Sima Ariam is a good shot. Armed with nothing more than a Pentax automatic camera, she’s prowled parties and public appearances waiting for the moment to strike. Then (click!) in the split second when her subjects unconsciously drop their public persona Ariam captures something she sees as more than a superficial image.
"I catch the panim from bifnim," Ariam, a Manhattan-based psychoanalyst specializing in eating disorders, told the Jewish Week, using the Hebrew words for "face" and "inside." "Bifnim and panim: it’s the same root!" she enthused.
"Sima Ariam: Portraits," an exhibition opening this week at the 92nd Street Y, displays her candid camerawork in oversized headshots of famous faces, including many of her close friends from Israeli and American arts, letters and politics. Here are Shimon Peres and Bill Clinton, Elie Wiesel and A.B. Yehoshua, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Richard Avedon and Zubin Mehta. (See listings on page 50-51.)
A pert redhead dressed in an olive-green corduroy suit and matching suede boots, a subtle shift from her usual brown palette, Ariam points out that unlike English ("your poor language") the Hebrew word for face is a plural noun.
"There are many panim to people," Ariam said. "The question is how to catch their connection with the real one, their connection to God."
Ariam rejects being lumped in with photojournalists or paparazzi. She has already had two exhibitions in Israel, but because of her spontaneous style, she shrinks from comparisons to leading celebrity portraitists like Avedon or Annie Leibovitz who command control of their subjects.
For philosophical inspiration, Ariam looks to ancient sources. Sitting in a leather chair in her home office near Lincoln Center, she slides on a pair of tortoise-shell glasses to read a passage from the Book of Ezekiel. In the prophet’s vision of a divine chariot, he describes four heavenly creatures: "And every one had four faces," Ariam, a former high school teacher in Tel Aviv, read aloud.
During a trip to Cambodia last spring, Ariam found an analogue to that biblical symbolism in the towering temples of Angkor Thom, which are adorned with multifaceted faces carved in stone. She includes an image from her Eastern travels in the exhibition, the catalogue and on her Web site (www.simaariam.info).
Ariam’s catalogue and Web site also feature a quote from Peres, which she received in a hand-written note from the Nobel Prize-winning politician, sent in return for a keepsake album of snapshot portraits.
Praising Ariam’s "psychological photographs," Peres wrote in 1993, "you caught an angle that looks to me different from any other and for that I thank you."