By Judi Markowitz / Detroit
Oak Parkers are in a league of their own. I’m talking about those who attended Oak Park High School from 1967 to 1970–the Baby Boomers. We may not see each other for years, but when attending a high school reunion or meeting up after a long lapse in time, the world stands still, and we connect. It’s special, it’s powerful and many relationships have weathered the test of time. I know these facts to be true — I grew up in Oak Park, Mich.
Oak Park High School was a pinnacle of education during these years. The school nurtured its students and produced many professionals in the fields of law, medicine, business, education, music and, of course, the arts. One of these success stories is Todd Weinstein, a photographer, who represents the best of this generation. He was raised in Oak Park.
I recently attended an exhibit of Todd’s work at the Janice Charach Gallery in West Bloomfield, Mich. “Stories of Influence In Search of One’s Own Voice” is a 50-year retrospective celebrating mentors and influences that have shaped Todd’s career. His exhibit, which will be traveling soon, is a salute and an expression of gratitude to those who helped mold his vocation — and there were many. Stay tuned—more about that later.
Music took hold of Todd’s life when he was a teenager. He became a roadie for the bands Everlon Nevermore, the Shy Guys, and Saint Hammer. In addition, Todd’s father operated a nonalcoholic teenage nightclub called The Mummp. Bob Seger, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Stoney and the Jagged Edge, the Shy Guys, Scott Richards Case, along with other well-known bands performed there. At age 15 Todd oversaw the light shows and his interest in the arts was heightened.
But in 1968, the year before Todd was to graduate high school, he had different ideas about formal education. When he turned 16 and qualified for his driver’s license, instead of heading down Oak Park Boulevard to school, his car was headed to Detroit — Plum Street, to be exact. This is where the musicians, artists, and poets hung out. Poet and political activist John Sinclair was on the scene and Todd felt part of that vibe.
However, when his absences from school started to rack up, Todd’s counselor, Mr. Waite, called him into his office. He bluntly explained that if Todd stayed the course with missing so much school, graduation would be a lost cause. Being young, Todd insisted that Plum Street was a valuable education, and school was boring. His counselor wasn’t having it. Using some persuasion, Mr. Waite suggested that he enroll in a photography class. Todd was hesitant but agreed. It was history in the making, but Todd didn’t know it yet.
The photography teacher was young, only a few years older than Todd. Miss K. had a master’s degree and knew how to engage and connect with her students. There was a negative left in the dark room sink that no one claimed. Miss K. wanted Todd to finish the work. From a negative to a photograph, this endeavor earned Todd a Junior Scholastic Award. Todd then took the next step and began taking pictures for the school yearbook. It was the springboard to his future.
After graduation, Todd attended the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit. In 1969, Todd and a group of other students who became Todd’s mentors–Larry Malkus, George Gruel, and David Griffith–organized “Ten Eyes in Washington,” which documented protests of the Viet Nam War and featured 15 of Todd’s photographs. It premiered at The Detroit Library in 1970 with the curatorial assistance of Dorothy Mante.
Todd moved on to Creem, a music magazine, and became its photographer. A high point came when Todd and the art director, Charlie Auringer, photographed Mick Jagger at a concert. Todd also photographed Grand Funk Railroad for Creem’s cover. Then another job opened, and Todd began to work in a color lab in downtown Detroit. He moved on to the studio of Dick James, a renowned photographer. Todd refers to James as “a super photographer,” and says that James gave him the confidence he needed early on in his career. James shared his knowledge with Todd about being a professional photographer and stressed that a person must bring their best efforts to the project at hand.
Todd’s passion took him to New York in 1970. With few resources and big dreams, he slowly connected with the people who would mold his career. The path wasn’t laid out, it wasn’t straight and there were many detours along the way. Todd took on odd jobs just for the opportunity to meet the right people in the photography profession.
But Todd still needed to supplement his income, so he worked at night at the West Village Gaslight Cafe. Here, Denny Brown, a native Detroiter, and the manager of the folk music club, became a mentor to Todd. Denny, along with Owain Phyfe, influenced Todd with their music. These experiences led to his first photography assistant position with Mel Dixon. He worked on special projects, learning how to work in a studio setting. This was the perfect match for Todd.
While working with Mel Dixon, Todd met Harvey Lloyd. After showing his portfolio to Lloyd, Todd was hired with the stipulation of only being paid when there were assignments scheduled. The remainder of his time would be spent studying the works of Alexey Brodovitch while listening to his tapes from The Design Laboratory. Here Todd learned about multi-media sight and sound image making.
At this time Lloyd was given a huge commission in Europe for TWA and took his young assistant along for an experience of a lifetime. When Todd was 20, he traveled to England, Greece, Spain, Italy, France and Portugal. He kept track of the hundreds of rolls of film and learned production on the job.
Then another break came when Todd was introduced to Ernst Haas in the 1970’s. Haas was an Austrian-born photojournalist and a pioneer of color photography at a time when it was considered inferior to black and white photography. Todd worked as his assistant for 14 years. Ernst photographed the natural elements in society and Todd found a kindred spirit in style. Their relationship grew throughout the years. Todd helped Haas with his photographic workshops and commercial assignments.
Todd says, “Ernst Haas’s teachings were about learning to see and inspirational critique, and to be mindful of things around you when photographing.” They had a close bond, and this continued until Haas’s death in 1986. Haas also wrote the introduction to one of Todd’s books stating, “To capture, within a moment, the essence of [New York] tragic comedy needs a heart, a soul, and a well-reacting trigger finger…The pictures of Todd Weinstein prove he possesses these.”
