Morrie Camhi

By Michael Schwager

The history of documentary photography is almost as old as the history of the medium itself. Beginning in 1861—a mere two decades after Louis Daguerre developed the daguerreotype—Mathew Brady and several other photographers captured the horrors of the American Civil War through powerful and, for many viewers, shocking images of battlefields strewn with fallen soldiers. In the 1890s, the Danish-American photographer and social reformer Jacob Riis documented the squalid conditions of tenement life for the poor and indigent in New York City's Lower East Side, many of whom were recent immigrants to the United States. As photography grew throughout the 20th century, so did its use by photojournalists and artists as a means with which to tell visual stories—often about people who had no means to tell their own. Social Realists in the 1930s like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Ben Shahn photographed the turmoil brought on by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, while in the following decades, artists such as Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, and Helen Levitt turned to the streets to find images of people and places that reflected the tumultuous times in which they lived.

It is within the context of these socially engaged photographers that the work of Morrie Camhi is best seen and considered. Camhi, a long-time resident of Petaluma, California, who traveled around the state and around the world, has been described as both a storyteller and a humanist, and his work reflects his compassion for people friends and strangers alike—especially those whose lives were shaped by struggle and misfortune. Camhi once wrote that "in photography, as in life, my desire has been to know and understand people," and the many sensitive portraits created throughout his career illustrate this desire.

Morrie Camhi was born in New York City on June 11, 1928, to Jewish-Greek immigrant parents. His father, Jacob Camhi, became a shoe factory worker and union business agent when he arrived in New York, while his mother, Sarah Castro, worked as a seamstress in New York's burgeoning garment industry. Camhi moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1942, where he completed his high school education and where he became serious about photography, as evidenced by the striking portrait of Bishop A.D. Hankins from 1944.

After several years in the U.S. Army Signal corps where he worked as a photographer, he enrolled in UCLA and received a BA degree in English Literature in 1955. While in college, Camhi—who met his wife Lynn in a UCLA lecture hall and married her in 1954—supported himself by working as a lab technician in a commercial photography studio, an experience that provided further technical knowledge about developing and printing photographs and likely fueled his growing commitment to the act of taking pictures.

Following his graduation from UCLA, Camhi began a successful career as an advertising photographer, eventually opening his own studio in Los Angeles. As lucrative as it was, his desire to say something meaningful with his pictures was not being satisfied by making images of products for his clients. According to Lynn Camhi, "He wanted work that had more meaning than just a picture of a bottle of whiskey—something that expressed things that he wanted to say personally." In 1969, Camhi sold his commercial photography business and, along with his young family, made plans to move to Northern California, where he accepted a teaching position in the photography program at City College of San Francisco. This move not only launched Camhi into a long and gratifying career as an influential and beloved teacher and mentor to numerous young photographers, but also inaugurated an incredibly fertile period in his work as he commenced creating the numerous photographic series that would cement his reputation as a widely respected documentary photographer.

Camhi settled in Petaluma—a small city on the southern edge of Sonoma County once known as the "Egg Capital of the World"—and soon began using a camera to document his new surroundings and record the people who were quickly becoming his friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. In his Petaluma series, Camhi's portraits of Marvin Dolowitz, an egg rancher, and Sister Anne, a local palm reader, are treated with the same sensitivity and decorum a photographer might extend to more famous subjects—such as the artist Christo, who spent many months in Petaluma planning and installing his now-iconic outdoor installation, Running Fence.

These portraits, along with most of the pictures that would follow in the next two decades, clearly demonstrate Camhi's desire "to know and understand people." In writing about Camhi's work, the late photography scholar and curator Van Deren Coke stated that "Morrie was foremost a humanist; that is, he had a deep feeling for his fellow men...He had a sharp eye as a photographer for what would best suit a person as a subject. These characteristics made him a special kind of photographer of people, whether from the private or public spheres. His...photographs exemplify Morrie's technical skills with the camera as well as his respect for the people he loved to photograph." Camhi, in the introduction to his book The Prison Experience, explained that "Most of my photography time isn't with a camera but with a cup of coffee, learning about the people I will photograph."

Camhi's life-long sense of social justice—which he likely inherited from his parents—began to noticeably influence the direction of his work as a photographer in the early 1970s, a period of political and social unrest and a time when the United Farm Workers union continued to organize and advocate for the rights of agricultural workers in the rural regions of Northern and Central California. Between 1970 and 1972, as Camhi was easing into his new community of Petaluma and his new career as a college instructor, he undertook what became one of his best-known and admired bodies of work, the Farm Workers series. Camhi traveled to Salinas to record the harsh realities of farm life and the often violent opposition of growers towards the UFW, especially during the strikes called by the union. Images like Dolores Huerta, Union Organizer, Salinas Picket on Duty and Strike Strategy Meeting, Salinas, CA capture both the dignity of the workers and their commitment to the struggle for their rights. In their book The Eye of Conscience: Photographers and Social Change, authors Bernard Col and Milton Meltzer commented that, for Camhi, "Not pathos, not news events, not the big personalities, would be his subject, but people, these particular people with their tenacity, their strength, their dedication, [and] their ability to think through their problems."

