a professional portrait

Catriel on the ‘Seat of Elijah’

I was asked to do a portrait, by an old customer last week. I first started working for him about 25 years ago, and I regard him highly. I have had a photography studio and lab for many years here in Jerusalem. I have worked with museums, industrialists, artists, and private people. I’ve had a number of employees who have worked for me over the years, most of them for long periods of time. And I have tried my best to maintain friendly relations with both customers and workers during all that time. But some of these people have made a lasting impression on me, and Catriel is definitely one of those.

detail of peacock on the seat

When first I met Catriel, he was a craftsman; a woodworker who made exquisite religious objects out of wood, often employing rare woods from far away places, and embedding silver and gold and mother of pearl in the pieces he made. He designed the pieces himself, and his work was elegant. My job was to photograph the objects for his catalogue. Occasionally, my photographs appeared in magazine articles about his beautiful work.

mezuzah made to look like a house

I can’t say that the photography itself was a great challenge, or especially interesting work. But I considered it an honor to document these wonderful objects, and when I photographed them in my studio, I felt as if I was handling holy objects. Each of them had a ‘presence’ that I couldn’t ignore. He made all kinds of things, from spinning tops for children to celebrate the Hanukah holiday, to spice holders used in the ceremony in which we mark the end of the Sabbath, and the beginning of the new week. He made the little boxes for the mezuzah, in which the parchment that declares our faith in one god is attached to the doorframe. And since this box is called ‘house’ in Hebrew, he made some that were in the image of a Jerusalem house, complete with solar panels on the roof, and a water tank. But there were bigger projects too. He made a model of the tabernacle in which we live outside the home for a week in the fall, called a sukkah. And likewise, made a model of a synagogue. And eventually, he made the most stirring model of all, a model of the holy temple.

a little model of a synagogue as seen from the inside

In order to make this model of the holy temple, he had to study quite a bit about how the temple itself was made, and became an expert on the subject, and was invited to lecture in numerous places. In a way, this was the beginning of his turn from wood working to scholarship. He became a regular lecturer. And since then, he has turned his hand to writing, and this recent request for a portrait was because a book he has written is about to be published, and he was asked for a portrait to be included on the cover of his book, by the publishers. It was not the first time I had done a portrait of him.

chalice for wine

Many years ago, he had built the seat of Elijah, a ceremonial chair that is found in most synagogues. When a baby boy is circumcised, he is placed on the seat of Elijah, or on the knees of his godfather, who sits on the seat. And this seat is usually somewhat ornate. But the seat that Catriel made, was so beautiful, that it couldn’t be compared to any other. On the sides, the images of peacocks were embedded in the wood. It was truly a work of art. I made a portrait of him seated in this chair he had made, and he was dressed in clothing from the time of the holy temple. I loved that chair, and loved the congregation that was so blessed as to have that chair in their synagogue. When I met him last week, I asked him where the chair was these days, expecting to hear that it was now in some synagogue in a wealthy neighborhood of New York, or somewhere else in the west. But to my disappointment, I was informed that it resided in a museum. I would have preferred it, if it was still in use, as a piece of religious furniture.

spice box for parting from the Sabbath

In any case, when he approached me with the request that I do his portrait, and explained that it was for a book cover, I asked him how he would like others to see him. He answered, ‘genial and benign’. I was amazed. I have done many a portrait in my professional life, and I have often asked what the purpose was, or what the subject wished people to see in the portrait, but I had never been told that he or she wished to be seen as benign. But there is something aristocratic about Catriel. His beautiful work is a testament to his exceptional character.

Catriel today

And I have to tell you, that I take a certain risk in publishing this post. For he is one of the very few Israeli readers of this blog. Most of my readers reside in foreign countries. And most of my Israeli acquaintances and friends don’t even know that I write in English as well. But Catriel has found my blog and reads it regularly.


32 responses to “a professional portrait

  1. I am sure if I were there, I would be so glad to meet with him too. His crafts works are amazing and priceless… Fascinated me so much. How nice dear Shimon, you are a friend for a long time, this is so priceless too. Day by day you shared your life… he knows you, you know him… This is admirable story. And when I look at these two portraits, what I see… No, I am not going to talk about the years… Years for all of us… But there is something not changed, please tell him, he seems as he wanted… On the other hand, with your camera you did great by taking his portrait picture… You both looked to each other in the same feelings, I think… Beautiful. I am impressed by this amazing post. I wish you both, Blessing and Happiness, Thank you, with my love, nia

    • Yes, his works are unique and amazing. But I don’t feel at all bad, about the years that have gone by, Nia. The fact that we have lived good lives, and learned and produced things in this world, gives significance to those years… and all the time, both then and now, we have to live in the present. I thank you for your wishes for happiness. That is what matters most to me. Thank you so much for your comment.

  2. I think this is a very successful portrait Shimon. What wonderful objects Catriel has created over the years. The model of the synagogue is exquisite. A true craftsman.

    • Thank you Chillbrook. I am pleased with the portrait. What is truly exceptional is his work. I sometimes wonder whether craft will be as important in the future. Already, most of the objects that surround us, are mass produced.

  3. What a lovely portrait of a lovely man, as you have presented him. I think you captured the geniality of his essence, Shimon, a testament to your artistry as well. It has been so lovely to see these pictures of Catriel’s artwork: such gift!

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed this post, Catherine. He is truly a gifted craftsman, and it’s hard to decide when looking at his work, whether it is craft or art.

