed the second set while I was shooting. This is when I started getting very panicky threatening phone calls from Reuven's family. They don't know me, and they're understandably upset that there son is miles from home, right before shabbos, with a stranger. I get it.
The car was packed, it was now 4:30, candle lighting 5:03, and I had 9 miles of traffic, and a river to cross, to get back to Crown Heights, and remove the most valuable pieces of equipment from the car, and get them into the house, before 5:21. Not ideal...at all....but doable. The Rabbi came out of the house to see us off and thank us again. His wife seemed a bit more concerned for us breaking the Shabbos. She looked puzzled as we peeled out of there. I think, mostly because she thought we'd never make it. I was a bit more optimistic, even mistakenly optimistic. I'm not sure how many laws were broken on that drive, I'm just thankful there were no traffic cameras in those places.
We walked into my place as the clock struck 5:21. No harm, no foul.
Post: A few weeks later at Rabbi Boteach's birthday party, The rabbi publicly thanked me for the portraits, and lavished praise on the quality and expertise of the work.
Oh, and Reuven? He got back home just fine and explained everything to his parents.
8/11/2015 12:30pm on assignment.
Portrait subject Rabbi Schneur Zalman Yudkin.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman Yudkin studied at Yeshiva Torah Im Derech Eretz gymnasium in Riga, the capital of Latvia before World War 2. The school involved Rabbi Hirsch, the great 19th-century Orthodox rabbi and leader of German Jewry who developed a curriculum featuring both Jewish studies and a secular program.
Seventy-five or so years later, in Crown Heights, portrait scheduled.
I arrived at the Rabbi's residence, a 2nd floor walk-up apartment in a far flung corner of the Crown Heights Hassidic Neighborhood. Ami Magazine, Rabbi Frankfurter, was already in mid interview as I schlepped in and set up the light. The interview was conducted, and concluded. Everyone took off save for the elderly Rabbi Yudkin and myself.
I had just started to pack up, when the rabbi started asking me about myself, in Yiddish of course. I answered as best as I could, both in Yiddish and English. Explained that I live in the neighborhood with my wife and two kids. The kids go to the local schools. Rabbi Yudkin, who I assume was in his 90s, asked me...demanded of me that he be given some equipment to help me pack and carry out the door. I politely rebuffed his offer. He insisted. I started carrying the heaviest pieces to the landing outside his door in preparation to go down the flight of stairs to the street. The Rabbi concernedly held the door for me as I went back and forth several times. Brought everything down to the exit door at the bottom of the stairs. Only the camera bag was left by the Rabbi. Before I could make my way back up the stairs Rabbi Yudkin was making his way down. One hand on the banister, one hand clutching my camera bag to his waist, lowly as if it were to slide out of his grasp. I walked with the Rabbi down the last few steps. Brought everything out to the car, the rabbi once again holding the door open for me all the while.
I was just about to pick up the last bag from the door, and the Rabbi took hold of my right hand....then the left. And started dancing. Right there at the door to the street. And then came the blessings. More Hebrew and Yiddish aphorisms than I had the wherewithal or the ability to separate one from the other. He concluded the blessings with more dancing, and now this time with song:"אפתח לכם את ארובות השמים והריקותי לכם ברכה עד בלי די" roughly translating to "I will open you the windows of heaven and heap upon you blessings to no end."
Thank you Rabbi Yudkin
August 25th, 2015 7:00pm, Residence of Rabbi J David Bleich, portrait assignment for Ami Magazine. Rabbi Bleich is an authority on Jewish law and ethics, with specialty in Jewish medical ethics. He is professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, and head of its postgraduate institute for the study of Talmudic Jurisprudence and family law. He also teaches at the Cardozo Law School.
I finished a shoot for Target Dept. Stores at 5:00pm and drove from Tribeca to the upper east-side in the east 70s. Got a miracle parking spot just below the Rabbi's building, and enough spare time to catch up on some correspondence. Scouted the lobby/elevator situation because I travel heavy. And, waited for my appointment to come.
