Raphael Shevelev’s Voice: Latest Posts

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. Its a collection of opinion pieces that is added to from time to time. Comments on these writings are welcome, and can be entered below each.

I was in my SACS uniform walking up the grand staircase of CT City Hall to see the Mayor. I stopped on the landing to read the Latin on the stained glass window: Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori. A voice above me said “Do you believe that bullshit?” It was Alan Paton, so we talked. We have something else in common, see my photographer’s website www.raphaelshevelev.com I loved photography as a child and the last 30 years I’ve been a professional and a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society.
Except for portraying my grandchildren, I prefer to make portraits of my own age cohort. I’m in my eighty-first year and am surrounded by more beauty than ever in my life!
Thank you, Josh! After decades of using almost every kind of camera, Voigtlander, Rolleiflex, Nikon, Canon, I’ve just acquired the Nikon Z7 and am about to learn so much more about menus and submenus, control wheels and sub-control wheels before making my first image. Your reassuring voice helped! Indeed, another computer. For Christmas I may want a Holga.
I left my native city, Cape Town, 55 years ago and hoped that the country would recover from vicious nationalism. I’m so disappointed with what has happened. As a schoolboy I had an encounter with Alan Paton, and now I feel that Cry The Beloved Country applies also to contemporary America.
The first time I taught a photography class in a university, all the students brought cameras along. I had to tell them “This is not a class about mechanics. It’s a class about observation and how it impacts your mind. If I taught a class on cooking, would you bring stoves along?”
The diligent art of writing, and the diligent art of making images, are happy fraternal twins, children of the same passion to communicate. I remember reacting negatively to a famous British photographer friend who referred to writers on photography as WOBS, word-oriented bastards. Somewhere, in my distant past, I remember being cautioned that fine pictures have no need for text. That’s quite wrong thinking. I’m grateful to MEDIUM and all the publications that have indulged my passion to do both.
Bravo! Creative thinking occurs with greater regularity from narrowed parameters. Decades ago, when I led my first photographic tour to Nepal and India, one of the participants brought along two complete camera systems: Leica, Hasselblad, lenses, and bags of film. Everywhere we went, I heard her exclaim “(Expletive) the wrong lens!” I learned that same lesson from “Wrong-Lens-Natalie.” To get more of a long focus effect, take a few steps forward. Reverse for wider angle. My students learned best when I expected them to do remarkable images while confined to their bathrooms.
Mr. Clarke’s work reminds me of how ashamed I am of my American government, for supplying the murderous Saudis with weapons and logistics, and thereby approval of the war against Yemen. It’s of a piece with the murder of Mr. Kashoggi.
Dear Sylvia, this is really about my life’s work, to promote liberal democracy, human rights and racial equality. It was reinforced when my feet walked in places called Auschwitz, Majdanek, Treblinka, and saw where so many (including my family) were murdered.
A brilliant explanation of what it feels like to run the race against mortality, to become older and better until there is no more.
…and the negative spaces between the notes that make music what it is.
I think you may be missing an important point. If you wish to emphasize the beauty/character of the portrayed, it can just as easily be done in a junkyard, or a factory, or a desert. I have longed to do a model shoot on Alcatraz, a rail yard, or an abandoned factory. In winter. Deliberate contrasts work very well.
Tom, thank you for returning me to my years with panchromatic film, filters, and all the magic that existed even before Photoshop!
Well-written, Sylvia. Most of it is encapsulated in the words unkindness, cowardice, vindictiveness. I’ve witnessed and been the target within my own extended family. When the hurt subsided with excellent counseling, I learned to brush it off and live happily and well, and have renewed joy in chosen family.
Congratulations, Debs. You’ve come through a lot and shown yourself to be a woman of curiosity (a huge sign of intelligence) and courage.
I have written that “To create is to wait patiently for nostalgia,” and that “Rejection is a gift, however well-disguised.” In decades of teaching and writing about the creative process, being patient with oneself and having confidence about the often slow emergence of good ideas in crucial. It’s really not a race, but that time is the measure of how open we remain to innovation.
Josh, working with my students in several art programs, I probably spent more time discussing the differences between color and black and white than anything else. It always came down to the last sentence of your fine metaphysical essay.
All my long life I’ve embraced non-linear thinking. As an adult, it gave me a much more involved and happy childhood than I had thought possible.
Thank you for this, Sylvia, on the eve of having spinal L4 fusion surgery to eliminate the pain from an accident 50 yeas ago when I slipped on ice.
Sunset At The Taj © Raphael ShevelevThe other day, I was talking with a colleague about photographing places that have been photographed many times before. He wondered out aloud about finding innovative ways to represent that most photographed of all places, the Taj Mahal.
My European refugee parents had ambitions for their only child.
Guards, Buckingham Palace. Photograph by Raphael Shevelev.My first experience with the British Royal Family came when I was a little boy in Cape Town, South Africa. King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and the Princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, arrived there for a State Visit in 1947.
Orchids Of The ImaginationLet me say it out loud. I love flowers, and dislike — actually detest — most flower photography.
We owe to composer, musicologist and satirist Peter Schickele our profound gratitude for having discovered his alter ego, P.D.Q. Bach, “the youngest and stupidest of the Bach children.” Quoting from memory, with appropriate apologies, “In an age when it was common for composers to steal musical ideas from each other, P.D.Q. Bach was the only one who used tracing paper.”
David Hockney is a genius. To see his work in several media is to become deeply entwined in what Arthur Koestler, in his book The Act Of Creation, calls ‘the magic synthesis’- that intimate, lasting bond between an artist and the audience. It’s as profound as, for instance, the deliberate act of listening to every note, every emotion, every moment of brilliance in Haydn’s music.
Would you consider being a character witness for my Senate confirmation hearing? At last, a really good — and totally appropriate — job in the White House is available, and the President has decided to nominate me. This week, speaking in San Diego, he proposed a new Space Force, and I’m ready to serve my country and the universe by becoming the first Commandant/Czar. My credentials are impeccable.
Mom
My mother was born one hundred and eight years ago, in 1909, in the village of Yliakiai, in Northwest Lithuania. She used its Yiddish name “Yelok.” She was one of four children who were orphaned very, very young. With some community help, the oldest child, Esther, then just a teenager, raised the children for a while until they could be sent to other families for foster care. They were desperately poor. Three of the four children, mother, her older sister Tzila, and my favorite uncle Abe, faced with increasing antisemitism, left Europe and made a life in Southern Africa.
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.
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.
By my third night in India, I was exhausted, though my entry had been gentled by calmer days in Nepal. After dinner I walked slowly back to my tent, and sat down heavily on the cot. I was in Pushkar for the annual camel fair, staying in the brightly colored tents supplied for foreign guests, wondering what I was doing in the middle of the Rajasthan desert, among thousands of camels and even more people.
As a lad, I’d imagine riding my penny-farthing bicycle to the bakery, doffing my straw boater respectfully to posters of my Sovereign, H. M. Queen Victoria. Now I drive to the bakery in my silver-grey SUV, and to many other destinations that could not have been accomplished on my bike.
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.

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