Photography is as natural as breathing to Herbert Ascherman Jr., whose work will be on display at two shows this fall
By Carlo Wolff
Mounting a photographic exhibition is one thing. For Herbert Ascherman Jr., it’s two.
In September, the work of Ascherman, a photographer widely known for his portraits, will be the subject of two exhibitions: a 40-year retrospective at Heights Arts in Cleveland Heights and a smaller, more conceptual one at the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve Gallery in Cleveland.
The Heights Arts exhibition, Ascherman’s first retrospective, consists of 64 black-and-white analog prints and one color photograph, taken “with a myriad of cameras.” The Cleveland display is 25 diptychs capturing Cleveland police and fire department personnel in their public and private modes.
“I went through 120,000 black-and-white negatives to pick the 200 that we edited down to 65,” Ascherman said of the Heights Arts show. “I went through every negative with a magnifying glass, frame by frame; the majority of these images have never been seen before.”
Ascherman took the color photo of his wife, Colleen Sweeney, in 2000 on Achill Island off the coast of Ireland.
“It’s this gorgeous, 19th-century image of this beautiful redheaded woman in a black cape set against the brown heath, the wild heath of Ireland,” he said. “My shoulder is backed up against the cemetery wall, where her great-great-grand mother is buried.”
One could call this third-generation Shaker resident and fourth-generation Clevelander a man out of time; many Ascherman photos, particularly ones taken in France, resonate backward, speaking to a more leisurely, more elegant era. Even some American ones, like his black-and-white print of a woman leaning against a piano in Bratenahl, evoke such painters as John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler. Like those American masters, Ascherman composes as much as he captures.
“My style is 19th-century Romantic,” Ascherman said, noting he takes his cues from the early French daguerrian photographers and, in the 20th century, Yousuf Karsh of Ottawa, Canada and Arnold Newman of New York City.
Ascherman called Karsh a “romantic and heroic portrait photographer,” while Newman “created environmental portrait photography in the 1940s.”
The director of the Bibliotheque Nationale, France’s version of the Library of Congress, told Ascherman he has “American eyes and a French heart.”
The Artists Archives exhibit is more contemporary and thematic. Working with the Silver & Gold, the fundraising arm of the Fraternal Order of Police, Ascherman has taken 25 pairs of 8-by-10 photos with his Deardorff view camera, yielding silver gelatin prints. They show the same figure “publicly as we see them and privately as they are,” Ascherman said.
Photography continues to liberate him.
“I characterize myself as eternally curious. I go out for a walk, I take a camera, I see what I can see. And that’s all it is. It’s just walking and breathing.”
Pictures appear “in front of you and then you take them,” he said. “It’s a very Zen kind of thing. There are also very specific projects that I have done over the years; for example, I spent three summers in North Dakota and Montana photographing American Indians; I took over 750 black-and-white photographs with that 8-by-10 camera.” A show of some 45 handmade platinum prints from this is planned for the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 2018.
“I’ve had cameras since I was a kid,” he said. “I went to work for my father, he owned a lumber business, and it occurred to me I needed a job I couldn’t get fired from. So I picked up a camera and with very little practical experience went to work.
“My entire life has been spent behind a camera,” Ascherman added. “It’s been a life of discovery and delight. I get paid to take pictures. How much better does it get?”
Ascherman has notched 1,735 weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs and “doggie birthday parties,” along with 9,000 black-and-white portraits; he works internationally, and he turned over 6,000 black-and-white portrait files he’d accumulated over 35 years to the Western Reserve Historical Society.
“I hope to share my vision with others who will enjoy what I enjoy,” Ascherman said. “I hope that my work uplifts the human condition. In my final discussion with my father, who wanted me to be in his business, he said put away the cameras and concentrate on business. He said, ‘I put food on 350 plates a day.’ And I looked at him without missing a beat and said, ‘I can put a smile on 350,000 people a day. Who makes the better contribution?’” CV
WHAT: “Herbert Ascherman Jr.: 40 Years”
WHEN: Sept. 2 to Oct. 15
WHERE: Heights Arts, 2175 Lee Road in Cleveland Heights
INFO: Opening reception 6-9 p.m. Sept. 2. Gallery talk Sept. 29. Call 216-371-3457 or visit heightsarts.org
WHAT: “First Responders: As We See Them, As They Are”
WHEN: Sept. 15 to Nov. 5
WHERE: Artists Archives of the Western Reserve Gallery, 1834 E. 123rd St. in Cleveland
INFO: Opening reception 5:30-8 p.m. Sept. 15. Call 216-721-9020 or visit artistsarchives.org
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Aug. 18, 2016.
Lead image: Herbert Ascherman Jr. loves Cleveland, “selling” the city wherever he travels. Fans of the peripatetic photographer will have two major opportunities in September to savor the images he’s created over the past four decades. PHOTO | Herbert Ascherman Jr.