Shana Sureck Photography Blog

Awesome Senior Portraits

Who knew senior pictures could be SO MUCH FUN to do!!!  I had the wonderful privilege this week of working with two amazing young women, seniors at Northampton High School, on beautifully unique senior pictures. 

Anna came to my studio in a simple, elegant black dress and we started with a traditional shot against a backdrop with lights, and then moved out into the beautiful fall afternoon.  It was like playing, rather than working.  I loved it. 

 

 

She has an inner beauty and an outer radiance that my camera just loved, loved, loved!!!

The next day, I did the first part of a shoot with Johanna, who had some great ideas for what she was looking for.  She wanted a renaissance dress, so her mom Patti Klein created one from her old decades-old prom dress and an ivory dress of Johanna's on top of it.  Add on fabric she just happened to have lying around, some fading flowers, and voila....

A different look...

And then, inspiried by artist Alexa Meade, she went for something completely different!!! Johanna had her very talented sister Becca paint her, all of her, clothes and all.  It took true family togetherness to create this one. When I came to her house at 2:00, she'd been in the same place for 5 hours, a patient human canvas, with both sisters and her mom helping. 

The detail work was AMAZING!!!!  

Add a little texture to the background just for fun, and a unique senior portrait is created.

I wonder what Becca will do in two years when it's her turn to graduate!!!  I hope I'm there to photograph it, because I know it will be terrific.  It's such an honor to be part of making iconic images that kids will have in their yearbooks and look back on 10, 20, 50 years from now as a precious memory of who they were as they were finishing high school and moving out into the world.  Thank you for letting me be part of this important time in your life. 

    Johanna (left) and Becca 

Bat Mitzvah Reflections

The world of girls and Judaism has changed since I became a bat mitzvah in January 1973, a day punctuated by the signing of a treaty ending the Vietnam War.

For starters, I had to fight to simply have a bat mitzvah. No girl in my Sephardic Orthodox synagogue Shearith Israel (The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in NYC) had ever had one before. I was the first. Many objected and boycotted. I wasn't allowed to read from the Torah.  I wasn't even allowed to have my ceremony on Shabbat, or in the main sanctuary.  My party consisted of 4 Hebrew School friends coming back to my apartment for pizza and games. There is not even one snapshot to mark the day.

Today, not only is it the norm for girls to become a bat mitzvah and read from the Torah, but often they are up on the bimah with a woman rabbi on one side and woman tutor on the other. It moves me to tears to see a sea of women when the Judaism of my childhood had us relegated to the balcony. 

Sarina looks for the starting line of her parshah with Rabbi Nancy Flam (left) and mentor Judi Wisch (right) in her backyard bat mitzvah in Northampton, MA.  

Evie reads from the Torah at her b'nai mitzvah she shared with her twin brother Bernie in Boston, MA.  Her moms are at left, her rabbi at right.

In the first photograph of this blog, Hadas is barefoot in the wet grass by a gazebo where we are doing extended family portraits a day before her bat mtizvah. It is her last day of sixth grade at Lander-Grinspoon Academy, a Jewish Day School in Northampton, MA, and the day before her bat mitzvah in Enfield CT.  She wears a tallis (a prayer shawl) that she'd just received for becoming a bat mitzvah, and moves as comfortably with it as she does with the faith and observance of her religious family. The daughter of a Conservative rabbi, Rabbi Bruce Bromberg-Seltzer and a Jewish educator, Deborah Bromberg-Seltzer, Hadas is an able and knowledgable leader among her peers, and will no doubt take on leading sections of services at her congregation B'nai Israel, in Northampton, now that's she a bat mitzvah.

I paused as I watched her, remembering my own bat mitzvah 40 years ago. Men and women sat apart, men on the ground floor, women on the second floor balcony. I was announced during the Sabbath service, but couldn't participate until the kiddush afterwards where I gave my speech. For friends came over for pizza and games afterwards. The following day, Sunday, I had a very condensed service in the small sanctuary. I read my Torah portion from a book. Many in the congregation protested by not  coming.  

I'd fought to have a bat mitzvah, probably less out of religious zeal than out of finding it ridiculous that boys, no smarter or better in Hebrew than I was, could have one and I couldn't.  I don't remember family coming from out of town and my party consisted of four classmates coming back to my house for pizza and games, Spin the Bottle being one of them.  

