Honey Lazar believes that caring keeps relationships strong. She takes photographs to tell stories of the people she cares about – and to keep alive loved ones she has been losing since childhood.
Lazar’s plainspoken, finely textured pictures celebrate family above all. Her latest project, “Loving Aunt Ruth,” honors her aunt, who died in March. Lazar spent seven years on this labor of love, and now it’s going to be a book. Set for publication next spring, it will be a perfect complement to Aunt Ruth photos accessible online and to the blog Lazar writes in her aunt’s name at Jewishjournal.com.
Trained as a social worker, Lazar left that field for a different, more personal kind of focus. Her kindness, which shines brightly in her photography, bridges the gap.
The Aunt Ruth photos show a remarkable woman, whom Lazar considers a lodestar, at home, at a birthday party, at daily chores. There are pictures of reminders Aunt Ruth posted on her refrigerator door. There is one by photographer Elizabeth Glorioso of Lazar and Aunt Ruth looking at each other, content in their closeness. Another captures the woman named Ruth Rivitz Moss cleaning the gravestone of her sister, Leah, Lazar’s mother. Yet another traps her in full joy at her 90th birthday.
Aunt Ruth was a woman who lived by truth, not platitude.
“I asked Aunt Ruth many questions about life and choices, and I kept waiting for one answer that wasn’t rooted in love of faith, family, friends, or country,” Lazar said. “She was consistent in how she lived and loved. I asked her how she stayed determined in the face of so much loss, and she said, ‘I accept that life isn't easy. I have my faith... but I have a will to live, and that will comes from loving people.’
“She saw worth in everyone she met. She stocked her shelves with first aid supplies in case someone in her condo complex might be in need. She cooked and froze in case someone was ill, had a shiva, or just needed a delivered dinner. ... All of this was learned from her mother, Sarah Rivitz, an Orthodox Jew, who cooked Sabbath dinners for indigent Jews in Akron that were delivered by Ruth’s brother, Hirsch. The Rivitz family was of modest means and large hearts. Their door was always open, and Aunt Ruth said they never knew who might join them for dinner. They believed in tsedakah and family – and food.”
Ruth’s death capped two difficult years for Lazar. Her oldest sister, Phyllis Sidney, died of pancreatic cancer in October 2011. The middle sister, Jane Wotring, who was bedridden for 25 years, died of heart failure and pneumonia in July 2012.
Lazar turns such experience into art, so another of her projects is called “The Year My Sisters Died.” It is about “the universal experience of being horizontal in life,” she said. “We’ve all been flattened by life. We’ve had a lateral period, by injury, by illness, by despair. Everyone has been supine, or you’ve loved someone who’s been. You walk down a hospital ward and you will see a person with a window and watching television and ‘The Year My Sisters Died’ is about my window and television.”
Growing up Honey
Loss schooled Lazar early. Her father, Morrie Jessop, died in a cab on the way home from work on Aunt Ruth’s birthday (and Mother’s Day). He was 46. His wife, Leah, was 39. Lazar was 3.
Lazar credits her father for her calling. Like him, she shoots on film. Like him, she dotes on kin.
Lazar is turning prints and other family memorabilia she rescued from her mother into “The Jessops – A Love Story.” Already highly designed, it is the kind of effort Lazar lives for. For now, it exists in her computer.
Morrie Jessop was a photojournalist who worked at the Canton Repository in the 1920s as a very young man. He captured images of celebrities, including Charles Lindbergh and Marlene Dietrich, “but more than anything, he photographed my mother and sisters,” Lazar said. He founded the Jessop Advertising Agency in 1936 and became quite successful.
Lazar credits her father for her taking pictures since she was 13. “When you’re little you have magical thinking, so I studied my father from all of the pictures he left behind and they became dimensional for me,” she said. “He became alive; they weren’t just flat photographs.
“My response to losing my father and finding comfort in photographs was to photograph everyone and everything that mattered to me in my life, believing that if I had a picture of you, you would never leave me. So most of the work that I do, especially as I’ve aged, is about story and memory and objects that have a story or involve a memory. That’s why I photograph. I think that’s why I wanted to be a social worker.
“I’m a lover of fiction. I’m really fascinated by the story.”
Morrie and Leah Jessop, Phyllis, Jane and Honey lived in an ultramodern house in Akron. Eventually, Ruth built a house across the street. Kin was important to the Jessops. Bereavement dogged them.
“My father died, and my grandparents were dead when I was 10,” Lazar said. “He was just a presence even though he wasn’t there… When my mother was 70, she gave my sisters and me a list of if things ‘to do when I die,’ and the last item on the list was, ‘please draw my eyebrows in.’
