what is expected

It felt so private before. I didn’t share them with anyone other than the women themselves, not even my husband, until the show went up.
— Meryl Alcabes, Photographer

By Laura Lowery

Sometimes, if you do your best to remain curious and observant, you stumble on magic. When it happens, you know. The heart beats differently, the breath deepens, and time pauses for a moment--just long enough to tell your husband, "You go on ahead, I'll catch up. I need ten more minutes with these photographs."

This is how Lucia's online editor, Sarah Childers, discovered Meryl Alcabes' series of portraits. What Is Expected is on exhibit now at the Photographic Center Northwest (PCNW). 

Meryl's photographs of the women in her traditionally observant Seattle Seward Park Jewish community are gorgeous and evocative, mysterious and metaphorical. They call on something deep. 

Mesmerized, I met her over coffee on a sunny day near her home and asked what was at the heart of this project for her, personally?

Her story begins with becoming a professional photographer, always busy taking pictures for other people, while longing to exercise her artistry creating something of her own. She enrolled in the certificate program at the PCNW, the culmination of which is a year-long personal photography project and thesis exhibition. 

"I asked myself what is the most influential thing in my life that I really care about?," she recalled. "The answer is my community." Meryl and her husband chose to move into an Orthodox Jewish community about 25 years ago. They were not Orthodox. 

We really had no idea. We had no idea what was expected. We learned pretty quickly.
— Meryl Alcabes

"We really had no idea," she says with a laugh. "We had no idea what was expected. We learned pretty quickly. Turns out if you want to be part of the community you really have to keep kosher, not dress in certain ways, and you can't work on Saturday. What interested me the most, though, was the women's role in the community."

Her portraits explore Jewish women's cultural identity, and each image is tied to a ritual, a verse in Hebrew, a behavior, a lesson, or some other significant aspect of the tradition.

For example, the photograph she titled Mikveh is about the traditional bath Jewish women go to once a month. As a private ritual, mikveh is not talked about very much and certainly never photographed, she explains. The water must be natural, the purpose is to purify.

Mikveh by Meryl Alcabes

"I wanted all of my images to be metaphorical and represent what this tradition is about," says Meryl. "Not to photograph it literally."

For Mikveh she dressed her model (all of her models for this project are women in her community) in a modest, vintage white linen and lace dress to represent purity. The woman's feet are bare to represent the way one enters the mikveh bath, naked. She is wading into a lake because bathing in natural water is essential to the ritual.

These images form a visual document of my introduction to this way of life, and my initial reactions to some of the customs I encountered when I chose to join this community—behaviors that are crucial to fitting in.
— Meryl Alcabes

Meryl printed each photograph in the series on Japanese Kozo, a handmade mulberry paper, and then used beeswax to make them translucent. The effect is stunning. Light moves through each image like a subtle whisper, drawing you in without drowning you out.

I often use the word magic to describe the experience of feeling unexpectedly connected to and touched by a powerful truth, something larger than words alone can illustrate. Meryl's photographs evoke this. They are quietly masterful, softly powerful, and deeply moving.

What Is Expected is hanging at PCNW in Seattle until August 14th. This weekend (August 4-7) is the Seattle Art Fair and Meryl's photograph Mikveh will be on display.

Meryl Alcabes is a Seattle-based photographer who is known for her inspired event photography and her colorful, expressive portraits. Meryl's creativity and enthusiasm are unmistakable hallmarks of her images. Her rapport with people is evident in her work. Find her online at, and connect with her on Facebook at /merylalcabesphotography.

Laura Lowery is the founder, editor and publisher of Lucia. She does her best to lead a creative life. Whether triumphant or stumbling, Laura shares daily notes (that are often weekly) here on luciajournal, including stories, behind-the-scenes happenings, little doses of inspiration, and large quantities of curiosity and heart. She is pleased to meet you.