The bat mitzvah process, or struggle for me, led to a lifelong journey to find my place in the Jewish world.  

I remember when my bat mitzvah was over telling my father I didn't want to belong to a synagogue that didn't want me as an equal member.  He nodded and said that I was free to make that choice, but that I couldn't walk away from Judaism: I would still had to go to services every Saturday morning, but could go wherever in NYC I wanted to go.  

A door opened.  I wandered into the Shlomo Carlbach synagogue, Reconstructionist synagogues, reform and conservative temples.  He took me by subway to an all-black Jewish synagogue in Brooklyn, and to a Lubavitcher one, as well. I'd write my own prayer books and hold services in my dorm room at college. Later I'd make my home for 20 years in both a wonderful havurah and a small Jewish Renewal congregation in Connecticut, each of which fed a different part of me.  I'd study and learn with Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe, a remarkably brilliant, amazing teacher at Chabad House. I'd marry a woman and our family would be fully accepted at a conservative synagogue in Massachusetts. 

Today as I watch young girls walk up on the bimah and read from the Torah, lead services, and study with women mentors and rabbis/cantors, I'm moved to tears. Only a generation ago, this wasn't possible for many, and now it's the norm. The faith I've loved, rebelled against, and returned to wrestle with is fuller and deeper for me now than ever before. I love watching the girls - and boys - in our community on the cusp of adolescence enter a world they too will wrestle with and make their own. 

 

Lila reading her parsha, with her mother, Naomi Shulman (left) and tutor Alison Morse (right) in Northampton, MA.

             Dvora during the rehearsal for her bat mitzvah in Northampton, MA.

Lily, before the start of her havdalah bat mitzvah on the farm she lives on with her moms Julie Lieberman (left) and Renee Bachman.  She moved the audience to tears as she linked her parshah about Moses leading the Israelites to freedom with her own childhood journey from a Guatemalan orphanage to an incredible family that includes two younger siblings.

 

Wedded Blizz

The quiet calm before the storm.  The streets of New Haven were magical.

And then it fell - 34 inches of snow.

A state of emergency issued.

All roads in CT closed.  (Luckily a Dunkin Donut was open on Chapel Street for snowplowers working through the night).

Welcome to the February 9th blizzard wedding of Abigail and Max!!!

I've shot a wedding in a hurricane, and a bat mitzvah that ended minutes before the power went out during the freak October snowstorm in 2011, but nothing like this!! God bless my second shooter Chris Volpe who snowshoed 2 hours to get to the church!! And God bless guests who shoveled the stairs of the church so grandma could enter for the Friday night rehearsal!

The obstacles kept mounting. The day before the wedding, the couple had to find another church. Their church - St. Gabriel Church in Milford - was a half hour away and the bus company said there would be no bus to transport guests because of the severity of the coming storm. Their priest still hoped to make it up himself to officiate, but when the time came, he couldn't get out of his driveway.  Father Joseph Allen, of St. Mary's Church on Hillhouse Avenue stepped in, offering his beautiful church and his services. The hair stylist/make up artist cancelled. No wedding cake delivery. No musicians. Fast acting on the part of the bride's mother Janice and two wonderful Yale undergrads arrived - by foot - to play organ and trumpet. Guests - most of them except for family who made it in before the storm hit - called in their regrets. 

Streets around the church still weren't plowed at 3 pm, and Max carried his nephew through snow that was three feet deep in unshoveled areas.  Besides, check out the kid's fabulous new shoes! Couldn't get those wrecked!

The bride was classically elegant.  As was her 88 year old grandmother, who traveled from Georgia to be there.

Who says you need makeup and hair styling to look beautiful on your wedding day!!!!

The flurry of last minute logistical changes would've pushed another couple over the edge. But Abigail and Max rode out the setbacks with a resilience and cool that will serve them well. When the trumpet sounded the start of the mass, and the bride walked down the aisle of the exquisite St. Mary's Church, where the couple first met 10 months earlier, the devotion to faith and each other was evident and beautiful.  Leading the procession were the ring bearer and flower girl - twins too cute for words.

