Member Spotlight: Herbert Ascherman Jr., An Alchemist in Platinum

by | Nov 30, 2021 | Member Spotlight

Image: May Howard Baker Coffee. Called: ‘Garden’. From the Northern Plains Tribes of the Arikara and Mandan ©Herbert Ascherman

Q&A with Herbert Ascherman by Rana Faure, ASMP National Board of Directors

Herbert Ascherman Jr. is a prolific photographer, educator, collector, and historian. He’s a librarian in spirit and an archivist at heart. He’s well educated and self-taught. Like an alchemist, he transforms and creates through a seemingly magical process, and in this case, he creates striking images with expertise in his technique, equipment, and process and with a magical sense of history…and a wonderful sense of humor in his personal interactions.

Herbert’s work is contemporary with the grace of the past.  His portraits evoke Renaissance paintings and his landscapes capture panoramas of a century ago. With a career as a portrait photographer that has spanned 40 years in both commercial and fine-art portraiture, predominantly in black & white, he is known for his expansive body of unique platinum prints.

Herbert is a lifetime member of ASMP.  He joined in1985 and was proud to be the first “wedding photographer” to be invited to join the Ohio North Coast Chapter, a testament to his involvement in the photo community at large.  He recounts wonderful stories of ASMP events and luminaries (including Arnold Newman) yet attributes his commitment to ASMP to the benefits of information and educational opportunities openly shared by members.  This helped propel his business, enabling his creativity to thrive.  He seems to have a project or three in the works at all times.  Herbert reveals his latest exciting project in progress, “UNITY THROUGH PHOTOGRAPHY”, whose parent, the Non-Profit Cleveland Photographic Workshop, Herbert founded in 1978.

As a photographer and educator, Herbert is a socially aware, active member of his beloved community in Cleveland, and shares how his projects have continued to be relevant and have grown in scope.

As Native American Heritage Month of November comes to a close, ASMP Spotlights Herbert’s powerful compelling project American Indians: Portraiture and the Three Affiliated Tribes Fort Berthold, North Dakota.  

©Herbert Ascherman

As a photographer, writer, and photo historian, I have long admired the heritage of Native Americans and their place in the photographic history of our country. After thirty-five years as a professional portraitist, I have finally reached that previously unattainable point in my life where I am able to re-prioritize my career and artistic objectives. Stepping back from the day-to-day business of commercial photography, I am now in a position to undertake many of those wonderful projects which I have planned for years, notably a portrait portfolio of Native Americans.

As a student of photographic history, I have long admired the work of Edward Sheriff Curtis. Despite the fact that his images were at times culturally inaccurate, he devoted his life to the documentation of the Native American Indian, and in so doing, created a unique and remarkable visual archive.

Working with a large-format view camera and sheet film, and printing in the magnificent 19th-century handmade process of Platinum, I have produced portraits that are simultaneously classic and contemporary. This small sampling attempts to recreate the feel of Curtis’ imagery as well as showcase a more modern vision. My subjects are the traditional as well as current faces of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Tribes from the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, as well as from forty other Northern Plains tribes.

With the help of local photographer and tribal member Anisa Nin, I spent several weeks at Fort Berthold in May of 2010 photographing tribal elders, descendants of tribal members who were photographed by Curtis, and descendants of many of the famous Indian chieftains.” Over the ensuing years, I traveled widely throughout the Northern Plains on this portrait project. 

Herbert takes time to share a little about his projects, the science, the art, and reveal some of the magic with ASMP from his elegant wood-paneled library, in the historic Shaker Heights suburb of Cleveland.  A colorful painting of his mother at the age of twelve is prominently displayed in the background, a portrait of significance setting the stage.

ASMP: Can you begin with an overview of your background, your journey to discover photography, and your career focused on portrait photography?

Herbert Ascherman:  Both my maternal and paternal grandparents came to Cleveland in 1911. Paternally from Poland and Czechoslovakia, maternally from Russia in response to the pogroms and the heightened antisemitism.  I am a fourth-generation Clevelander, my father, myself, and my son all went to the same high school. I have two magnificent grandsons who live one mile from me.  The Ascherman name is German. Our original name in Czech was Popel, which means dustbin – Ascherman – man of the ashes. We come from a long line of chimney cleaners. My relatives from England named Makov of Old Testament days (Chanukah is the only Jewish holiday NOT mentioned in the Bible or the Talmud).  So our heritage goes back thousands of years. It struck me on my first trip to Israel in1967, after the Six-Day War, that I was walking on the ground my ancestors walked on thousands of years before.  My mother’s father, Jack Simon, was a dynamic entrepreneur, a self-taught businessman with an interest in photography who always took pictures. I have his original Polaroid Land Camera from 1947. My mother also took pictures.  I was raised with a camera present and I still have the first 12 pictures I took in 1959, at the age of 12. From then on I was involved with picture taking.  I graduated with a master’s degree in education, Master of Arts in Teaching, I taught in a public school, and got fired. I worked for my father and got fired. I decided on three things: Number one, I needed a job. Number two, I needed a job I couldn’t get fired from, and Number three, I may as well enjoy work and I like taking pictures. With little experience, I opened my first studio and hired people who taught me the business. I began to evolve into the position I held for 40 years, which was Cleveland’s preeminent society photographer, 1,742 weddings, bar mitzvahs, doggie birthday parties, and 9,000 Black and white portraits.  I closed my formal studio 10 years ago and turned over my personal archive of 6,000 portraits that I had done in a 30-year period to the Western Reserve Historical Society.

