Morrie Camhi, noted Petaluma photographer, dies at 71

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Morrie Camhi, a prolific photographer who documented Jewish communities both on the wane and in full bloom, has died after a 2-year battle with cancer. He was 71.

Thoughtful, intense and probing, Camhi's work enjoyed a wide audience all over the word, and has been exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and at museums and galleries in Chicago and New York, as well as Europe, Japan and New Zealand.

Gay Shelton, Sonoma Museum of Visual Art director, called him "the most significant photographer in the region" and praised his "connection, on the human level, to his subject."

Camhi, who lived in Petaluma, was born in New York City, graduated high school in Los Angeles and attended UCLA. Although he majored in English literature, he worked his way through college as a lab technician and went to work immediately after graduating as a commercial photographer. He sold a 9-year-old commercial photography business in 1969 and began teaching photography at City College of San Francisco in 1972.

"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," said his wife, Lynn Camhi.

His book "The Jews of Greece" presented intimate portraits of a decimated people. He has also published books of his photos of farm workers in "The Eye of Conscience," and Vacaville prisoners in "The Prison Experience." His "Faces and Facets," the result of six weeks in Greece with the few Jewish survivors who remain there, was printed in 1995, and accompanied by an exhibit of the photos.

But Camhi was not a Holocaust scholar. He and wife traveled extensively and the photographs he took of innumerable cultures remained personal in nature.

"There's a continuing preoccupation with Holocaust issues among Jews," he said when his exhibit "The Jews of Greece" opened in Petaluma. "I've attempted to make this broader."

Camhi bought and lovingly restored a historic, city block-size downtown hotel in Petaluma, and was known locally for his business acumen, social conscience and community spirit, as well as his artistry.

A longtime Petaluma friend once said of him admiringly, "Morrie could sell snow to Eskimos. He was one of the best salesmen I've ever met."

He also offered support, guidance and encouragement for local photographers, many of whom were his former students.

The Sonoma Museum of Visual Art in Santa Rosa plans a retrospective of his work in July.

In addition to his wife, Camhi is survived by his sister, Rebecca Fromer of Berkeley; his children, Kim T. Elliott of England and Robyn R. Camhi of Cotati; and two grandchildren.

The family has requested donations in Camhi's name to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 400 Washington Ave., Montgomery, AL 36104.

A private memorial celebration will be held at a later date.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.