Sensitive to Light : Gerda Mathan utilizes infrared film to infuse her photographs, taken during years of travel, with an ‘eerie, ethereal’ quality.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Nancy Kapitanoff writes regularly about art for The Times</i>

Gerda Mathan sees the light in the people and places she photographs. Whether her pictures are of a woman praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem or the foliage in a courtyard in Cordova, Spain, they beam with a radiant energy.

“Light turns me on,” said Mathan, a Berkeley-based photographer. “You see a view and it comes to you that something is great about it. I can’t plan it. It just happens.”

Maybe she can’t plan the way light brightens a scene, but she can, and often does, choose to enhance the viewer’s appreciation of light by capturing it with infrared film.

“Infrared is sensitive to something beyond visible light. It picks up heat,” she said. “The energy from a tree’s photosynthesis affects the film. You get light coming directly from what you’re photographing. The vegetation is glowing.”


One can experience her visions of light in the solo show, “Gerda Mathan: New Light on Old Stones and Other Work,” at the University of Judaism’s Platt Gallery. More than 60 black and white photographs taken between 1950 and 1993 during her travels to Israel, Spain, Egypt and the city of Prague are on view. The most recent images--of the Jewish Cemetery in Prague, and remnants of Jewish communities in Cordova and Toledo, Spain--were shot with infrared film.

The show is “interesting not only for Jewish people,” Mathan said. “It has a feeling for all things that have survived.” In the cemetery, “there is new growth from old gravestones, life and light--new life coming back.”

“We found the work absolutely phenomenal,” said Frank Ponder, the general manager of Bel Air Camera & Video in Westwood, which is sponsoring the show. “Her work has a lot of sensitivity and feeling. It’s eerie, ethereal.”

That eerie feeling pervades “Graffiti Sculptures by the Red Sea,” a 1993 infrared image of a few large rocks--a couple of them reminiscent of animal shapes--scattered about by the sea. Graffiti writers found a way to carve their messages into them. Though they do not have the size or majesty of the formations of Stonehenge, in England, they convey, through Mathan’s composition, a similar sense of mystery.


Mathan said she was driving by, after a visit to Masada, when these “sculptures” caught her eye. She had to turn around and take a picture.

Her pictures of Israel range from her 1950 images of a “Sephardic Rabbi” and a “Jewish Stonemason” to 1993 photographs of Masada, the Old City in Jerusalem, and the Western Wall and Citadel there. Although she had visited Israel in 1950, ’56 and ’62, it was not until 1968--after the 1967 Six-Day War between Arabs and Israelis--that she could enter the Old City of Jerusalem. There she took several photographs, including “Arab Child in Doorway” and “Arab Storyteller.”

In 1980 and again in ’84, Mathan brought her Brownie box camera to Israel. She had picked up the 1930s camera for just a couple of bucks before her ’80 trip. With this early point-and-shoot camera--minus any automatic focusing or light adjustment capabilities--she created dreamy images of pilgrims, dancers and praying women at the Western Wall.

In her 1980 photographs from Cairo, we catch glimpses of a Jewish heritage there in “Torah Scrolls, Karaite Synagogue” and in the “Abandoned Yeshiva” (school), where books remained piled in a corner of an empty room. The face of an “Egyptian Jewess in Synagogue,” head covered in black, conveys the strength and vitality of a woman who has survived a lifetime of adversity.


Infrared photographs of “Statue of Moses Maimonides” and “Statue of Moslem Physician,” both taken in 1992 in Cordova, Spain, came out of Mathan’s desire to “look for leftovers of Jewish communities in Europe,” she said.

German-born Mathan, 73, emigrated with her parents to the United States in 1938, settling in Berkeley. She received a master’s degree in biology from the University of California in 1955. While teaching biology, she developed an enthusiasm for photography. After attending workshops taught by famed photographers Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and Ruth Bernhard, she earned a master’s degree in the subject in 1978, and has been teaching it ever since.

For a photographer, Mathan explained, “The main amount of work is in the printing. When you print you have a lot of misses. As Ansel Adams said, ‘The negative is the score. The print is the performance.’ ”



What: “Gerda Mathan: New Light on Old Stones.”

Location: University of Judaism’s Platt Gallery, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday. Ends Feb. 22.

Call: (310) 476-9777, ext. 276.