ASMP: How were you able to access the great variety of clientele that commissioned you?

Herb Ascherman:  I’ve always been a people person. I’ve always been engaged with the community. I got two major breaks in my professional career.  One was a young lady who booked me for her wedding. From that one day, I booked 28 of her girlfriends. That catapulted me into the rounds of upper levels of the gentile society in Cleveland, and I was able to parlay a career that lasted decades. My second biggest break was a meeting with the Cleveland Orchestra who were seeking a photographer.  I had just photographed a musician three days before in the square format they were looking to do.  I photographed the Cleveland Orchestra portraits over a 20-year period. That gave me a reputation internationally.

ASMP:  Your work with large format cameras, including 4×5 and 8×10 and the historical medium of platinum printing, has made you a sought-after specialist. We would love to hear how that came about.

©Herbert Ascherman

Herbert Ascherman:  I shot Hasselblad two and a quarter as well as 35mm. I always favored B&W. I’ve shot color because of the wedding and portrait business, but I was very attuned to the fact that B&W was archival and it was my vocabulary, my vision. I became the photographer in the region known to shoot B&W portraits with a Hasselblad at a wedding or event. I got to a point where I knew that I could get the shot in less than 12 frames.  I wanted to challenge myself with Platinum printing patented in 1873, by William Willis reintroduced by Richard Benson who trained my college roommate, Sal Lopes of Boston, who then talked me into learning.  The print is the size of the negative, so I transitioned to 8×10 to make larger prints. I want to work in film. I like the therapy of developing the film. I like the smells in the darkroom. I like working with my hands. I like working by myself. And I like working with that 8×10 format. So I went from two and a quarter, which I still use on occasion to 8×10. After that, I was able to make a truly unique offer to brides and grooms.  I took the 8×10 camera out at the weddings and created beautiful portraits. Once the color proofs were ready a week later, I’d have several platinum prints made.  We had to keep the bride’s mother’s tears off of the prints but then they sold off the table on the spot. I focused on platinum and created a market for myself. The expenses of the business now are at a high level due to the supply chain issue. I used to tell clients if you want pretty color pictures you don’t need me, if you want something exclusive, if you want a family heirloom, then talk to me. Because the platinum, which is pure metal, is imbedded in the fibers of the actual paper, a platinum image will outlast the paper upon which it is printed. If you want immortality of the soul, talk to a theologian. If you want immortality on earth, I’ll take your portrait.

ASMP: You are an active educator and a mentor, as well as a lifetime member of ASMP. You founded the Cleveland Photographic Workshop, which showcased over 1,000 photographers in 165 continuous shows until its closing. And the Cleveland Society of Alternative Photographers to promote the 19th-century photographic processes still being used today. Can you talk about your involvement in the community, education, and the exciting opportunities you have created for others?

Herb Ascherman:  I believe in supporting education and my fellow artists. I believe in the free flow of information. I’ve made a career out of mentoring and have taught college classes. I’ve spoken to 250 groups internationally in my career. I teach platinum and portraiture workshops. I lend myself to educational facilities as a speaker and a photography educator. I see it as an opportunity to spread the word of uplifting the human condition through photography.  The Cleveland photographic workshop which I founded in 1977 as a nonprofit corporation, had a gallery that had over 165 photography exhibitions in 20 or so years. Our mission was to focus on giving someone their first show, rather than their 50th, and to support Cleveland artists with 50% of our exhibitions.  We’ve maintained that mandate, with the Cleveland Photo Fest, now in its third year with “unity through photography”.

©Herbert Ascherman

ASMP: This latest project seems to focus on bringing people together as never before.  Can you share more about this?

Herbert Ascherman:  This coming year, we have been granted the ability to pursue a Guinness Book of World Records. We’ve been sanctioned as official participants, and our show is going to be one million printed photographs that we collect digitally from international sources, print the size of a thumbnail, and hang in a gallery to achieve a Guinness Book of World Records as the largest photography show ever. We’re going to get people from all over to send us their images, internationally as well.  We are working on an app to upload the images. We will print them, without charge, and with no obligation. In return, contributors will get a certificate of thanks and share in the Guinness World record.  We have tie-ins with the Cleveland Institute of Art. We have a magnet school in Cleveland involved and we’re working with high school students. We also have plans to repurpose the prints once the show is over.