Max, an attorney with The Law Offices of Diane Polan, LLC, and Abigail, a former nun who is now a resident in pediatrics and internal medicine at Yale-New Haven Hospital, first met at St. Mary's Church 10 months earlier at a lecture on Aquinas. Max was baptized there. It was perfect how it all ended up actually. Catholicism is central to their lives, and in fact, I've never seen a couple so engrossed and moved during their wedding ceremony. 

 

 

 

Jance Land, mother of the bride, offered one of the toasts at the dinner at the Omni Hotel, and Father Joseph Allen blessed the couple just before the dinner ended.

It's not often that everyone at a wedding fits into one picture but here they are, proving that small doesn't mean any shortage of love and celebration. 

Max and Abigail - May all your adventures be so fulfilling, but hopefully not as challenging!  

The Tempest

If truth be told, I'm usually bored out my mind watching Shakespeare, but when the oh-so-wonderful Irene Thornton of the theater department at PVPA (Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School) called on Wednesday to ask if I could make a 4:30 rehearsal at the Academy of Music and get pictures to the Gazette by 5, i felt that old rush of excitement that had been in my blood for decades. No problem, I answered. 

My stepson, Ethan Graham-Horowitz, 16, played Calaban in the performance.

His costume was out of this world. In fact, everything about this performance was out of this world. I was MESMERIZED. The set, make up, the multimedia background (video), and of course the talent on stage was so good I didn’t want to leave the rehearsal.

A faculty member, Sean Landers, ran video of water behind the set that was spectacular for creating a sense of being on an island.  The vision of director Barry Magnani (below) was brilliant, especially coupled with the musical talent of his daughter Gabriella, a senior at PVPA who wrote the entire score. He had to have been one proud papa!

I want to thank the students and teachers involved in this weekend's performance for their creativity and physical comedy that opened my mind to what Shakespeare can be when done right.

 

Lunch with Bel Kaufman

 

Bel Kaufman, 101, was a friend of my parents, a regular in my NYC apartment growing up. My parents liked parties and many a night my sister and I would go to bed to the sounds, late into the night, of conversations and laughter. There was always a wonderful mix of writers, journalists, theater folks, a sprinkling of artists and shrinks, and more than a few of my dad's UNESCO co-workers and later, other professional Jews from the Anti Defamation League and Bnai Brith. Bel, in high heels and always looking glamourous, was wise and funny and striking in her fashion sense. She ballroom danced on those heels well into her 90s. Two of her books, Up the Down Staircase and Love, Etc. were favorites on the crowded bookshelves that lined the walls of the living room. That she happened to be the granddaughter of Sholom Aleichem was a hit with the Yiddishkeit crowd.

Today, her eyes still have that sparkle they did then but instead of scotch it is green tea we drink as we talk.  A year ago, at the Amherst Cinema, I saw her interviewed in the Sholem Aleichem documentary Laughing in the Darkness and googled her. I found her, where else, on Facebook. We messaged each other a few times since then, and last week an instant chat popped up from her.

101 years old and she's instant chatting!!!

She wrote that she wanted to see me. Could I resist such an offer?  I immediately said yes. 

At the door, she takes my face in her hands and calls me beautiful. I easily return the favor. She is shorter than I remember, maybe because the heels are gone. Too many falls in recent years. But the stories, the stories are still there, flowing freely, the past and present seamlessly woven together.  Aging, she says, is wonderful. "My time is short, my opportunities narrowing, but I can say no to things I don't want to do and that's very powerful."  I am struck by how my mother had said the very same thing when she was diagnosed with cancer. Like my mother did during her final years, Bel takes a half-full, positive attitude, not surrendering to despair, fear and worry. She says yes to what she loves, and only to that. No have-tos. No shoulds. A blessing to be reminded of this choice we all have (if we have our health).

A large grainy BxW poster stands on a counter top - a young Bel (Belochka back then) on the lap of her famous grandfather. As we enjoy a New York lunch of nova, whitefish and seven layer cake, her vivid stories flow. One about the taste of chocolate is a memory she holds from 97 years ago. There was a famine in the Odessa of her childhood, and a care package arrived from her grandmother in America. In it, a chocolate bar. "We fell upon it like mice, nibbling a little bit every day." She had never tasted anything so divine, nor had her mother who had studied in Switzerland and knew good chocolate. Years later after her family had emigrated to the US, her mother spotted the same brand of chocolate on the shelf of a grocery store, only to find out that the chocolate wasn't meant for eating, but for baking!

