A s a trailblazer in Orthodox Jewish life, Ed Bernstein — who passed away just weeks before Pesach at the age of 75 — was an unlikely candidate. A third-generation native and lifelong resident of Denver, Colorado, Ed — known to all simply as Uncle Eddie — was a gentle, self-effacing man who made his living as a versatile photographer, doing weddings, conventions and other events, portrait sittings, even commercial work.

But a photo he took of Chicago’s Rav Aharon Soloveitchik on the latter’s visit to Denver in 1972 sparked a lifelong passion for creating richly crafted, formal photographic portraits of roshei yeshivah and rabbanim. And thus began what Ed Bernstein came to see as his unique mission: to capture enduring images of gedolei Yisrael and make them available to Jews everywhere.

Over the next four decades, his iconic photos came to grace walls, desks, and book covers in Jewish homes across America and around the world. Wielding his old-style Canon SLR camera as an artist would his brush and palette, Mr. Bernstein brought an intimate familiarity with our nation’s great personalities into the homes — and consciousness — of average Jews like never before.

As one visitor to the shivah for Mr. Bernstein put it: “When I heard Ed Bernstein had been niftar, I thought to myself, ‘So many gedolim will come out to greet him in Shamayim, because he immortalized them.’ He started a trend of people owning pictures of gedolim. When I was growing up, we just imagined what gedolim like the Chofetz Chaim and Rav Chaim Ozer looked like, but now it’s real. We connect the person with the image.”

Ed Bernstein grew up on Denver’s West Side in the 1950s, at a time when his public school would close for all Jewish holidays because the student body was 95 percent Jewish, but there wasn’t a single after-school Talmud Torah for him to attend. Somehow, perhaps at the urging of the Bernsteins’ neighbor Rav B.C. Shloime Twerski, he headed east after tenth grade to spend the remaining two years of high school at Ner Israel in Baltimore.

When Rabbis Yisroel Meir Kagan and Yitzchok Wasserman founded Denver’s Yeshiva Toras Chaim (YTC) in 1967, Ed drew close to the yeshivah community, even serving as YTC’s first secretary. During the last two decades of his life, he was also a fixture in the yeshivah’s beis medrash and in that of the Denver Community Kollel, where he learned with numerous chavrusas each week, as well as many more by phone. The chavrusas he established in a whole gamut of Torah topics, learning with scores of people around the world, sometimes for decades, was Ed’s way of thanking Hashem for having brought him miraculously through cancer surgery that modern medicine would say was impossible to survive.

He built his one-of-a-kind portrait collection using a simple method: He’d travel to the home of a rav or rosh yeshivah he wanted to photograph and knock on the door, introducing himself as a photographer from Denver and asking for a few minutes of his would-be subject’s time. More often than not, he got the photo session he sought, shooting a complete roll of some 40-plus frames.

After returning home to Denver from a shoot, he’d often drop by YTC, setting out all the photos he’d taken and soliciting the help of the bochurim in selecting the one image in the batch that would become the newest Ed Bernstein classic, the definitive picture that the frum community would associate with that gadol’s name for years to come. The other photos, along with the negatives, would be secreted away in a safe he kept in his home for that purpose.

On a recent visit to the Lakewood home of Mr. Bernstein’s son, Rabbi Doneal Bernstein, he shared with Mishpacha the anecdotes and insights that serve as a fascinating backdrop to some of his father’s best-known portraits. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 704)