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An eye for synagogue photography: Louis Davidson

If you want to track down Louis Davidson, try the local synagogue.
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September 22, 2014

If you want to track down Louis Davidson, try the local synagogue. 

Of course, “local” in this case could mean anywhere from Hong Kong to Morocco, from the Ukraine to Hawaii — in any city other than Los Angeles or Tulsa, Okla., between which the retired architect-turned-photographer-historian divides his time when not traveling. 

On a midsummer evening in July, Davidson is in Sydney, Nova Scotia, along with his wife Ronnie. The reason? Why, because there’s a synagogue to photograph, of course!

“Yesterday we shot one in Halifax,” Davidson said, launching easily into a backstory about the structure. “There was another one in North Sydney until two years ago, when the congregation shrank away to nothing. Originally Jewish families came to Sydney. They were tailors and merchants, and Sydney was a major port because there were coal and iron mines nearby. This is a typical pattern that we have seen in other towns. You get important mineral deposits that bring in the population, and Jews come and settle to service the population as merchants. Once the minerals pay out and the towns dwindle, the Jews tend to move away.”  

Calgary, Canada

Left behind are synagogues of cultural and local historical significance, structures that Davidson feels are worth preserving, one shutter click at a time. Which is exactly what he is doing through his “Synagogues360” project, a photographic record of synagogues throughout the world. 

The website synagogues360.com displays Davidson’s photos of more than 350 synagogues, an A-to-Z chronicle that takes site visitors from Adas Jeschurun in Stockholm to Zeizmariai in Lithuania. The latter is one of eight remaining wooden synagogues in Lithuania, a former Orthodox Ashkenazi synagogue that is no longer operational. In fact, the exterior makes it resemble a dilapidated barn. 

Davidson books journeys to houses of worship that are in some way architecturally or historically significant. He shoots both exterior shots and a series of moving 360-degree panoramas of the interior to take viewers on a virtual tour around the structure. A series of still shots from 30 synagogues will be on display at the Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts at UCLA’s Hillel, opening Oct. 23.

The exhibition is titled “It Started in Sighet” because that is, indeed, where Davidson’s project began: Romania — where the photographer and his wife were impressed by the gorgeous and crumbling old synagogues of Eastern Europe.

Brasov, Romania

“We thought we would preserve them photographically. Gosh, we should preserve all of Eastern Europe,” Davidson said. “And the project gradually got wider, and we had to choose which buildings to document. You can’t photograph them all.”

Maybe not, but if you’re Louis Davidson, you can get to a bunch of them. Davidson has photographed the world’s northernmost purpose synagogue (Trondheim in Norway), and the world’s most southern synagogue (Dunedin in New Zealand). His travels have taken him to Beth Sholom in Elkins Park, Penn., the only synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and to Paris’ Agoudas Hakehilos, one of the world’s few synagogues still in use designed in the art nouveau style. 

Beth Shalom, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania

The synagogue's interior

“They have to be special in some respect,” said Davidson, who estimates that he visits 40 synagogues each year. “It can be that they were designed by a great architect or are somehow historically significant. That’s how we sort them out. Interestingly, I spend far more time researching which ones to photograph and making the contacts.”

Finding the synagogues that fit his criteria is challenging enough. Gaining access and historical data is a different ballgame. Because many of the structures are located in places without large Jewish populations, Davidson goes into detective mode, Googling articles in local news archives and trying to track down names in phone directories. Calling the synagogues themselves can often lead to a dead end — many are either operating on a skeleton staff or are no longer operational. 

Those synagogues that do have a staff often have to submit Davidson’s request to their board of directors. The photographer estimates that four or five have refused permission. The Davidsons also travel with their dog, Harley Davidson, who Louis estimates has been inside more Jewish places of worship than any canine in history. 

“He has only been denied entrance twice,” Davidson said. 

Davidson spends about 90 minutes inside the building, taking panorama shots from multiple angles and then returning later to shoot the building’s exterior, often during the evening or when the natural light has changed. Using a customized Sony camera with a Leica lens, Davidson said he comes away with 400 shots of each synagogue. He’ll also typically spend at least 24 hours visiting the city, and an accompanying blog allows Davidson to give further historical detail of some of the featured synagogues.

The Synagogues360 project has turned Davidson into a historical resource. Site visitors frequently contact him seeking information about a given synagogue or asking to reproduce his photographs. For research and nonprofit requests for Jewish causes, Davidson grants permission to use his shots free of charge. If the intended use is for-profit, he charges a fee. Other site visitors contact Davidson’s website looking for information about a given temple and seeking practical information such as hours, directions or booking fees. 

“I got an inquiry from a party in New York who had been planning on having a bar mitzvah in Israel, but he decided to have it in Livorno, Italy, instead, and did I know how to get in contact with the synagogue,” Davidson said. “Well, yes, I did.” 

Samuel Gruber, president of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments, teaches classes in Jewish art and architecture and frequently sends his students to Davidson’s site for assignments and research.

“Louis shoots with great skills and with great technical virtuosity, and he allows us to enter the places, to study them and to consider them collectively, which most photographers don’t allow us to do,” Gruber said. “He’s doing a great service. I hope he does 600 synagogues.”

Not a bad goal, said Davidson, who has no plans to cut back on his travel. He has a trip planned to the southeastern United States and would like to pay more visits to southeast Asia. Davidson, who has assembled photobooks before, has been asked whether the synagogues could be the basis for a published volume. But he would rather be traveling and shooting than editing. 

Las Cruces, New Mexico

“I’m 73, and while I have the mobility and the ability, I want to concentrate on getting synagogues photographed,” he said. “So many of the synagogues we have photographed literally closed the week before we got there, or we got in just before they moved furniture. Or they’re turning to dust. I feel like it’s my mission get them photographed before they’re gone.”

“It Started in Sighet” opens Oct. 23 at the Dortort Center for Creativity in the Arts at UCLA Hillel. The exhibition is part of a triple opening that also features “Eastern Parkway” photographs of the Lubavitcher Community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn by Mary Leipziger, and “Not Forgotten,” a series of collages of old retrieved photographs depicting Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish life in the Middle East and North Africa at the beginning and middle of the 20th century by Erella Teitler. Hedva Amrani will perform at the opening. She will be accompanied by her son, musician, composer and singer, Doron Danoff. 

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