In Bel's possession is a letter Sholem Aleichem wrote to her when she was 3 or 4.

"I am writing you this letter for you to grow up and learn to write me letters. And in order to grow up, it is necessary to drink milk, eat soup and vegetables and fewer candies. Regards to your dolls. Your Papa Sholom Aleichem." 

Although he died (1916) before she was old enough to write him letters on her own, she is at work on a book she hopes to call Dear Papa, finally answering him about her life and the deep ways his life influenced hers. "I'm lazy though," she says with a laugh, describing the challenges of writing, the cold stare of a blank page waiting for her writer's gift of memory and prose. "These shelves should be full of my books."

Beside her computer sit three newly published ebook paperbacks by Open Road, all barely a week off the press. She is proofing them and explaining to me the new world of publishing. I had no idea that the new model involves a reader going into a bookstore, ordering an ebook, paying for it and then - and only then - is the copy of the book printed and sent to the buyer. No stock, no surpus, no waste. And I thought ebooks were just what you ordered to read on your tablet. Anyway, two are collections of her short stories (La Tigresse and Other Short Stories) and essays (This and That: Random Thoughts and Recollections), the third a reprint of Love, etc.   

My 2 1/2 hour bus ride home sped by because I was engrossed in Love, etc., which she gifted me. (My gift to her, more humble, was homemade kugel!). I also thought to myself how amazing it must be to live 100+ years.  As a child she survived the Russian Revolution (1917), and as a 101 year old in 2013, she is surviving the revolution in the writing/publishing industry with the same spirit and resilience!

A day has passed since my visit with her. Different memories pop up at different times and make me smile. One is that her brother calls her everyday at 11. He's 92 and lives a few blocks away. She laughs at something he says and hangs up. "Every day he calls me to tell me something funny, so that I might start my day laughing. It's so important to laugh." Laughter is important in their family, and forms a basis for an annual ritual -  a gathering on the Sunday nearest the date of Sholem Aleichem's death where his stories are read aloud and a community laughs together.

The light is soft in her study and I take a few photographs. She is reflective. "That's how I want to be remembered. With laughter." 

 

Family Photos

"It's time," Sharon said on the phone. Time for new family photos. In her lovely Northampton home, the wall by her staircase has some fabulous framed black & white photographs of her family that are nearly a decade old. With one son heading to college soon, and another a post-bat mitzvah young woman, toothless smiles and elementary school outfits are lovely memories, but something updated was in order!. We met, and it was hard to go wrong.  Each member of the family is beautiful, interesting, and spirited, including the golden retriever I wanted to take home with me.

 

 

 

 

I loved the ease and connection everyone had with each other, and it was beautiful to feel the love between Sharon and Ken, because after two decades of marriage the two of seem like teenagers in love.  

 

  I'll wait for the book they'll hopefully write one day on how they do it!!!

PS:  I dropped the DVD of images off today, and a handsome Jonah (Ken and Sharon's son) answered the door, sporting a beard and a new haircut.  It's only been two months since the pictures were taken, but that's how fast kids change!!  

 

Ethics and Aesthetics

 

My first New York wedding!! I was nervous and excited and praying that the predicted heavy rain would hold off long enough for us to have a pre-ceremony photo shoot on the Brooklyn Bridge!!

The couple, Marc and David, have been together for over 20 years. Their siblings have married, but it wasn't anything they imagined for themselves. Going to another state like CT or MA that had legalized gay marriage wasn't the least bit appealing. The minute news broke that gay marriage had become legal in NY, though, Marc's phone rang. David proposed.  A year later the two Francophiles gathered their friends and family for a beautiful ceremony and party at French Culinary Institute, and then headed to Paris......

We lucked out on weather. No rain at 7:30 a.m. No beautiful morning light either, but overcast is good.

My fabulous second shooter Geoffrey Horowitz (www.leapfrogphotography.com) drove up from Philadelphia and his eye for detail caught many a spectacular image that day, including this one below.

