When David Aschkenas goes to snap a photograph, he knows exactly where — and how — to look.
“I’ve been doing photography for — next year, it’ll be 50 years,” said the Highland Park-based Jewish photographer, a former film student who bought his first camera back in 1973. “As soon as you walk into a space, you see the light, the architecture, and you pretty much know what you want to do.”
“You get into a spot,” he added, “and you just know.”
Aschkenas’ intuitive work, which seems to give viewers a measure of control over where they’re looking, will be on full display at an upcoming gallery show.
Mendelson Gallery, 5874 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside, will feature Aschkenas’ “Italian Synagogues and Churches,” a pet project a decade in the making, on Saturdays and Sundays in December from noon to 4 p.m. each day. The gallery will hold an event to mark the exhibit opening on Wednesday, Nov. 30 from 5 to 8 p.m.
About 10 years ago, Aschkenas got approval to photograph synagogues in Prague, a city whose historic relics survived the bombings and destruction of World War II. Little did Aschkenas know that it was the beginning of a new chapter of his work. He soon was traveling throughout Europe, shooting photos of synagogues and churches, some of them dating to the 12th century.
To listen to Aschkenas talk about the buildings he photographs is to relish the little details.
Recently, he looked at Moorish tilework in a picture of a synagogue in Florence, Italy, built circa the 1880s.
“Talk about patterns!” Aschkenas enthused. “Every nook, every surface!”
Or, there was the Italian church from 1360.
“There’s nothing like a few hundred years of weathered patina to give it that look,” he raved.
Though Aschkenas has photographed worship spaces in the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, something special reverberates in his work shot in Italy. He has photographed synagogues and churches in at least four Italian cities: Venice, Sienna, Florence and Rome.
“In Rome alone, there’s 800 churches,” Aschkenas said. “Every block you go into, there’s a church.”
The synagogues, though, especially compared to more modest American versions, are awe-inspiring: delicate inlaid woodwork, careful tiling, the appearances of faux-marble and gold. Some of the shuls also had stories. He went into one synagogue in the Jewish section of Prague where a religious leader said the golem — a clay, anthropomorphic creature supposedly brought to life in Jewish folklore — went to rest.
“I was in this place, locked in and the golem’s supposed to be upstairs,” Aschkenas laughed.
The Shadyside show where his painting-like photos will be displayed will feature 28, 24-inch-by-36-inch color prints — 14 of synagogues, 14 of churches.
Aschkenas looked recently at one of his photos of a Florence church from the 14th century.
“Look at that floor — it really is mind-boggling,” he laughed. “How’d you build this 400, 500 years ago?”
Aschkenas’ sense of awe permeates the work — and is a treat for someone looking to get an inside glimpse of the interiors of European worship spaces.
“Every one I go into,” Aschkenas said, “it’s unbelievable to me.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.