Todd’s roots were long and deep within the Oak Park community, which was primarily Jewish. Most of us knew Holocaust survivors—we had seen their tattoos. They were our neighbors, parents of our friends, and relatives. Their stories were not broadcast, and we knew few of the details. We didn’t have the vaguest idea about the horrors they had encountered.
His interest in the Holocaust started in 1963 when he was called a "kike" at the Oak Park skating rink. Todd’s curiosity about that era later turned into a reality when he traveled to Washington D.C. in 1983 to hear the stories of numerous survivors who had been separated from family and friends. Surprisingly, Todd saw the parents of a childhood friend, David Wiener, there. He was invited to stay at their hotel, in their room, and hear their tortured testimonials.
Todd has been studying the Holocaust since 1983 and photographed emerging Jewish life in Germany in 1995. He was invited by the German government to be an artist-in-residence. He then took a year (1995-1996) to capture the various commemorations around Germany celebrating the 50 years since the end of WWII and the liberation of the concentration camps, Todd’s show, “Darkness into Light: Reemergence of the Jewish Culture in Germany” was a solo photo project that continued to grow for the next six years. He also worked in Poland and Israel. While at Buchenwald, he photographed children of both survivors and perpetrators.
Gallery of photographs by Todd Weinstein (below)
This experience led to a project by Todd entitled “The 36 Unknown.” Todd photographed abstract images of faces he saw hiding in the shadows and light of varying locations from Cracow and Auschwitz. Thirty-six is a Talmudic reference to the Tzadikim (Hebrew for righteous ones). According to the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) it is believed that the world requires a minimum of 36 righteous individuals to uphold humanity. Since 1999, “The 36” has been on exhibit in Detroit, New York, Vienna, and Germany.
The exhibit contains nearly 70 of Todd’s photos, along with the work of other photographers, mentors, teachers, and friends who have inspired him. Each frame contains two images, and the viewer is left to compare, contrast, or contemplate the differences —simply put — juxtaposition. A one-time stroll around the exhibit is simply not enough!
Upon entering the gallery, I was immediately drawn to the photo that sparked Todd’s career. It was from his photography class in 1968. He learned the technique of cropping from Miss K and his passion was cemented. This photo became the cover for brochure of Todd’s exhibit.
The pictures are vibrant and superbly display the breadth and depth of Todd’s work over the past 50 years. Photography has taken him all over the globe and the viewer is privileged to enter his world. It is evident that Todd forged a path that was not easy and his persistence to learn and grow in this competitive field paid dividends beyond compare.
Inspiration from his “Oak Park Crew” is saluted throughout the gallery. Pictures of childhood friends, family and memorabilia from past decades are highlighted as having played a role along Todd’s career path. Most of these friends are still nearby, but sadly, some passed away far too young. Fellow Oak Parkers Jeff Marx, Marty Lewis and Danny Miller all motivated Todd with their individual talents. Their legacy and memory are intact thanks to this exhibit.
Jeff Marx and Marty Lewis played a key role in Todd’s life with their musical gifts. Todd photographed many of the CD covers for Jeff. He was a jazz musician who played the saxophone and there is a monitor at the exhibit honoring his craft. Marty was a record producer, engineer, and mixer. Todd displayed a photograph of Lewis with his upright bass on top of a building at the University of Michigan. Danny Miller was always energized when on stage. A picture of Danny on a motorcycle lingers from his youth. These friends will never be forgotten, and their memories are a blessing.
Another inspirational figure in Todd’s life is Larry Ravitz, a childhood friend. A monitor shows an oil painting by Larry in full view, creating an image before our eyes. There are other original pieces of Larry’s work surrounding the display. The color schemes are brilliant.
Memorabilia has its place in the gallery as well. The Jewish News is on display and provides insight into Todd’s early projects as well as his 2014 exhibit at The Holocaust Museum in Farmington Hills, Mich. There are also several books of Todd’s published photos which grace the show. His high school yearbook is there, along with a report card from Hebrew school to illustrate his journey. Todd’s exhibit is one of humility and gratitude — it’s a private tour of Todd’s professional life.
The retrospective speaks volumes to each person whose influence nurtured Todd’s soul. The exhibit is dedicated to his grandfather, Joseph Sucan, who made the frames for his first photographs. Todd’s parents and family were extremely supportive throughout his journey. There is a section in the brochure Todd designed for the exhibit that gives special thanks —Todd has proudly proclaimed “Mom and Dad, I did it!” From Oak Park to New York and everywhere in between, Todd kept the enduring power of love and appreciation for everyone who helped him along the way.
Judi Markowitz is a retired high school English teacher of 34 years. She primarily taught 12th grade and had the pleasure of her three sons gracing her classes. In addition, she taught debate, forensics, and Detroit film. Judi has four adult children and seven wonderful grandchildren. She is married to Jeffrey Markowitz, whom she met in high school.
Judi grew up in Oak Park, Mich. which had a stellar school district, with excellent teachers. The city provided activities for all–and there were even sidewalks. Judi moved to Huntington Woods as an adult, which is a half mile from her childhood home. She wanted the same experience for her children as she had growing up, and Huntington Woods provided that. The View from Four Foot Two is Judi’s first book.