  4. It is wonderful when a person stays with us the way Catriel has with you, by the impression he has left over all of the years you have known one another. The work you have represented here, his and yours, is truly remarkable. His craftsmanship shines through your images with absolute clarity. You have done a great honor to him and to his artistry. Your recent portrait of him does just as he hoped it would: the image you have captured here is of someone kind and welcoming, someone your readers would surely like to share your fortune in knowing.

    • Yes, Lemony. One of the advantages of living these many years, or having a long career, is that we see how people eventually accomplish difficult and complicated goals… and build large bodies of work. It is a great pleasure of the later years. And it makes me happy that I have recorded many of his works… for the works themselves are now scattered around the world. Thank you for your comment.

  5. WordsFallFromMyEyes

    I have never, not ever seen such beauty in craftmanship. This was a great piece – you opened my eyes to more than I knew. Thank you.

  6. The first portrait is very striking, such a strong image. And what a pleasure to photograph such beutiful pieces,

    • Yes, portraits are a very special area of photography, and I think the closest it comes to painting. Catalogue photography is usually far less gratifying, but in this case, because I loved his work, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks for the comment, Claire.

  7. A striking portrait, very well done. FATman

  8. such intricacy, and detail in his work … beautiful

    I love the portrait at the end (genial and benign)
    and the juxtaposition of old world, and new, and
    how it invites you in to join the discussion … nice

    • It is a pleasure for me to introduce others to his work, which is really unique. I love doing portraits. It is both challenging and rewarding. Thank you, N.

  9. There is so much here to see. I am astounded by this man’s woodwork. The wood on the chair is carefully chosen for its character. I wonder what kind of wood it is. And the peacock! I agree. This chair should hold the faithful in her arms as your friend intended. It is ironic that her very beauty doomed her to isolation in a museum.

    The meticulous attention to every detail in the model of the synagogue obviously required extensive research. The result is magnificent. The mezuzah, the chalice and the spice box appear to be made of ebony wood, silver and mother of pearl. How creative he is to have designed the spice box like a house. This artist’s perspective is as fascinating as his work is beautiful. Not a wonder that a museum would seek to own it.

    Your friend’s suggestion that he be seen as “genial and benign” struck me as an odd request. His eyes are not particularly genial or benign although you captured him in a benign posture. There is the juxtaposition of ancient and modern in the photograph. The computer monitor is undeniable. Time and the tides push forward? The features of this man’s face are strong and too powerful to be seen as simply genial and benign. I am sure he is that kind of person, but the presence he presents is a contradiction. Perhaps, he is too complex for such a description.

    Your portrait of him on the Seat of Elijah belongs in a serious book collection. I assume that is where it is now. I prefer the portrait of the artist and man of God to the portrait of the scholar. I do not know why that is.

    Thank you for the care you took to give us the history of these pieces and of the man.

    • I don’t know what wood the chair was made of, but I remember that he used to order wood from far away places, and combined different woods at times, to get colored effects. Nothing was painted on. The truth is, that he has a very strong character, and isn’t quite as benign as he would like to appear. But I see my work as a photographer, to represent the people whose portrait I make. He is somewhat complex, as most artists are. Thank you so much for your comment, George. It is always a pleasure to share with you.

  10. You did well, ShimonZ. Catriel looks at us with a gentle eye. The work is exquisite. I can understand your sense of handling something holy.

  11. The work of Catriel’s hands will endure long after his words are forgotten.
    No portrait can change a man’s character as long as his eyes are visible.

    • I don’t know which will last longer… the work of his hands, or his words… He is a teacher and a lecturer now, and the words of some of my teachers have stayed with me all my life, and live on in the lives of my students and friends. I think it might be easier for some to appreciate the work of his hands… and for others to appreciate his words. Regarding the possibility that a portrait might change a person’s character, I agree with you. But a portrait can’t say it all. It is just a picture of a person. And sometimes, when looking at a person we see one thing. And then other times, we see something else. When I do a portrait of someone, I ask, what it is that he hopes to communicate through the picture of himself or herself… And since we have many faces, and many expressions, there is much to choose from. I appreciated this comment. Thanks again!

  12. Very interesting post, Shimon. Catriel’s looks amazing, especially the model synagogue.

  13. Beautiful craftmanship. Remember you cannot hide on the internet unless you use a pseudonym like I do 🙂

  14. Have to agree with the above…I do -not- see benign in those eyes. I see the same deserved arrogance and pride as the young artist…he has simply changed art forms. I am happy for him, that he has had the opportunity to grow and show so much beauty over the years.

    As for your pictures…very beautiful stuff. I’m glad you try to let the subject show the look they desire…but I’m glad you also know your art, and when it’s right. 😉

    • Like so many people, KC, and artists too, Catriel has many sides, and the more I got to know him, the more parts of him I learned to appreciate… some of his characteristics were even contradictory… but it was all part of him. His work has an elegance, though, that made a very strong impression. Thank you so much for coming by, and for your comment.

  15. It is such a pleasure to both view and read all about your friend, his blessed hands, and your friendship.

  16. Amazing photos Sir, the depths of Catriel’s creativity is amazing. I love his model of the temple. There are masters and then there are the very few that take it to a whole new level. I think this man would be one of them. I get to study a lot of Stephen Scott Young’s art and I think he is one that takes mastery to a whole new level. His portfolio is so strong from start to finish. A remarkable feat. To do it once is one thing, to do it over and over is a totally different story.

    • Yes, it is hard to judge, or categorize creativity. Like yourself, I often just bow my head in the presence of a master, without understanding completely how he go there. Your mention of Stephen Scott Young is a case in point. I never had the opportunity to see his work live, but I have seen reproductions… and found that my breath just stopped. Thank you very much for your comment. It is always a special pleasure to share with you.

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