ASMP: The scope of the project sounds impressive and the message inspiring. I know ASMP members will be interested in updates. 1,000,000 Photographs: Unity Through Photography comes after a series of projects with community impact. Has your career been informed by activism, or has your activism been informed by your photography?

Herb Ascherman:  Unity Through Photography is all-inclusive, culture, race, gender, religion, skin color, and background. In the fall of 2019, I conceived of an exhibition titled I Identify As, whose purpose was to break down barriers between Cleveland’s various racial photographic communities. We brought black, white and those who identify as ‘other’ photographers together to photograph each other. We got a lot of press as it coincided with the protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd. Growing up in Cleveland, and knowledgeable of its own racial issues, I conceived the idea for this exhibition long before May of 2020. There was an amazing turnout even during COVID.  We had over 1,000 people visit this exhibition.  The hallmark of our project is the attempt to unify people.  And like our current project 1,000,000 Photographs: Unity Through Photography, we will attempt to unify even more people with a global reach. We want pictures from everybody as photography is a universal language making it possible for all to relate to each other.

ASMP: In your projects, you’re telling the story of people through individual portraits. Your Holocaust project, 50 Faces: The Holocaust Remembered (1985) has a haunting impact. Was it a hard story to tell?

Herbert Ascherman:  The Holocaust project, which is one of my most famous was inspired by another project that I couldn’t join due to the logistics. I connected with my collaborator, Lee Rosenberg, whose parents were survivors. We started networking and my project 50 Faces: The Holocaust Remembered came to be.  I was a non-involved documentarian and set up a Hasselblad with a 250mm lens so I could shoot from a distance as the survivors told their story to an interviewer.  They spoke longer than I expected and all were moved to tears. The collection has been shown in 25 different locations around the country. I took them to several high schools. I was stunned when a 13 year old boy commented, when viewing the exhibition, that their eyes were ‘vacant’. I hadn’t seen the project in years.  It struck me that these people were the age I am now. Could I have survived what they experienced?  This could have been me. This could have been my family.  It was one of the most telling moments I’ve ever experienced. It happened to me with my own photography.  The visceral response to seeing an image and what it generated emotionally and intellectually. That’s the power of black and white. And that’s why I’ve worked in black and white almost exclusively for all these decades because I want to generate an emotional response. I was shaking.

ASMP:  The power of storytelling through the images is palpable with your experience.  This leads me to your Indian project which portrays Native Americans in a most powerful way.  Can you talk about your project, your objective, your relationship to the subject matter?

©Herbert Ascherman

Herb Ascherman:  This transitions perfectly from the Holocaust project.  I met Anisa Nin, a Native American photographer, based in Minot, North Dakota. As we started communicating, the history of the US government’s treatment of Native Americans kept going through my mind. There were over 550 treaties and contracts and documents of status between the US government and the Indian nations almost all of which have been broken, ignored, or abrogated. I’m Jewish, raised with the advantage of being from the suburbs but I carry with me the travails of our history. Since I went to Dachau, and at Auschwitz, I was even more aware of what was visited upon us.  At that time, I started this Indian project in about 2005. I had empathy and sympathy and the wherewithal to make a document that said, there is no accountability here. There is a massive injustice that’s been foisted upon these people. I set upon the mission of making a document. I spent three summers in North Dakota and Montana photographing American Indians; I took over 750 black-and-white photographs with that 8×10 camera. I used my talents, my skill, and my wherewithal to make a document to ennoble these wronged people.  I made a portfolio of 45 prints. The State Museum of North Dakota has one portfolio, several were acquired by an ethnographic museum in Switzerland. And select images are spread out around the country in various different collections and museums. Through my eyes, my 8×10, and a platinum portrait, I have the ability to preserve history just as Edward Curtis did.  I’m interested in using my talents to uplift the human condition to unify through photography to show people that others want to make a difference in their lives.

ASMP:  You’ve brought it full circle beautifully.  You’ve brought the conversation back to Unity Through Photography and the power of the image to tell stories that must be told to uplift and unify.  We thank you. And we will update our membership with ways they can participate in your exciting new project. It’s a beautiful image to end with.

©Herbert Ascherman

Come to think of it, the image we would love to end with is your self-portrait published in the ASMP book of portraits with a foreword by Arnold Newman,10,000 Eyes, The ASMP Celebration of the 150th Anniversary of Photography. And your meeting Arnold Newman.

Herbert Ascherman: The story is that ASMP brought Arnold Newman to Cleveland, the year before the book was published and I was his “chauffeur”. I showed him the picture and he offhandedly commented “That’s a great photo”. The book release event was at ICP a year later and the editor said “Oh, you’re the poodle guy”. He told me they stuck it up on the wall with a thumbtack, and everybody who walked by laughed.  During the opening, I stood on the landing of the stairs with my copy of the book and as people with name tags came down, I asked them to sign. I’ve got about 85 or 90 signatures in my copy of the book of the photographers who were at the opening. I asked Arnold Newman to sign my book. He wrote “still great” under my photograph.