In January, a portrait by Aaron Mayes was selected for inclusion in Photo District News (PDN) Magazine’s annual “Faces” portrait photography contest. Mayes is the curator for visual materials at UNLV University Libraries Special Collections and a former campus photographer. He helps grow the archives by creating and collecting photographs, as well as providing technical expertise with digitization efforts. Here, he tells the story behind the winning portrait.
As part of the ongoing Southern Nevada Jewish Heritage Project in Special Collections, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and photograph many individuals in the local Jewish community. I’ve also photographed synagogues, schools, rituals, and artifacts. All of this is an effort to preserve the stories and rich heritage of this community for future generations. For me, this portrait of Jerome (Jerry) D. Countess is a great personal example of that mission in action.
A longtime Las Vegas resident, Jerry is an author, fundraiser, and former director of the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas. Amongst his many accomplishments was the creation of The Jewish Reporter newspaper.
Jerry is retired and welcomed me into his home for the project. Before pulling out my camera, we talked about my goal to create a portrait that would do more than just a document of his appearance. A natural storyteller, Jerry understood.
“It’s too bad it can’t be taken with my wife,” he mentioned. His wife, Rachel, had passed. He told me the two were childhood sweethearts who married in 1945, and he shared stories of their life together, their children, grandchildren, and how he is “waiting to be with her again.” In 2005, he published Letters from the Battlefield in Love and War, a memoir based on letters he sent to Rachel during his World War II service in North Africa and Italy.
His home was what you would expect from a life well lived. Awards hung on a wall in his office, family photos gazed out from the living room, and mementos adorned dusty bookshelves. A small dining table flanked by windows filled out a nook next to the kitchen. Light filtered through blinds holding years’ worth of cards marking holidays and special events in their lives. Directly across the room hung a portrait of Rachel in her younger days.
It was natural to bring the two of them together under the good light. Jerry took to the idea and cradled the portrait as his eyes slightly filled. He laughed a bit and gave me a variety of expressions. The portrait shows that Jerry’s story is not just about his many accomplishments as a man of Jewish faith, but rather of a man who cared for and loved deeply the woman with whom he shared life.