So before I go any further, I have a question for my friends - photographers and non-photographers alike. The pictures above are somewhat new for me. My 'brand' of being a visual storyteller usually means just that. I tell the story of what's happening in front of my camera, fairly literally, with the eye of a photojournalist. In this case, though, I did some experimenting and playing with the images after the fact.

I added effects to them - textures, borders, dropping out the color, etc.  I may never master a fraction of what's available to me through an Aperture3 plug-in called onOne Perfect Suite 7 (http://www.ononesoftware.com/products/suite7) but I'm having a BLAST exploring. What I want to know is whether this is

a) cheating? 

b) gimmicky? or on a more postive note, 

c) adding a fun aesthetic layer to the images?

I find the pictures intriguing and painterly.  I like the process of making them, watching them evolve. I like the added energy, but I'm also happy with the images natural and real. Here is the portrait of Marc and David without any effects, and then the image converted into BxW:

For 20 years at the Hartford Courant, I never tampered with a scene in front of my lens, either while I photographed or afterwards as I toned my images. When it comes to journalistic assignments, I know where I fall.  I'm a purist.  Manipulation of news and reality erodes the truth and readers confidence, and besides, reality is juicy and exciting enough as is to not need any enhancement. As for weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs, I'm of a mixed mind. It's a whole different thing.

A funny story - the week I left my job at the paper I got my first freelance shoot  - covering a philanthropic event for very wealthy women donors in CT.  I turned in my DVD of images and got a call from the woman who hired me, asking why I hadn't 'fixed' the pictures. I had done the digital equivalent of burning and dodging the images, opening up midtones, etc., but she wanted the signs of aging removed from the faces of the women - wrinkles, crow's feet, sagging necks. 

"What?" I was incredulous. "I'd be fired if I did that at the Courant," I told her. 

"Honey, You'll get paid double here," was her response. 

It was a new world.  Uncomfortably, I learned a few things. Zits were gone on high school seniors, dark bags under 50-year-old women's eyes. 

So the tools to play are out there and available, easier to use than ever. But aesthetically and ethically I'm in limbo. On the one hand, the images are personal history, a celebration of people dressed their best, happily surrounded by everyone who loves them. I'm hired to tell the story of the day AND capture people looking their best in photographs that will grace their walls, their photo albums, their Facebook pages. So why not just go for it - add a little glow and teeth whitening? Some soft focus? Where is the line that all you wonderful photographers and viewers are walking when it comes to what you do to images after the fact and what you like to see in images? (There was ugly scaffolding behind Marc and David below)

Some moments - most actually - tell the story and need nothing. They speak for themselves of love and connection, the content outweighing any technical process that could enhance them.

And sometimes all you really need is a shallow depth of field...

 

and some lights to capture things like the blessing of Marc's mother making it to the wedding.

 But then, just for fun, you can play a little with the details.

Please join me in a conversation about this topic. I'm eager to hear.  And Marc and David - May you have all the blessings of peace, happiness and a wonderful life together.....

 

12 and 13 year olds are awesome

I never thought I'd enjoy photographing bar and bat mitzvahs as much as I do, but each one is different , fun and poignant in its own way.  I think in 2012 I'm going to do more of them, and really explore whether I can bring out both the essence of each child in my photographs, and also the essence of the age in general.

Strange as it may sound, I love 12 and 13 year olds!  Teenagers in general are awesome in my book. It's such a challenging, quirky time of discovery and coming into one's own.  A time, too, for awkwardness and self doubt, to be sure, as old identities are changing and new ones are being tried on.

This Fall, I photographed the bat mitzvah of Sarina, a strong bright young woman who wasn't even sure she wanted a Bat Mitzvah, certainly not a traditional one like her brother had.  What she created through a lot of hard work was beautiful.  It was outdoors, because while she has questions about G-d and religion, she experiences the spark of the divine in nature, and it was a handmade service with beautiful music and interpretations. She got really lucky because for 10 days we'd had heavy rain, rain so heavy it flooded the tent in her backyard where the ceremony and party were supposed to be held.  For a few brief hours the sun came out, the weather was balmy and she got her wish: to be praying and playing guitar and celebrating her coming of age outdoors.