“My mother had this white hair and green eyes and my father looked like a Cuban. He was really dark. They were beautiful.”
The house her parents built in 1950 was more contemporary than anything else in Akron, she said, and both of them were involved in every design detail. She has pictures of a “media room,” complete with a dropdown screen for movie shows Jessop designed far in advance of the coining of the term.
“I miss what I didn’t have,” Lazar said of her father. “He’s a legend in my family. Because my sisters were so much older than I, they knew my dad. (But) I feel close to my father every time I put a roll of film in my camera.”
The Lazar path
As this finely featured woman juggles her projects, she bridges public and private, keeping family, memory and narrative at the forefront.
Lazar became a professional photographer when her personal life began to bleed into her professional one. “It was time to go,” she said of leaving social work. “I really just didn’t want to take care of anyone anymore. Period. And I love people. I wanted to photograph them and make a meaningful narrative. I really believe I was a social worker so I could become the kind of photographer I want to be and I’m still working on it.”
“Honey Lazar is a gifted photographer whose portrait photography succeeds in telling stories in ways that connect one human being to another,” said Joan Perch, who coordinates exhibitions and community arts events at the Beth K. Stocker Gallery at Lorain County Community College in Elyria.
Perch exhibited Lazar’s “Portable Universe” twice, at ArtMetro, her defunct Cleveland gallery, and at the Stocker venue. “In both settings, as diverse as they were, people were moved to connect with the ordinary but also extraordinary women she photographed,” Perch said. “I think that is the beauty of her work – as she celebrates her subject, not only do we celebrate them as well; we begin to see the exceptional in those around us, and ourselves. We are elevated.”
In addition to her blog, Lazar writes letters you have to go to the post office to send. She makes phone calls. She emails. Her life is a curious mixture of the old-fashioned and the ultramodern. Her studio is equipped with the latest technology, but she favors analog picture making.
Her background in teaching and social work feeds into her eloquent, yet highly modest imagery.
Lazar earned a master’s degree in clinical social work from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in 1978. She was a social worker until 1991, when she went into photography full time. She entered the Cleveland Institute of Art when she was 40, and became an artist in residence there in 2010.
Her artistic ventures are painstaking, patient and highly personal. They are open-ended, too, and often in process. They accumulate.
One is called “It Was Bound To Happen,” a record of her relationship with her husband, David. Others chronicle the connection between water and danger, “defogging” the Amish (she took pictures of them close up, and the Amish famously resist picture-taking), and family ties.
A sense of place
Honey and David Lazar live off a private drive in a leafy East Side suburb. There is a studio and house on their gorgeous, sylvan property.
David met Honey at a Cleveland Heights party thrown by Danny Lewis, the brother of Peter B. Lewis, who founded Progressive Insurance.
“David was the first person I ever trusted and I wasn’t wrong,” said Lazar, a self-styled child of the ’60s. “He takes really good care of me. He’s the president of my fan club.” The Lazars, who have two sons, have been married for 39 years.
No matter the subject, Lazar’s photography is intimate. She is not so much in your face as in your heart. She involves you so as to make you part of her picture. For examples, go to “projects” on Lazar’s website, http://honeylazar.com, and click on “Keeping Track.” There, you will see another Lazar exploration of memory, her selection of visual triggers for key past times. Or navigate to “Temporary,” Lazar’s pictures of artists whose work is not meant to last. Of course, there are numerous Aunt Ruth photos.
Process is as important as product to her.
Go to Lazar’s studio down the drive from the main house and she’ll press you into joining in “They Come and They Go,” a record of people who visit her place. Callers sign release forms and, if there’s enough light, she takes their pictures in familiar, pastoral settings, posing them for expressive variety. She then sends them a print.
For Lazar, photography is both transaction and bond. For Lazar, art is therapy. Her gift is her ability to make her art therapeutic for others, too. And socially resonant: part of the proceeds from the sale of “Loving Aunt Ruth” will be donated to the Intergenerational School in the former St. Luke’s Hospital campus on Shaker Boulevard in Cleveland.
Aunt Ruth wanted to be a teacher; the Intergenerational School, a charter school in the city’s public school system, works with institutions for the elderly, so this helps fulfill her aunt’s mission, Lazar said.
Now that Lazar has completed her aunt’s legacy, she’s working on her own.
Just as she rescued prints from her mother after Morrie Jessop died, Lazar is compiling images of her own family. This anthropologist of the soul has 40 photo albums of herself, David, and their sons, Zachary and Matthew.
“I developed a mantra for myself, probably 20 some years ago, to not start something I can’t sustain. It helps me temper my level of commitment to many things: to my children, my friends.”
“I take pictures so no one leaves me,” Lazar said. “They don’t leave me as long as they’re in the books.”