Raphael Shevelev's Voice

I've named this column "Raphael Shevelev's Voice" because I find the word "blog" inelegant, reminiscent of other rude four-letter Anglo-Saxon words. It will be a collection of opinion pieces that will be added to from time to time. Comments on these writings are welcome, and can be entered below each.

Over the years, I’ve come across so many Ansel Adams wannabes, Wynn Bullock wannabes, Michael Kenna wannabes and many others who’d prefer to be someone other than who they are. I’ve been drawn to the conclusion that imitation is the sincerest form of mindlessness.
After a stay in a hospital near my home in Berkeley, California, I received a questionnaire from the Administrator. I responded that I had been delighted with the courtesies and professionalism of the nurses, technicians and physicians, but I resented the antisemitism. On my second morning there, my breakfast tray contained a curious item: wrapped in cellophane was a round, cold, soggy bread-like substance, ashamed of its own pallor. The menu labeled it as a bagel.
Once a week, usually in the morning, the fruit and vegetable man drove his Jewish truck down our street in Cape Town, stopping outside our home and blowing the horn. Until I walked out to look at his truck, I didn’t know motor vehicles could be Jewish.
When my parents were very young, only a few years older than my grandson is now, they fled their Baltic homes from the growing ugliness of European anti-Semitism. Much of the Western world was closed to them, so they found refuge in South Africa. In 1936, in their mid-twenties, they were married in Cape Town’s Great Synagogue. I was born in December 1938, just nine months before Hitler’s troops invaded Poland and thus started the Second World War. Other family members, not having had their foresight, were murdered in the Holocaust.
I wore my best blue suit to meet Harry Springett. In a place where even modest dwellings were named, my parents took me to “Fairhaven,” 15 Flower Street, The Gardens, Cape Town. Mr. Springett was the first photographer I’d met.
I see a great number of images. I make a few myself, and I subscribe to remarkable journals put out by the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain, LensWork, others devoted to the image, and those made by many artists, some of whom I know.
My wife nudged me awake and said “I have a pain in my belly.” “Not surprising,” I said, “given all the boerewors (farmer’s sausage) we ate at the neighbor’s braaivleis (barbecue) last night. Would you like Alka-Seltzer?” She said “I don’t think that’s the reason. I think the baby is coming!” Well, that certainly changed the day. She kept a small suitcase of personal items under the bed. It came along with us to the Marifont Nursing Home, a Catholic maternity hospital just two blocks away.
A friend who is a fine, accomplished and well-published poet recently stopped by. She looked at one of the pictures on the dining room wall and said "Photoshop?" I said "Cerebrum." Then I asked her what word processor she used to compose her poems. From her chastened look, I gathered the message had leaked through. 
Davey Neipris of Boston, Mass., gave me a left-profile portrait of George Washington. It’s crafted in metal, fractionally short of an inch in diameter, and cost him no more than 25 cents. That was in the days when you could get a cup of coffee, including a refill, for 5 cents.
On a unique occasion, before I entered elementary school, my mother spoke of her birthplace. She called it “Yelok,” the Yiddish form of Ylakiai. It was then a tiny village, a shtetl, in northwest Lithuania, with a population of less than one thousand. About half of them were Jewish. My mother’s family name was Abramson, her father, Simon. I don’t recall her mother’s name, and mother quietly refused any further inquiry. By the time I was a teenager, I realized that she was taking refuge from intense pain, and I didn’t pursue the subject.
We talked with each other for twelve years. To be honest, I did most of the talking, he did most of the listening. I knew he was actively engaged because he would cock his head slightly, just so, and look at me unblinkingly with his warm, beautiful brown eyes. We started at a conversational run, no baby talk.
On the Saturday before Rosh Hashanah in 1946, before my eighth birthday, I accompanied my parents to visit my only remaining grandparent, Blume-Devorah Westermann-Shevelev. The others had all died in Latvia and Lithuania before I was born. We lived in a flat on the lower slope of Table Mountain, with a view of the city and harbor. My paternal grandmother – bubbe – lived in the vibrant suburb of Sea Point, two or three blocks from the oceanfront, from which one can see Robben Island.
