By Franklin W. Liu
When travelers step out of the car and instead take a meandering walk through the neighborhood, hidden surprises can pop up along the way. Three years ago, Josh Michtom took his infant son Max out in a stroller for a leisure walk and he was instantly gripped by what he saw: Holy Mary, Jesus and Joseph yard shrines were all nestled throughout Somerville. He saw the religious monuments and was hooked.
With his digital camera in hand, Michtom has repeatedly snapped away since, capturing the yard shrines as religious iconography. This fun picture-taking endeavor soon developed into an amateur’s obsession, resulting in a collection of 241 photographs. In a period of three years, Michtom said he has, thus far, documented approximately only half of Somerville’s four square miles of territory.
Michtom is currently showing a selection of 28 of these photographs at the Paradise Lounge Gallery in Boston, in a show titled Somerville Madonnas.
Most of these photographs are presented with a straight forward charm, much like what one would see flipping through a family photo album, just precious personal pictures of memories.
Michtom does not think of himself as a professional photographer with a high-tech camera and a sharp eye for lighting and details He exhibits none of the stunning sensitivity and mythical symbolism inherent in an Ansel Adams or a Robert Mapplethorp photograph hanging in the permanent collection of major museums.
Framed approximately 16 inches by 24 inches in size, Michtom’s works are simply identified by its street address. “Seventy-six Properzi Way” is a picture showing Madonna holding a diminutive Jesus crucified on the cross, also clutched across her chest is a bouquet of colorful roses; set against a background of a garish green color painted-brick wall.
These lawn statues may vary from two feet to four feet in height and are hollow but manufactured with highly durable plastic to withstand inclement weather and filled with sand or pebbles to withstand a strong wind.
Michtom says these statues of Mother of Christ must give the homeowners inspiration and a sense of serenity. He never knocks on anybody’s door just to talk to them about their yard shrines. When curiosity propels the owners out to chat with him, Michtom never ask to snap a photo of them standing next to their lawn shrine. He prefers to let the photographs capture the owners personalizing their shrine.
“Eighty-six Franklin Street” shows an elaborate display of three medallions side by side above Mary’s head. They represent all three branches of the U.S. Military Service. In between them are clusters of red, white and blue flag ribbons and just below all that are bold red letters: We Support Our Troops.
Michtom is a quiet, thoughtful civilian employed as a public defender in Cambridge. He came from Brooklyn six years ago to study law at Boston University.
Michtom said he will finish photographing the rest of Somerville then he doesn’t know what photography project he will pick up next.
Prayers aside, it may well be that another interesting project will simply crop up while he meanders around the neighborhood to soak in the art that’s nestled all around us.
“Somerville Madonnas: Photographs of Religious Iconography” will run through July 20 at the paradise Lounge Gallery. For info call 617 562-8814.