Herb Ascherman’s Life Behind a Camera

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Herb Aschermann, Jr. by © Keith Berr Productions, Inc.

In photographer Herb Ascherman’s Shaker Heights living room, there’s what he calls his “worship wall.” It features classic photos by some of photography’s towering giants: Albert Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Inge Morath, Arnold Newman.


“Every morning I get down on my kneeler and ask for their blessing,” he says, only half joking.


It must have worked. Ascherman has had a 40-year career as Cleveland’s top society photographer, shooting “over 1,700 weddings, bar mitzvahs and dog birthday parties,” he says. At the same time, he operated a nonprofit fine arts photography gallery for 28 years, giving him a network of friends and fellow photographers around the world. But he has also emerged as one of the area’s preeminent black-and-white, fine art photographers, constantly pushing himself with self-assigned projects and becoming an expert practitioner of an old and challenging technique: platinum print photography, which produces images of extraordinary depth and tonal range.

Pantsios-Ascherman-JC at the Piano-Bratenahl-ohio-1979

He’s generous about sharing his work too. And for that, 2016 has been a very good year, with no less than five solo shows, beginning with The Paris We Love, at  Imagery Gallery in Chagrin Falls (February 15 – April 30). This was a collection of 40 black-and-white photos of Parisian street scenes shot in the mid-1980s. Then came Seth Chwast: Portrait of the Young Man as an Artist, at Valley Arts Center in Chagrin Falls (March 25 – May 4), which showed the painter Seth Chwast at work in  35 black and white silver gelatin prints. Next he opened The Bauders House, a show of 35 platinum photos of one of Cleveland’s grandest homes, shot in the style of the Barbizon landscape photographers, at the Shaker Historical Society. That show opened June 3 and continues through September 30.


This Fall, Heights Arts Gallery presents a major survey of his work, Herbert Ascherman Jr: 40 Years, on view September 2-October 15. Finally, his First Responders: As You See Them; As They Are is on view at the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve September 15-November 5.


‘When we first talked about [what became his 40 year retrospective] show, I had various thematic approaches I could have taken,” he recalls. “They came back and said, it’s time for a retrospective. I went through 120,000 black and white negatives on contact sheets. I selected 200 images I felt had exhibit potential. Richard, my dark room assistant, printed 200 8” X 10”s so we could see everything.”


About 70 photos made the cut— all black & white silver gelatin or platinum prints — save for one color photo of his wife Colleen taken in her ancestral home of Ireland on their honeymoon. “I also shot it in black and white, and it sucked,” he says. “It was the consummate color photograph.”


Don’t expect to see a typical retrospective with examples from the series he’s created and shown over the years — of American Indians, Holocaust survivors, northeast Ohio artists, Cleveland artist Seth Chwast at work, the historic Halle House in Shaker Heights and many more. Putting together the show was a process of discovery for him — finding images he’d never printed, never shown, in many cases didn’t even remember taking. They include photos taken as far away as Japan — and from his own driveway. A shot taken from the window of his Coventry Road gallery feels just as exotic and mysterious as one of camels taken in Abu Dhabi.


“It was an opportunity to go back through my life,” he says. “I’ve been to 32 countries, 42 states. I have a network of people worldwide who not only feed my curiosity but educate me. This show is a culmination of the visual diary I’ve been writing for 40 years. The [artistic] statement is, I’ve had a great life surrounded by incredible people. I’ve been to fascinating places and been in unusual situations, based in an incredible city that has supported me and allowed me to do this work. I have no pretentious statement whatsoever.”


Ascherman’s debut in the world of photography was certainly unpretentious and gave no indication of the stellar and far-ranging career that would ensue. Casting around for a job and a post-graduate direction in his late 20s, he answered an ad to open a Sears franchise studio. After a year and a half, he spotted an empty storefront on Coventry Road and launched his own studio and gallery.


He began to explore the styles of other photographers, examining the practices and what made them great.


“At various different points in time I wanted to be Ansel Adams, [Eugene] Atget, [Diane] Arbus, [Richard] Avedon, [Yousuf] Karsh, [Arnld] Newman,” he says. “Julia Margaret Cameron was a tremendous influence on my work. I’ve gone through all these periods when I’ve emulated these great photographers. I never had a master; I never studied photography. However, I’ve got 2000 books and I’ve read every one from cover to cover. All of these various different styles are blended into what I do.”


He began doing his own projects while operating his studio. He even had an early encounter in platinum photography when he hosted a workshop with noted platinum practitioner Sal Lopes. (A photo he produced in that workshop, taken in 1977, is the oldest print in the Heights Arts show.) Lopes continued to nag him to take it up again, he says, but he didn’t respond until about 15 years ago. Now it’s the sole focus of his fine art work.


“The photograph is an artifact,” he says, describing why he has fallen in love with the process, in which negatives taken with a large format camera are contact printed. “The artifact is as important to me as the image. Pure platinum prints will last hundreds of years. You have something evidentiary of craft, art and personal involvement. That’s why I always do my own darkroom work. I am a Luddite who still believes that a photo should be elegantly prepared, elegantly printed by hand.”


As for the images, which include portraiture, landscapes, cityscapes and street photography, he says his approach is zen. “It’s ‘no-mind’ — years and years of training, just looking. The secondary action is picking up the camera and taking the shot. Most photos I don’t remember taking until they appear on the contact sheet. It’s just walking out there and taking things that appeal to me at the moment without aesthetic intention, just taking the pictures that appear in front of me. I’ve spent my life behind a camera. I could not think of a better thing to do or a better place to be.”