In January 1947 my father’s pride and joy arrived. His only child was then eight years old. The brand new 1946 Chevrolet Fleetmaster, grey with a blue top, had been transported to Cape Town by rail from South West Africa (formerly German West Africa, now Namibia) where my mother’s only surviving brother, uncle Abe, owned a dealership. The license plate read OT414, the letters being an abbreviation for Otjiwarongo, an inland town a thousand miles north. 
It is simply a dining-room chair of pleasing design. Over the years it has acquired distinction because of the remarkable glutei maximi that it has cradled.
A few months ago I was invited to give an address to a local photographic arts group. I titled my talk “The Urge to Create,” in the course of which I had emphatically dismissed the idea of “rules” in the creation of art. At the end of the meeting, a gentleman asked one of the very good questions that were posed that evening: "If there are no rules, then how do we maintain standards?" As a fuller discussion of this could easily have absorbed another several hours, I thought it best to postpone, and then promptly forgot about this interesting problem.
Humanity’s major preoccupation is with humanity. We are, so to speak, of the genus homo narcissus, and that describes much of our concerns. Portraiture is the natural result of the urge to record images of ourselves, in all manner of repose and activity. As Remy Saisselin wrote in Style, Truth and the Portrait (1963),
Twenty-five years ago I first saw the wall at Battery Mendell, a reinforced concrete gun emplacement, completed by 1905, to guard the entrance to San Francisco Bay. It is situated in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, north of the bridge. In the bright sunlight one could count the generations of paint, blue, grey, brown, gold, each taking turns to escape the surface whose hold was becoming ever more tenuous. The wall fascinated me, and I wondered what I could do to portray it without succumbing to the cliché of peeling-paint photography.
In 1964, the United States Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, had two Fourth of July parties. One was for people of all ethnicities. The other was a reception for government officials, “sanitized” for whites only. Invited to attend, I declined, repelled by this American tolerance of apartheid. 
Many, many years ago, in deep midsummer, I journeyed to consult with the wisest of all people, the Oracle of Delphi. The arduous horseback ride north of Athens was quite uncomfortable, especially the last twenty kilometers into the mountains. Arriving at the top of the hill, where the temple is located, I sank to the ground and rested on the cool, shaded marble, drinking copiously from an unglazed amphora of cold water provided by an acolyte. I sat there, quietly and reflectively, for perhaps an hour, before being summoned into the presence of the Oracle.
Aloneness, solitude, is frequently a choice, even a necessity. Loneliness, however, implies a yearning for connection. Both are conditions familiar to artists, and sometimes flow into each other. The literature, including poetry, on aloneness and loneliness, is more than ample. Some of it is encouraging, some empathetic, some contradictory, some reconciliatory and some so distressing as to itself cause the depression from which it may well have arisen.
She was so extraordinarily beautiful that I couldn’t avert my gaze for many minutes. Her eyes met and held mine for that entire time. I knew then that in the years to come, she would have an effect on my life and work. The red hair, those amazing blue eyes, the perfect symmetry of her face, as though it had been manufactured with fine tools rather than being the random product of mere human genes. I never did find out her name, but decided to call her Siobhan, Irish being somewhat exotic in my family. I met her in Santa Cruz, where she worked as a wax mannequin in a store window.
Earlier in my life, when I was much more engaged with politics and macro-economics, I was offered an executive position in the international department of a major bank. During the interview I was asked about my economic philosophy, particularly whether I tended to side with Milton Friedman of the Chicago School, or John Maynard Keynes. As I have never believed in rigid categories, I responded “Sometimes bits of both, sometimes borrowing from the thoughts of many, including Adam Smith, Friedrich von Hayek, Karl Marx, David Ricardo.” I declined the offer.
Creating is difficult and demanding work. Ask any creator. We know it requires a synthesis of imagination and high technical skill, but we frequently forget that the act of creating is also allied to humor and play. Play is thought of as a childish pursuit, not appropriate for adults in an increasingly technological and empirical world. There’s a story about a man who explains to his little daughter that his job is to teach adults to draw. “You mean they forget?” she asks. Yes, they do.
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, my father would occasionally bring home from the synagogue on Friday nights a person or couple who had survived the Holocaust.
That’s a good question to ask of a surgeon before an operation. It’s usually also a good question to ask of a financial counselor, an electrician, or the pilot of a chartered aircraft. But there are occasions when the question is the last or only resort of a potential employer who has little or no idea of what they’d like to see accomplished. It vacuums all the creative imagination out of the room and replaces it with the certain monotony of an assembly line.