photos by Murray Riss
A couple of years ago, Susan Adler Thorp was walking through Temple Israel Cemetery on a regular visit to her parents’ graves. The owner of Susan Adler Thorp Communications and former political columnist for The Commercial Appeal thought about the beauty and serene setting in the 174-year-old cemetery.
Wouldn’t it be great if that beauty could be captured and shared with others, she thought. Not long afterwards, she ran into noted Memphis photographer Murray Riss.
“I had known Murray through the years,” Susan said. “He took an exceptional photograph of my father years ago, and as we were chatting, it just dawned on me, why couldn’t we take photos of the cemetery, because it really is a magnificent place.”
The result of that serendipitous meeting is a series of Riss photographs taken at the cemetery and currently on display in a special exhibit at Temple Israel Museum. The exhibit, simply called “Beloved,” is also the title of a book featuring 200 of the photographs, published last fall. The title comes from the single word that appears most often on the gravestones in the cemetery. It also describes the importance of the historic location to Mid-South Jewish history.
To create the exhibit and the book, Murray collaborated with Susan and Rabbi Micah Greenstein, senior rabbi at Temple Israel. The trio met, visited the cemetery and discussed the project. Then they gave Murray a straightforward directive.
“They said, ‘Go and bring us back some nice pictures,’” Murray recalled. “As photo assignments go, that is about as wonderful as it gets.”
And get pictures he did. Over the course of a year, Murray visited the cemetery at different hours of the day, covering all four seasons. That meant a wide variety of lighting conditions, shadows, colors, flora and fauna. He eventually brought back some 12,000 images. When you engage a top photographer with works in major museums, the final product will certainly stand out. That is why the exhibit and book have such a haunting beauty.
Murray eventually narrowed the photos down to his 230 favorites. A small subcommittee of the Museum’s board then chose the final 86 for the museum exhibit. “The group knew they were working with incredible images,” Susan said.
“It was an exciting experience for us,” she continued. “I do recall Rabbi Greenstein saying, ‘Oh, my for the hundreds if not thousands of times I’ve been to the cemetery, I’ve never seen it this way before.’”
Feedback from the exhibit and the book has been extremely positive, Susan said.
“We’ve gotten a lot of good response, not just from Temple members but people outside the Jewish community as well, people who are interested in cemeteries,” she said. “We went to talk about it at the largest secular cemetery in Memphis. People who don’t have a loved one at the cemetery will also find it a remarkable work.”
Another key instruction for Murray was to photograph where he found beauty through his lens. There was no mandate to train his lens on more prominent people. Susan said that was intentional and important to the success of the project.
“I learned as a journalist that when you write obituaries, that death is a great equalizer,” she said. “Some members of Temple Israel are better known than others, but the important thing was nobody was specially recognized. So the book is filled with people that you might not recognize and that’s the magic of it.”
The dramatic photos come from the skillful, artistic hands of Murray. Before he began his photographic journey, he did something that sounds a bit unusual. He visited the cemetery a few times but didn’t take a camera along.
“I just hung out and walked around and that’s when I realized that this place is so magnificent, it has so many possibilities,” he said. “I went there often during the week at different times and in different weather conditions, and I tried to get as much of the ambience of the place as possible. The more I went there, the more the cemetery took over, it told me—and this may sound a little odd—but it started telling me how it should be photographed.”
One stark photograph of a stone in the book has a single leaf on top. Without words, the image communicates the changing seasons, likely autumn. Murray was there at just the right time.
“The photographer’s task is always to see beyond the normal and the obvious,” he said. “I would always approach everything and quiet myself, and I was there looking at this particular stone and there was just the way the light was hitting it and while I was standing there, the leaf landed on the stone.”
A number of photos speak volumes about the person memorialized. One depicts a slight alteration of the Jewish custom and mitzvah of a visitor marking a grave with a stone. Instead of stones, Murray photographed one with a grouping of seashells. There’s no ocean beach convenient to Memphis so a visitor clearly took the initiative to mark the stone with a symbol significant to the loved one. Another stone was pictured with not stones or shells, but several bright yellow Callaway golf balls.
On another occasion, a bird followed Murray and chirped as he walked through the cemetery. He assumed he was getting close to a nest and the bird was warning him off.
Then finally it landed on a monument and stayed there, “and I thought, I think he wants to be photographed, and I photographed the bird and then it flew off. . . and that’s in the book!” said Murray.
The “Beloved” exhibit is currently a special exhibit at Temple Israel Museum. Contact the museum at 901.761.3130 to verify post-COVID exhibit hours.
You can purchase the book “Beloved: A View of One of the South’s Oldest Jewish Cemeteries as Photographed by Murray Riss” from the Temple Israel Gift Shop, from novel.bookstore (novelmemphis.com), from Amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com