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By: Kelly Jemal Massry

“Photography is like anonion,” says famed community portraitist Susan Menashe. “You never get to the core of the onion; you’re always peeling away at it.” Perhaps that is why Susan is so good with a camera. She has an innate respect for the medium itself – for how multilayered it is. One doesn’t just glance at a Susan Menashe picture – one studies it, pulled in to its depths.

To Susan, there truly is something soulful about photography and it’s what drives her work. She takes every picture with a sense of gratitude for what she, as a photographer, has the power to do – freeze time, make memories, capture spontaneity, document legacies. “Whatever you decide to pursue, make sure it’s something lasting,” Susan advises. “And what’s more lasting than photography?”

Indeed, pictures hold such a sense of permanence for us that, often, after a loved one has passed from this world, it’s the framed picture on the mantel that serves as homage, a reminder of the once vibrant past. Susan prides herself on preserving people as they once were, with photographs that are so true to form that they substitute our memories of that person. “I’ve been photographing the elderly for at least 20 years,” says Susan. “These people aren’t going to be here forever, and when they’re gone, the picture of them almost becomes the memory.” Because after all, “You forget your memories – but you remember your pictures.” Viewed often enough, photographs become something not just taken in with the eyes but imprinted on the heart. No wonder Susan feels so blessed to be in this career.

Susan has been conducting photo shoots for over 30 years and she is widely regarded as one of the best in our community. When she first started out in 1986, she photographed exclusively in black and white and carried a large 35-millimeter camera. She then went on to a two and a quarter Hasselblad. She’d spend hours and hours in her darkroom, laboriously developing the film and printing the pictures. Now? “Now I see the light of day!” she says. “And now everyone’s a photographer!” Of course, there’s a difference between snapping a picture with an IPhone and setting up behind a camera to take a lasting professional picture. When asked about her “process,” Susan stresses the technical aspect of photography. “Learn your craft and then focus on the person,” she advises. “Today,” she says, “I don’t even think about it. I just do it. If you get so bogged down in technique, you miss the moment.” And sometimes, she does miss it – either because the subject is not cooperative or because none of the photos come from that place deep inside that Susan tries to target. But she is nothing if not persistent. “I go back again and again until I get it,” Susan says. There’s a purity to her method, a suggestion that she does it for the sake of what’s being captured, rather than for the money or for her own sense of ego.

This explains Susan’s decision to step away from commercial accounts and magazine work. For a time, she photographed for various magazines and the New York Times, but she found herself perennially dissatisfied. “At first you think it’s so prestigious,” she says, “but then the magazine comes out and a month later it ends up in the garbage. I’m not leaving anything behind.” For Susan it’s more about making moments everlasting than it is about glitz and glamour. When asked what her mother, Lottie Chalom, A’’H, thought of her career choice, Susan laughs. “She felt bad you couldn’t eat it! But I used to tell her, my kibbehsare going to be gone soon; my pictures are going to last, hopefully, forever.”

Susan aims for timelessness in her portraits and often she achieves it – because she’s not out to take the perfect picture, just an affecting one. “It just has to touch your heart,” she says simply. “If it moves you in any way, good or bad, it’s a good picture.” Perhaps that’s why Susan posts a range of pictures on her website and her Instagram page from a person belly laughing to a baby hysterically crying – because in both cases the viewer is stirred enough to feel something.

Susan’s style is modern and clean. She often prefers black and white photographs to color so that distractible elements fade away and all that’s left is a face or a pair of eyes. She often cites the Ted Grant quote: “When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls.” The great photographers that she’s studied with – people like Keith Carter, Greg Gorman, Sally Mann, William Hayward, Michael Raab, and Joyce Tenneson – taught her to be more organic and use less props. Often, the subject will speak for itself with an arresting expression or a regal mode of bearing. Susan trusts in what the person is willing to give her, rather than relying on outside forces to do the work for her.

If there is one thing Susan believes in, it is hard work. She cites the author Malcolm Gladwell who, in his book, Outliers, recommends putting in 10,000 diligent hours of time in order to get really good at something. “People say, ‘you’re so talented.’ I work hard!” Nowadays, much of Susan’s work happens after the fact, as she digitally edits her photos. Although “going digital” was somewhat of an adjustment for her, she loves how creative the new technology allows her to get with her pictures. Susan knows photographers whowon’t tamper at all with a picture once it’s been taken and she respects that method, too. She spends much of her time gleaning tips and aiming to refine her craft. “I keep trying to improve on it and make it new,” she says. “People say ‘but don’t you know everything?’ You never know everything. You can always be better.”

Susan has always been crafty. She’s done everything from jewelry making and weaving to pottery and sculpting. When she took up photography – casually at first, on her honeymoon and later freelancing for friends and family – she didn’t think the pursuit would last. She was waiting for her interest to fade or for the viability to fizzle out, like everything else had. For the longest time, she refrained from branding herself, making business cards or getting her name out. But once people started paying her for her work, she realized she was building something and began studying in earnest. A lifelong student of all forms of knowledge, she began taking classes at Brookdale and the InternationalCenter for Photography. Now, she’s sought after for her special touch that has a lot to do with intention, but sometimes can be chalked up to luck.

Susan has photographed infants, centenarians, and everyone in between. Even all these years later, she hasn’t lost her passion. She gives thanks to her husband, Ronnie, for his unending support of her aspirations. When asked how much longer she plans to keep going, she says “forever. Or as long as I physically can.” To her, there’s nothing like capturing life’sfleeting moments with the lens of a camera, producing photographs to take out and treasure. We thank her for helping us preserve our memories and for rendering us as we most truly are – whether via the gnarled hands of a grandfather or the effervescent laughter of a child.