In 2017, photographer Tom M. Johnson was the teacher and Elan Mizrahi the apprentice.
A couple of weeks ago, though, Johnson saw a photo Mizrahi posted to Instagram and was blown away. It was a simple setup: a woman drinking coffee inside a home in the time of COVID-19 quarantining, a man in the shadows. But the composition and framing reminded Johnson not of Mizrahi’s earlier work but of Johannes Vermeer, the Dutch-born Baroque painter who specialized in domestic scenes of middle-class life.
“I was really surprised with that; I was jealous of it,” said Johnson, who moved from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles last year. “I feel he’s taking his work to another degree. What he really has going for him is that he’s hungry, he’s enthusiastic.”
“I think Elan’s going to be one of the best photographers in Pittsburgh,” he said, bluntly. “I think he will be.”
Mizrahi didn’t dream of taking pictures.
He was born into a Jewish Pittsburgh family with business in its blood – his grandfather ran an accounting firm, his mother a downtown marketing and communications agency – and he followed that trajectory, graduating Taylor Allderdice High School, studying business in college and launching his career in Manhattan in advertising.
In 2015, he simply pivoted. He and his wife, Vanessa, took a year to travel the world – locales as far flung as Colombia, Vietnam and the Philippines – and Mizrahi documented the sites on a blog, “Chasing Corners,” using a Samsung 5 Active cell phone and a GoPro.
“I’ve definitely come a long way since then but the natural eye was there,” said Mizrahi, 31, who lives in Polish Hill and whose family attends services at Temple Sinai. “I don’t like the way I edited some of those things. It’s a little oversaturated. But not knowing what I was missing gave me a lot of freedom.”
“I think that was sort of this trip to find himself and ask himself what he wanted to do with his life,” said Mizrahi’s sister, Gilli Mizrahi, a business consultant who lives in Seattle. “I feel like he’s landed. In the last few years, he’s where he wants to be.”
Upon returning stateside, Mizrahi purchased his first DSLR camera – a Canon 70-D – and tried to make a go of freelance photography.
Mizrahi doesn’t recall anymore his first paying gig; one early assignment that still resonates, though, took him to a job training site in Homewood.
“It was the first time I feel I successfully used studio lights on location,” Mizrahi said. “I felt comfortable pushing my ideas. And I could be proud of my work, that I was a professional.”
Since the assignment, Mizrahi has paid the bills – and, more importantly, grown creatively – through his lenses, now specializing in editorial and portrait work.
“Editorial is really where my passion lies,” Mizrahi said. “It gives me the opportunity to share and tell the stories I want to tell.”
Last week, Mizrahi released on his website, www.elanmizrahi.com, a new series dubbed “Isolated Radiance.” Though his portfolio online features some impressive COVID-19-inspired work – empty halls and ticket counters at Pittsburgh International Airport, armed quarantine protestors downtown – “Isolated Radiance” is masterful through what it suggests about our current cultural moment in the details: a child and two parents crouching over a laptop, a woman cutting a man’s hair, a couple split between two windows, an elderly pair video chatting with a teenager.
All of the photos in “Isolated Radiance” are domestic scenes and all of them are shot through windows from the street outside, with living rooms and kitchen interiors providing the only light – a formal mode of voyeurism in the era of the coronavirus.
“My imagination kind of runs wild when I’m driving at night,” Mizrahi said. “I thought it would be intimate to show how these families were functioning.”
“He’s really focused on capturing the true essence of people,” said Mizrahi’s sister, Gilli. “His ability to story-tell has evolved a lot.”
Chuck Beard agrees.
He’s been working as art director of Pittsburgh Magazine since 2010. A photographer himself, he stressed that Mizrahi stands out from the pack of Pittsburgh shooters.
“I get a lot of submissions from photographers looking for work — probably 10 to 15 a day,” Beard told the Chronicle. “Elan’s submitted portfolio had an impact from the start. His portrait imagery had a painterly quality, with beautiful lighting and creative posing of his subjects.
“Most every photographer considers himself or herself a portraitist, but few have Elan’s technical skills and imaginative compositions in one package,” Beard added. “I have a stable of 20 to 25 photographers that I consistently hire for the magazine, and Elan is one of the few who is great in any style of photography, from journalistic to artistic.”
Mizrahi said his style is pretty straightforward – he wants to frame images and play with light in a way that evokes emotion.
“You want to pull something out of the viewer,” Mizrahi said. “Especially in these days, with all the massive number of photos coming through our devices – it’s got to tell a story or it’s got to pull out an emotion.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.