Fine arts photographer Richard Nagler (no relation to this writer) has published four books, including “My Love Affair with Miami Beach” (1991), a visual homage to Holocaust survivors who settled in South Florida, and “Oakland Rhapsody: The Secret Soul of an American Downtown” (1995). Nagler, 71, lives in Piedmont with his wife, clinical psychologist Dr. Sheila Sosnow. The two met in grade school in Great Neck, Long Island. Nagler’s portfolio also includes pictures of many luminaries, among them Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joan Baez, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Whoopi Goldberg, Daniel Ellsberg, Allen Ginsberg and Barbara Boxer.
J.: Your Miami book includes so many touching images of a lost world of survivors, along with an introduction by the late writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, whom you met through an acquaintance. How did this come about?
Richard Nagler: My in-laws, Morris and Kate Sosnow, with whom I was incredibly close, had a place in Miami Beach. When we visited them, I would go off in the afternoons and photograph. I would hear Yiddish, and it was like stepping into an art deco shtetl. It was an uplifting and emotional experience. I was thinking of the right person to write the opening to “Miami Beach.” Singer wintered down there in Surfside. He was difficult and complicated — he was a man of another century — but we made a connection.
J.: You mention a visceral connection to Yiddish. Did you get this from your parents?
RN: No, my parents turned their backs on it. My mother spoke Yiddish, but it was a secret language. They were embarrassed by their own parents [and their Old World customs] and were not effusive about their past. I came from a very quiet house. It was the Sosnows who exuded [Yiddishkeit]. They spoke Yiddish and Polish, and though their culture was ripped out from under them, they laughed and were always funny. They were ebullient people. They were rooted in the shtetl.
J.: How about your artistic gene — does that come from your family?
RN: My father was a commercial artist. He created elaborate displays in front of movie theaters. But my parents didn’t want their sons to be artists. They wanted my brother and me to be professionals. I majored in philosophy and minored in French at the University of Pennsylvania, but I spent enormous amounts of time at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I started taking pictures, and I never stopped. My brother, by the way, who lives in Hartford, Connecticut, is a commercial photographer.
J.: Let’s shift gears, and location, to the East Bay. “Oakland Rhapsody,” with an opening by the poet and writer Ishmael Reed, says it all: You have a passion for the city. Why is that?
RN: I love Oakland. The light is extraordinary. It is so different architecturally and emotionally from the East Coast, from which I needed distance. When I started taking pictures of Oakland, I was the only one on the streets doing so. I was photographing everything in the city.
J.: Your books “Word on the Street” (2010) and “Looking at Art: The Art of Looking” (2014) have conceptual foundations — people juxtaposed with written messages, people viewing paintings and sculptures. Can you explain?
RN: I love accidents that happen between people and works of art.
J.: Your pictures of famous people are natural and unforced. Do you have a special technique in working with them?
RN: Celebrities don’t faze me. I’m comfortable with them, and I make quick associations with them. Also, I’m unobtrusive. Maybe my portraits are relaxed because I was never pressured to make money from them. I wanted a business to support my art, so I started one, manufacturing skylights. My studio was behind it. I just sold the business.
J.: So many of this country’s best-known photographers have Jewish backgrounds — Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Man Ray and Diane Arbus, for example. Any theories about that?
RN: We have a curiosity about life, and we’re attuned to recording it. I also think of Bruce Davidson, Lee Friedlander, Helen Levitt and Garry Winogrand.