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Gerda Straus Mathan

Bay Area Photographer, Dies at 83

September 16, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Gerda Straus Mathan, a well-respected, Berkeley-based photographer of Jewish and other subjects who studied with Ansel Adams and lived for a time in Southern California, died Aug. 10 following a long illness. She was 83.

A photojournalist with degrees in biology, zoology and art, she brought an individual and humanistic perspective to her work, which was almost exclusively in black and white, with occasional hand-colored details.

Mathan traveled extensively in the United States, Mexico, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Central and South America, as well to the homes and gatherings of her family, friends and community, always with camera in hand. She gave the same attention to detail, whether shooting ancient Torah scrolls in Cairo, a rabbi in Safed or the willow tree in her carefully tended backyard.

Mathan's work has been exhibited in numerous galleries throughout the Bay Area, Southern California, New York and Washington, D.C. In the Southland, she had shows at the University of Judaism, Santa Monica College and in Pasadena, where she lived with her family for several years in the 1960s.

Mathan's "Valentina's Uncle: Portrait of an Old Man," a book that documents in pictures and text the final years of a Russian immigrant, Vadim Shepkin, was published by Macmillan Publishing Co.'s Collier Books division in 1981 and later excerpted by Reader's Digest. Many of the photos show Shepkin flanked by young grandnieces and grandnephews, a striking portrait of youth and old age. 

Fascinated with natural light, Mathan experimented with infrared film when photographing ancient cities and synagogues in Spain, Turkey and Czechoslovakia, and created a remarkable series of photos using old Brownie cameras that rendered her subjects in a dreamy, diffuse light.

"My medium is black-and-white photography because in this way light seems to appear in its essence, and reality is abstracted to its more basic elements," Mathan said in a 1997 interview preceding her wide-ranging Santa Monica College exhibit. "For me, photography's wonder lies in its ability to capture the fleeting light, the passing mood, the unplanned gesture and the unexpected encounter."

In addition to Adams, Mathan studied with Imogen Cunningham and Ruth Bernhard. She also taught photography, befriending and inspiring her students at Bay Area Jewish community centers, community colleges and senior centers.

A member of Yeldei HaShoah, a group of child survivors and refugees from the Holocaust, and of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Mathan was born in Karlsruhe, Germany, on Jan. 31, 1921. She was the fourth of five children of a strongly Jewish family that traced its German roots back to the 16th century.

Friedrich, known as Fritz, was a partner in the well-known Karlsruhe bank, Straus & Company, which was sold when the family fled to the United States in 1938 to escape Hitler.

They settled in Berkeley, where Mathan raised three children. They survive her, along with three grandchildren, a sister, a brother and many nieces and nephews.

Ruth Stroud, a Manhattan Beach-based freelance writer, is Gerda Mathan's niece.

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