How to Spend and an Inordinate Amount of Time with Alex Clare

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?!

Photographed in JZD Mansion on Prospect Park West, Brooklyn, NY March 6, 201711:15pm

Photographed in JZD Mansion on Prospect Park West, Brooklyn, NY March 6, 201711:15pm

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.

Marko's Nigun, and My favorite portrait of Zusha; the band

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.

Zusha, photographed 2015, Park Slope, Brooklyn, 401 9th street

Zusha, photographed 2015, Park Slope, Brooklyn, 401 9th street

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...

Zusha2856 1_done.jpg

A Surprise Blessing from an Alter Chassid

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

Late, on a long summer day in 2015, with Rabbi J David Bleich

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.

Rabbi Adin Even-Yisrael Steinsaltz

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 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.