I had my bat mitzvah at Shearith Israel, in NYC, a Sephardic Orthodox synagogue on the upper west side of NYC.  I was the first girl to ever have a bat mitzvah in that Orthodox synagogue.  It was quite a year for change because down the block aways, a classmate of mine (and now a Supreme Court judge) Elena Kagan was the first to have her bat mitzvah in another Orthodox synagogue.  I wasn't allowed to be in the main sanctuary, I wasn't allowed to read from the Torah, and I had no party.  A few kids came back to my house for pizza.  When I saw Sarina reading from the Torah, with a woman rabbi on one side, and a woman tutor on the other I almost cried with how far we've come.

Friendships are everything, independence is a work-in-proegress, and one's inner light is growing brighter as it gets expressed more in the world.

Not quite kids, not quite grownups, I love the way at the parties that the boys are so firmly rooted in their bodies - comfortable, untucked, and solid  - while the girls, looking older than their years in tiny dresses and high heels they can't dance in, spend hours nervously tugging at hemlines and bodices, not quite as comfortable in their bodies as the boys.  Rings of friends circle each other, hugging and laughing, and dance to light shows and loud music late into the night, celebrating their freedom and exhuberance.

The smiles on the faces of even the shyest bar and bat mitzvah are delicious!  It's their day.  The faces of all their friends and family are together in one place to celebrate them, and in a culture of reality tv and instant fame from YouTube uploads, they are, for one glorious day, the STAR. They've worked hard to get to this day, and now they're the center of attention, receiving glowing pride and love.  While there are bar mitzvah parties that are over the top in cities to the northeast and south of us, Western Mass seems pretty low-key about coming of age.  The services, mitzvah projects and parties really reflect the kids, honoring their wishes, comfort level and social style.

Welcome to my new blog

 

Greetings friends - Welcome to my new website and my new blog, designed and integrated by Beth Messina (Artbox.com). It's all about life celebrations: bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, events. 

I hope to share new work, offer tips about different aspects of photography (send me your questions), and create a dialogue about where photography and spirituality meet.

Soon there will be a second, complimentary website, with the rest of my work: Multimedia for the Good Guys.   There will be videos, audio slideshows, documentary work, photojournalism and more. Stay tuned. 

While it seems perfectly natural to me to photograph a bat mitzvah for a family one day and a story on migrant health care for a non-profit the next (both are meaningful, visual, and filled with passion and poignancy), viewers to the website - especially brides and news organizations - are confused to see the two mixed in an opening slideshow. Brides don't want to see Bill Clinton hugging folks on Park Street in Hartford...

and non-profits don't want to see 13-year-olds in dress clothes reading from the Torah!!!

 Hence two websites.

Gone are the days when as a newspaper photographer at The Hartford Courant, I might be in an elementary school in the morning to cover a science fair and in a maximum security prison in the afternoon for a story on overcrowding, with a quick business portrait at an insurance company thrown in there in between. We did it all, and I loved the mix.

Today, as a freelancer, I still want to do it all, but realize that the concept of a 'niche' has its value. Experience and a Fast Trac business class at The Entrepreneurial Center helped me see that! So it's life celebrations (bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings) on the weekends, and mission-driven photography/multimedia for schools and non-profits during the week!  I can live with that!!

Sophia's Big Day

 

 

 

Some bat mitzvahs are over the top and some are more laid back and true to the spirit of the family.  Sophia's was this kind – just the right mix of fun, games, people, place (Winding Trails) and food (Moe's, followed by cupcakes).  Who doesn't love Moe's????  And cupcakes????  It probably didn't feel laid back to her fabulous parents Dave and Daniela Altimari, who did it all themselves, but to the rest of us, it was perfect!!!!

 

 

 

Sophia's service at Beth Israel was flawless, and her speech moved many (including me) to tears.  She spoke of how her bat mitzvah was the first in her family since her grandfather's in Holland after the Nazis had invaded in 1941. His was in a rural village during a blizzard, and he had to walk for miles in his dress shoes. Within a few years, he would be in hiding and his family would be scattered. 

Later that evening, 100 friends gathered at a cabin on the grounds of Winding Trails and danced the night away to great music.  The torrential rains of the preceding week lifted (except of course when I was doing the family pictures outside!) and a great time was had by all. Hula hoops, scavenger hunts, and did I mention cupcakes?

 

 

 

Congrats again Sophia, and may you continue to grow and find joy in your family, your community, and your faith.