Photojournalist Shelley Gazin found herself at a crossroads in early 1998. After two decades of illustrating for periodicals such as Newsweek, Forbes and Los Angeles, she yearned to undertake a project that was more meaningful to her artistically, personally and Jewishly.
But she wasn't sure what that would be.
"I was really asking God for an idea," Gazin said. "Then I had an epiphany one day while at a service."
The result of that epiphany culminated three years later: "Looking for a Rabbi," a series of introspective portraits of local rabbis of all denominations. It opens at the Skirball Cultural Center on July 11.
While the Marina del Rey native has participated in numerous group shows, "Looking for a Rabbi" marks Gazin's first solo exhibition. Putting the show together became an organic process for the artist, who discovered her 27 subjects through social circles and synagogue services.
In her search to elicit something spiritual and personal from her subjects, Gazin has, for the most part, photographed the rabbis away from their pulpits. Rabbi David Wolpe was caught amid office clutter, while Rabbi Naomi Levy's earthy portrait was taken at her home library. Rabbi Stan Levy was captured in the bustle of a Malibu tashlich ceremony. Gazin snapped Rabbi Shlomo Cunin during a Chabad telethon, with the intense TV studio lighting casting an electronic-age aura around the Lubavitcher rabbi.
"I have always been pursuing a spiritual past," said the photographer, who, aside from two trips to Israel, didn't investigate her Judaism until recently. "I wasn't necessarily looking in my own backyard. I didn't know how to take it in, literally and metaphorically."
Everything came together in early 1998 when Gazin attended two seminal events in her spiritual life -- a Metivta meditation class taught by Rabbi Jonathan Omer-man, and a lecture on kabbalah. Gazin began connecting with her Jewish side through the meditation classes, and it was at the latter Ohr HaTorah service, while hearing a sermon by Rabbi Allen Freehling, that Gazin ran into Rabbi William Kramer. Suddenly, everything clicked, and Kramer became the first to pose for Gazin. Her photographs elicited his quieter side, showing the beret-wearing rabbi surrounded by Judaica.
"She's taken a remarkable approach to this body of work," said Skirball Curator of Fine Arts Barbara Gilbert, who organized the exhibition. "The portraits are witty and reverential at the same time. Shelley has combined a photojournalist's distanced objectivity with a fine artist's more subjective and personal approach."
Gazin's Orthodox grandparents hail from an Eastern European and Russian heritage. For many years, her maternal grandfather ran a Kosher meatpacking plant in Los Angeles' Fairfax district, and her grandparents attended Congregation Shaarei Tefila.
Gazin herself grew up in Beverlywood and attended Hamilton High School, then pursued her master's at UCLA, where she combined artistic and educational interests.
"The opportunity was there to explore teaching credentials and how media could enhance education between cultures," Gazin said. "I'm a strong believer in holistic thinking. I was always interested in bringing different departments together and creating a dialogue." That philosophical thread continues with her exhibit.
Funded by the Skirball, "Looking for a Rabbi" is part of the Center for Jewish Culture & Creativity's "One People, Many Voices" series, also supported by the Jewish Community Foundation. Several of the portraits have already been selected for an exhibition at the American Jewish Museum titled "Encountering the Second Commandment." The Pittsburgh museum's show will travel across the East Coast this fall.
"I found each of the rabbis that I approached to be very receptive to having an opportunity to teach me something," Gazin said. "The denominational differences were never on the forefront of my mind. Each rabbi brought [his or her] own unique point of view."
"Looking for a Rabbi: Photographs by Shelley Gazin" runs July 11-Sept. 30, Ruby Gallery, Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Free admission. For information, call (310) 440-4500; visit www.skirball.org .