Israeli artist discovers new purpose through photography

Chami Lerner grew up not even knowing that photography was an art form. In fact, she barely ever saw a camera while being raised in a large Hassidic family in Kfar Chabad in Israel. But now, at 40, she has discovered that she loves looking at the world through a lens.

Twenty-six photographs she took on a cross-country road trip with her family in the summer of 2011, a year after their move from Israel to Sunnyvale, are now gracing the walls of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.

Simcha Moyal, a Palo Alto–based Israeli artists’ representative and consultant to the JCC, curated the exhibition. “I think it’s significant that these are pictures of the United States. Usually Israeli artists want to exhibit work that depicts life in Israel, but Chami wanted to portray her journey of discovering her new home,” Moyal said of the large-scale landscapes that make up the show.

Chami Lerner’s “In Circles,” Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River, Arizona

Moyal came up with the title “Maqama” as a reference to a classic Arabic literary genre with two heroes. “Chami and her camera are the two heroes here,” she explained. “What is so striking about Chami’s photographs is that she has done no retouching or digital alteration to them. It’s just her and her camera.”

Lerner echoed this in an interview last week at the JCC. “For me, it’s all about what the eye sees and the hand captures,” she said. She is completely self-taught and only recently bought her first camera, a Nikon D90, which she carries with her everywhere and pulled out of her turquoise shoulder bag to show.

Although Lerner is now starting to photograph people and street scenes, she first used her new camera to capture scenes of deserts, canyons, beaches, mountains and plains along the route of her family’s road trip. “I wanted to take the nature as it was and find something special in it at that specific moment,” she explained. In practical terms, this meant steering the car off course to check out unusual scenery and a lot of pulling over to the side of the road to capture things in the ideal light.

“She has the angle, the eye,” Moyal noted. “She stops at just the right place to get the right shot. She sees things differently from how other people see them.”

The curator was interested in 50 shots, but the two women worked together to winnow the selection in half to fit the exhibit space and theme. “Each photo tells its own story, but together they tell the story of her travels and her embracing of America,” Moyal reflected.

“Explosion, Disproportionate,” Crissy Field, San Francisco

The impetus for the exhibition came from Lerner’s husband, who had seen the positive response to the photos his wife posted on Facebook. Friends who worked at the JCC also saw the stunning pictures and thought, like her husband, that they should be shown to the public. Moyal was brought on board to price the photographs and put together the show, whose opening event on April 22 was a fundraiser for the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces.

A number of works in the exhibition have been sold. In addition, a San Francisco venture capital firm has commissioned Lerner to take a series of photographs for the company’s lobby after a representative saw one of the pieces at the JCC: a colorful shot of abandoned cars covered in graffiti.

Lerner is excited about this new, creative professional path she is on. Having left the religious life at 18 (the rest of her family, including her six siblings, are still Lubavitchers), Lerner went to art school. However, nothing ever came of her studies, as she soon went on to marry, raise two sons, Yoni, 12, and Osher, 11 (both of whom love to travel, she said), and work as an Internet professional. She is grateful to those who “gave me the push” to focus on her newfound passion. “Moving from the personal to the public is hard to do,” the photographer admitted.

Lerner has joined several photographers’ groups and is planning to acquire more lenses and get training in using them. “I’m only at the beginning of this,” she emphasized, noting that it is important to do it her own way and at her own pace.

Still, she recognizes that she can accomplish a great deal with her photography. “I see my work influences people, and I want to take advantage of that,” she said. “I want to take my love of photography and bring a different perspective to things, especially to the subjects of Judaism and Israel.”

is on display through June 29 in the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Sports & Wellness Complex lobby and the Albert & Janet Schultz Cultural Arts Hall, Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. (650) 229-4237 or www.chamilerner.com

Renee Ghert-Zand
Renee Ghert-Zand

Renee Ghert-Zand is a Jerusalem-based freelance journalist. She made aliyah from Palo Alto with her family in June 2014.