6:40pm I made the schlep with my gear up to the Rabbi's apartment and was greeted at the door by Rebbetzin Judith Bleich, the Rabbi's wife, and also a scholar of renown, specifically professor of Judaic studies at Touro College in Manhattan.
I made my way into their apartment with my gear. Mrs. Bleich brought me a glass of water which I readily accepted. I decided to set up the portrait in the Rabbi's library/study. The room was 9ft wide, 15 ft deep. 8ft ceiling. Every inch of wall, and much of the floor space was lined with books, many rare, many so well worn that the binding was evidently on its third or fourth repair. The top most shelves were still taped up from Passover. Mrs. Bleich offered conversation while we waited for The Rabbi to get home from teaching and fielding questions, he was running late. Mrs. Bleich was born in Austria at the outbreak of WWII. She and her parents escaped to Toronto where she was raised. She asked me about my background, which is for another blog post.
7:30 Rabbi Bleich walked in, a bit on the tired side, although his smile and demeanor belied the fact. With no time wasted we started to take pictures, as I thankfully had enough time for set up. The Rabbi was happy to oblige the photo session, Mrs. Bleich watched the computer as the images came in, giving helpful commentary, even live editing. The impression that I took from the entire scenario was the calm and beautiful respect that the Rabbi and Rebbetzin showed for each other from the moment he walked in, until the moment I'd finished packing my gear to leave. An apparent lifetime of teamwork.
On the Morning of Sunday June 29th 2014, Gimmel Tammuz, The Jewish Learning Institute was hosting an event at Queens College. Several Rabbinical figures of stature spoke in memory of the Lubavitcher Rebbe OBM.
My goal was to take a portrait of as many Rabbis as I could. The method was to approach them each between their lectures and ask them to accompany me to a small studio set that I had built into a hallway under the main auditorium. The hallway was 8ft wide, 8ft tall, and very long, with lockers lining the sides.
The last portrait of the day, a day which officially went from 10am-10pm, was the portrait of Rabbi Steinsaltz. His Talk went long as a good centerpiece talk should, at 10:30pm it wrapped. I went through the crowd of people still gathered around the stage. Several audience members had stayed to ask the rabbi questions; some personal, some general. The rabbi's assistant was near me. I approached him and asked if the Rabbi would be willing to come around the back of the auditorium for a portrait. He readily agreed.
I knew, just before asking, that the stage exit that we would use to get to the studio was a direct approach to the rear of my studio set. The Backdrop of the set was as wide as the hallway, and totally blocking our way into set. I rolled it up like a window shade in anticipation, switched everything on, and went to the auditorium.
Rabbi Steinsaltz came down from Stage, introductions were made. The Rabbi gave a kind smile as he asked where we need to go for the portrait. Exited the auditorium, walked under the rolled backdrop, pulled down the backdrop, picked up the camera, hooked the tether wire to capture, and immediately started.
The Rabbi asked," I suppose you'll tell me how to move my head and hands, stand so and so?"
I responded," I'd prefer if I could take your picture as you are, without my interference." Rabbi countered," you know that photographers are the most powerful people on the planet?", " How's that?", "Well it doesn't matter who you are...a president, and emperor, a famous person..as soon as any one of them is in front of the camera, the photographer tells them what to do."
At this point, I turned my computer screen to face us both as we took a few pictures. The rabbi turned to look at the screen as the pictures flashed on," You know, the best time to take my picture was when I was three years old.", "why?" ,"As a three year old, I had a full head long blond curly hair." "would you settle if I capture you as a wizened sage?" The Rabbi Laughed, and glanced over at the computer screen to his right:
The moment of this portrait stays with me for many reasons. The most compelling is this. At the time, Rabbi Steinsaltz, and everyone else for that matter, were saying tehilim (Psalms), with the hopes of the safe return of Yaacov, Gilad, and Eyal, the three young yeshiva students who were reported missing from Mekor Chaim Yeshiva, Rabbi Steinsaltz's school. Their bodies were found the very next day, Daled Tammuz, victims of terrorists. Rabbi Steinsaltz flew back to Israel to be with his students.