Another series that illustrates Camhi's dedication to both social justice and to sharing the stories of those who otherwise might not have a voice is The Prison Experience from 1987-88. The project began with a period of research followed by 18 months of Camhi taking photographs at the California State Prison in Vacaville. Camhi was given access to inmates, their families, and prison staff and documented the monotony, loneliness, and difficulty of life within a medium security correctional facility. Much like the images of his Farm Workers series, Camhi's portraits in The Prison Experience are dignified, formally complex, and visually handsome, allowing the viewer to get a close look at an often "invisible" segment of California's population, perhaps for the first time.

Pictures like Kenneth X. White, Prisoner, shown admiring the results of his body-building regimen, and the transgender inmate Stanley Thomas, "Brandy", Prisoner provide a glimpse into the daily lives of the incarcerated men at Vacaville. Yet Camhi wanted to tell an even more complete and evocative story about his subjects, and incorporated text with the photographs—a device he employed in an earlier series, AD:vantage, that focused on single adults seeking love and companionship through personal ads in newspapers. Camhi asked all of subjects—inmates, their families, and prison staff—the same question: "What do you want people to know about the prison experience?" Their often insightful replies were transcribed and embedded in the mats surrounding the photographs, making it impossible to see one element without the other. As Camhi once wrote about his work, "So many times a story can be told visually but it can be told even better with visuals and written language, so I'm not the least bit averse to using writing."

Perhaps Camhi's most personal and in some ways autobiographical body of work was The Jews of Greece, a project inspired in part by his desire to learn more about his Sephardic roots, an interest he credited to his mother, Sarah. Between 1980 and 1982, Camhi travelled around Greece, visiting cities and towns such as Ioannina, Kavala, Larissa, Rhodes, Thessalonika (the Greek city with the second-largest Jewish population and the birthplace of his mother), Trikala, and Volos, making portraits of the country's dwindling Jewish population, many of whom had survived the Nazi Holocaust during World War II.

The Jews of Greece resulted not only in dozens of moving portraits, as well as a book and travelling exhibition (which premiered at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley), but also provided Camhi a unique opportunity to rekindle childhood memories and see first-hand the places and communities where his parents were raised. In an essay about the project titled "Recollections", Camhi described the connection he discovered between his own upbringing and the Greek and Sephardic food he was welcomed with wherever he went to photograph. "Food and drink are the preamble to all Greek discourse, wherever it takes place. Even during my childhood in New York, I remember that my Greek immigrant parents entertained visiting friends in this fashion. Within minutes and seemingly from thin air, the roskitas (a dry doughnut-shaped cookie) or the dulce appeared."

In Kavala, a coastal city in Macedonia, the geographic region of northern Greece where his father was from, Camhi met Aaron "Saby" Tchimino, a tobacco specialist who worked for a local company. Tobacco was clearly his passion, and Camhi's portrait captures his intensity as Tchimino explains the difference between "excellent tobacco and poor tobacco." Camhi also visited Didimotiko, a small town on the border with Turkey where he was able td summon up his childhood Ladino-Spanish to communicate with the two families that formed the entire Jewish community. His portrait of Isaac Ashkenazi, the caretaker of an old abandoned synagogue, captures a place where, as Camhi described it, "only the faintest hint of the synagogue's grandeur remained." The temple was ransacked in the 1940s atter the departure of all the Jews, either to Nazi camps or to escape abroad. When Camhi told Ashkenazi he wanted to photograph him in this synagogue that seemed beyond caretaking, he protested that it was "not in a fit condition." In an exchange that sums up both The Jews in Greece and perhaps all of his work, Camhi answered that "Yes, and that is the story of this temple." To which Ashkenazi replied, "Ah, then let the temple speak and tell its story."

By the time he died in 1999 at the age of 71, Morrie Camhi had established an impressive legacy as an educator and an equally impressive national and international reputation as a photographer. In addition to the many years teaching at City College in San Francisco, Camhi was sought-after as a lecturer and was invited to speak at colleges and universities throughout the United States, including Columbia College in Chicago, Stanford University, University of California, Berkeley, University of Oregon, and Sonoma State University. His work has been exhibited in Albuquerque, Cincinnati, Chicago, New York, and San Francisco, as well as in galleries and museums in Europe, Israel, Japan and New Zealand. Camhi's photographs have also been published in many books and photography journals, and are in the collection of such prestigious institutions as the Archive of Documentary Arts at Duke University, the Athens Center for Photography in Greece, the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, the Israel Museum, the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at UC Berkeley, the Museet for Fotokunst in Denmark, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Museum of Photographic Art, San Diego, The Oakland Museum of California, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Tokyo Museum of Art.

Although Camhi's work is now part of the history of photography, it seems upon reflection to be as relevant—and in some ways, as necessary—as it was when it was first created. And while he is no longer here to see the ongoing fruits of his considerable labor, it is clear that Morrie Camhi's photographs will continue to be seen, discussed, and appreciated by the "significant audience" he sought for the stories he told.