Beyond the walls of UCLA, however, he has built a parallel career – and an international following – as a preeminent fine-art photographer.
His images have been displayed in galleries and accepted into the permanent collections of 19 museums around the world, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Hammer Museum, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, the Jewish museums of New York and Berlin and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel.
“Richard is one of the best contemporary fine-art photographers in America today,” says Craig Krull, owner of the eponymous gallery in Santa Monica, which represents Dr. Ehrlich’s photography. “His zest and curiosity about life come across in his work.”
Dr. Ehrlich focuses his lens on an eclectic variety of subjects, selecting topics that are visually interesting yet not overexposed. Persistence is essential; it has, in some cases, taken him years to obtain the necessary permissions to take his photographs. His shots of sand-filled houses and abandoned diamond mines in the southern Africa country of Namibia and fantastically masked Lucha Libre wrestlers in Mexico City are rich with color and emotion. A moody series of stacked and blended sunset images taken near his home in Malibu pays homage to the “multiform” expressions of the mid-20th-century painter Mark Rothko. Quiet pictures of World War II-era documents and rows of card catalogs and file cabinets from the Holocaust Archives in Bad Arolsen, Germany, silently exclaim the enormity of Nazi crimes.
With his landscapes and photographs of digitally altered MRI and CT scans displayed on the walls throughout Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica, Dr. Ehrlich’s patients usually are familiar with their blue-scrub-wearing urologist’s artistic pursuits. But collectors, who pay up to $10,000 for one of his larger framed photographs, may know nothing about his life in medicine; he drops the honorific Dr. when displaying his art.
“I don’t want people to think I’m a dilettante,” says Dr. Ehrlich. “This is a serious pursuit for me. If I were younger, it would be another career.”
Dr. Ehrlich earned his medical degree at Cornell University and completed residencies in surgery (New York Hospital-Cornell University Medical Center) and urology (Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center) before joining the U.S. Air Force. In 1971, he came to UCLA, where he performed the medical center’s first pediatric laparoscopic procedure, as well as the world’s first pediatric laparoscopic partial nephrectomy and ureteral reimplant.
As a boy, he was passionate about photography and had a darkroom in his home in Westchester, New York, but he opted to focus most of his energies on sports. He played shortstop and pitched on his high-school baseball team and won the New York State Tennis Doubles Championship, and he continued to play tennis as an undergraduate at Cornell. But he says today that putting aside photography was “a major mistake.” It wasn’t until he was well into his medical career that he turned his attention again to artistic pursuits and tried painting. He concluded after a few years that he “wasn’t any good at it” and shifted back to photography.
“I decided if I was going to do it, I was going to do it right and not just dabble in it,” Dr. Ehrlich says. “I studied, took a lot of lousy photographs, enrolled in some courses and spent time with other photographers. What I learned from my art classes about color and composition, light and shadow, translated into photography later on.”
Such effort has paid off. His images have been published in seven books (including one that chronicled the construction of Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center) and displayed in 30 solo exhibits and 16 group shows. He also has presented lectures on digital photography – one was titled “Ansel Adams Would Have Loved Photoshop” – at several galleries and museums, including the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles.
A current project, “Face the Music,” portrays the states of bliss experienced by iconic musicians as they listen to favorite songs. Still only halfway through the project, Dr. Ehrlich has already photographed Ringo Starr, Herbie Hancock, Sergio Mendez, Herb Alpert, Dave Brubeck (shortly before his death), Quincy Jones and many others. The images will be part of an upcoming music-based fundraiser to support the UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment.
“For a lot of doctors, medicine is all they know, and when they retire, they don’t know what to do with themselves. It’s good to have something in your life that balances out what you normally do,” he says. “As I come to the end of my career as a physician, I’m fortunate to have photography as a consuming passion.”
Kim Kowsky is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.
To see more photography by Dr. Richard Ehrlich, go to: ehrlichphotography.com