Standing on 22nd Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, Donal Holway was consumed with one thought: How could he get every rabbi’s face sharp and in focus?
It’s not an easy task, says the photographer who has been snapping the official group picture of thousands of attendees at every International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries for years.
“It’s been a long time,” the former staff photographer of The New York Times says of his tenure. “I don’t remember how long.”
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Holway’s goal is to create a memorable photo that in years to come will be cherished by children and grandchildren of the Jewish leaders that flock to the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn every fall to study and share ideas with their fellow shluchim, Hebrew for emissaries.
“Every time I do it,” he says with a smile, “there of course are always more shluchim.”
This year, the international family of emissaries from the Dominican Republic to Cyprus grew by more than 200 couples.
Holway, who has been photographing since 1960, got his first paying job in 1962. A good picture, he explains, gives you the scene, “the place where you are that years later you will be able to look back and say this is the way it looked.”
Years ago, when the opportunity to shoot the official conference photo arose, there was no doubt in his mind that he would accept.
“I have a warm spot for Chabad,” he says, “even though I am not Jewish.”
His first encounter with Chabad was at Lubavitch World Headquarters in New York for an assignment for The Washington Post.
“The assignment editor told me we were going to photograph some rabbi in Brooklyn,” he recalls.
He arrived to a hall packed with thousands of Hassidic Jews, with a rabbi sitting on a stage in the center. It was the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.
“I had never been to anything like that before,” he says.
The way Holway tells it, he immediately sensed the best place to set up was on the dais, eight feet away from the Rebbe.
“At that time, not another person could get into to the hall,” he remembers, so at every intermission between the Rebbe’s scholarly talks, “we inched up another 40 feet.”
Donal Holway clutches the large print from the group photograph in 2009, just hours after it was taken.
He didn’t understand a word that the Rebbe, who delivered his talks in Yiddish, was saying, “but I did sense his powerful personality and presence. The memory of that first occasion is still very strong,” details Holway. “He was an older man, but he wasn’t old; he had tons of energy. Now that I am nearly 70, I can appreciate it.”
The picture, he says, was very successful. The Rebbe “looked up my way, and boom, it looked beautiful, it showed the whole room.”
In his estimation, the picture had horrible lighting, but there was nothing he could do about it. And for his current assignment, a panoramic shot of thousands of people whose faces he wants to appear crisp, lighting continues to be his greatest challenge.
Such was the conversation on 22nd Street, where Jon Slesinger of Foto Care in Chelsea was showing Holway and his associate, fashion photographer Alexei Hay, a new camera that could improve upon the current method of taking several shots and splicing them together.
“The goal would be to do a quicker photo and have the faces still sharp,” explains Holway.
While Hay was discussing Talmud and asking Slesinger if he donned the Jewish prayer boxes known as tefillin, Holway was asking about shutter speed, lenses and pixels.
“We will never know how much light there will be,” Holway tells Slesinger, “we have to be prepared for anything.” With all the challenges – there’s the number of seats, the lights, the platform, and the pace of the shot to worry about – Holway never seems phased.
“Panic really doesn’t solve anything,” he states.
The end result, he emphasizes, is always more about the experience of the conference. That’s why he hasn’t changed the location from just in front of Lubavitch World Headquarters, the brick building from which the Rebbe led the Chabad movement for more than four decades.
“It is the experience of sitting in front of 770 [and] having their picture taken,” says Holway. “I am amazed every time when you stand on the platform and the seats start to fill up, there is a wow moment. It really does take away my breath for a second.”