Scientist pictures his retirement from behind the lens

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He calls himself a travel photographer, but that understates his art. Rabinowitz captures the essence of people, cultures or everyday life on film. His photos — which include massive archaeological sites, flowers the size of a thumbnail, religious festivals and schoolchildren — have texture and meaning, evoking emotions.

And he has an eye for irony.

Like the photo hanging in the back hall of his Berkeley home of Mexican men and women in traditional dress — shawls, long skirts, cowboy hats, loose fitting shirts.

But what really interests Rabinowitz is a girl in the back of the photo wearing a commercially manufactured dress and holding a plastic water bottle.

She looks out of place. Yet, he says, she is a glimpse into the future of this remote village, the invasion of mass-produced clothing and plastic that will soon change its way of life.

Or there's the photo taken through wire mesh into the back of a Mexican general store. There are caballero-style hats stacked from floor to ceiling, a display of handmade brooms and cases of Coca-Cola.

Rabinowitz's house speaks of a man who doesn't do anything halfway. Shelves are full of opera and classical music tapes and CDs. Photographs cover the walls. In his kitchen hang pots and pans, while earthenware pottery surrounds an electric rice-cooker and a bread-making machine.

Standing about 5-foot-8 with white unruly hair and a white goatee, Rabinowitz pats his ample belly as proof of his love of food and culinary skills. He never married.

Ask him where he grew up, why there's a cello hanging on the wall or how he got into biochemistry, and he'll smile, touch your arm and say, "Now that's an interesting story."

And it is.

Rabinowitz was born in New York City, the only child of Yiddish-speaking, socialist needle-workers who were members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. When he was about 12, his family moved to Jersey Homestead, an experimental community founded during the Depression for Jewish needle-workers. The community, now known as Roosevelt, had a garment factory that was operated on a cooperative basis.

"Everyone got a house with an acre of land," he says. The buy-in price was $500, a significant sum in those days. The project was backed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's resettlement administration. "The garment industry is seasonal. The idea was that [the residents] would raise their food."

It was a homogenous community, religiously, politically and socially. He attended the junior high that was established there — a Yiddish school.

He remembers Albert Einstein visiting the community on a couple of occasions. He also recalls Ben Shahn hosting the community's children in his art studio there and painting a mural on the school's wall that portrayed the history of America's garment workers. Because of Shahn's presence, other artists were drawn to the community.

"He taught us how to make paint," Rabinowitz says, describing how Shahn would take them on field trips and how he would walk among the children as they painted, commenting on their work.

In 1986, Rabinowitz, who is still in touch with some of the other former residents, returned to Jersey Homestead for a 50-year reunion. He pulls out a photo album with pictures of the community and its residents, then and now.

He began his involvement in photography as a student at the University of Wisconsin. "At the student union they had a dark room," he says.

Rabinowitz has moved well-beyond the black-and-white photos he took as a graduate student. He has his own home darkroom where he develops color pictures. He also owns a digital camera.

"This is my photography library," he says gesturing to the collection of probably a couple hundred books and magazines. "It used to be the music room."

Rabinowitz pulls out some of his albums, organized by trip. Each picture is annotated. Many of the photos have stories like the one of the two young Mexican men who asked if they could accompany Rabinowitz while he took pictures so they could practice their English.

While organizing his photos he discovered that he had several, taken at different times in different places depicting children behind bars — two Mexican children peering out from between the cross rails at the back of a pickup truck, two French schoolchildren in a fenced school-yard, a little boy peeking out from behind the back of a park bench.

Although they are reminiscent of Holocaust pictures, Rabinowitz has his own analysis.

"Why did I take them?" Rabinowitz asks rhetorically. "The bars are a sign. They represent a barrier for the development of kids."

Despite his love of photography, Rabinowitz finds photography classes frustrating. He doesn't "talk art" and finds unqualified praise of his work unsatisfactory.

That's the scientist in him. He wants to be questioned, criticized, challenged and welcomes a good honest argument.

Although the cello on the wall used to be a big part of Rabinowitz's life, it is now relegated to decoration.

"Berkeley is a wonderful place for amateur musicians," says Rabinowitz, who took up the cello in his 30s. "You always want to play with someone who's better than you. Everyone was better than me, I felt."

That didn't stop Rabinowitz from playing with several string quartets. But due to illness or other reasons, all of the groups "fell apart." By the time they got back together, Rabinowitz had been away from the cello long enough that he didn't want to put in the time necessary to get back up to speed.

And he was into his photography.

Although Rabinowitz is content to do photography for his own enjoyment, he would welcome the opportunity to have a show and has thought about putting photos into a book and looking for a publisher.

Or maybe he will move on to yet another passion.