Berkeley photographer Gerda Straus Mathan dies at 83

Gerda Straus Mathan, a Berkeley-based photographer, died Tuesday, Aug. 10, in Berkeley. She was 83.

Mathan was very active at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center, and she taught photography there, as well as at Vista Community College in Berkeley. She belonged to the local group Yeldei HaShoah, for child survivors and refugees from the Holocaust, and belonged to Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.

Mathan was born in Karlsruhe, Germany, on Jan. 31, 1921, the fourth of five children. Her father, Friedrich Straus, known as Fritz, was a partner in the well-known Karlsruhe bank, Straus & Company, which was sold when the family fled to the United States in 1938. They settled in Berkeley, and Straus went to work for Bank of America in San Francisco.

Mathan attended U.C. Davis and U.C. Berkeley, where she graduated with a bacteriology degree. She later returned to get a master’s in zoology.

She married Haim Barki, an Israeli, whom she met at Davis. They had a son, Dan, and later moved to Madison, Wis. Barki died of leukemia in 1949.

In 1955, she married another Israeli, David Mathan, and had two daughters, Margalit and Dalia, before the couple divorced in 1969.

Mathan had been interested in photography as a child, and received a master’s in fine arts from Lone Mountain College, now part of the University of San Francisco, in the 1970s.

In addition to Ansel Adams, Mathan studied with Imogen Cunningham and Ruth Bernhard.

Mathan traveled extensively throughout the world, photographing as she went. Fascinated with natural light, she experimented with infrared film when photographing ancient synagogues in Spain, Turkey and Prague, and created a series of using an old Brownie camera that rendered her subjects in dreamy, diffuse light.

“My medium is black-and-white photography because in this way light seems to appear in its essence, and reality is abstracted to its more basic elements,” Mathan said in 1997. “For me, photography’s wonder lies in its ability to capture the fleeting light, the passing mood, the unplanned gesture and the unexpected encounter.”

Mathan’s “Valentina’s Uncle: Portrait of an Old Man,” published by Macmillan Publishing Co.’s Collier Books division in 1981 and later excerpted by Reader’s Digest, is a book of photographs of a 92-year-old Russian immigrant, Vadim Shepkin, during his final years. Many of the pictures show him flanked by young grandnieces and grandnephews, a striking portrait of youth and old age.

“I had not looked for this project, the project found me,” Mathan wrote in the introduction.

Four pictures from “Valentina’s Uncle” are part of the Oakland Museum’s archives.

Her work has been exhibited throughout the Bay Area, Southern California, New York and Washington, D.C. Locally, her photos were displayed at the Oakland Museum Collector’s Gallery, the Jewish Community Center San Francisco, and numerous galleries. In Southern California, she had shows at the University of Judaism and Santa Monica College.

Mathan was also an avid gardener and talented cook. An enthusiastic hiker, she could frequently be found on the trails of Tilden Park.

Mathan is survived by her son Dan Barki of Oakland; daughters Margalit Mathan August of Berkeley and Dalia Mathan Thomas of Paradise; three grandchildren; brother Vernon Stroud of Palo Alto; sister Eva Linker of El Cerrito, and numerous nieces and nephews.

Donations can be sent to Tehiyah Day School, 22603 Tassajara Ave., El Cerrito, CA 94530.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."