Behind a Century of Photos, Was There a Jewish Eye?
TO be a great photographer, Garry Winogrand liked to claim during the 1970's, it was first of all necessary to be Jewish. The best ones, in his opinion -- past and present, himself included, naturally -- shared this birthright. Jewish photographers by his definition were nervy, ironic, disruptive of artistic norms and proud outsiders. Eugène Atget, he happily argued (on no genealogical grounds), must have been Jewish because his photographs of French life on the tattered fringes seemed so Jewish in spirit.
As generalizations go, Winogrand's semi-serious barroom boast has a lot of evidence to back it up. In no other visual art form except cinema over the last 100 years were Jews such a shaping force. From first decade to last, in fine art, reportage, portraiture, fashion and especially street photography, a staggering number of influential figures have been Jewish.
To list just a few: Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Man Ray, El Lissitzky, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, André Kertesz, Brassaï, Erich Saloman, Martin Munkasci, Robert Capa, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Lisette Model, Helen Levitt, Weegee, Aaron Siskind, Margaret Bourke-White, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Arnold Newman, Robert Frank, William Klein, Elliott Erwitt, Winogrand, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Annie Liebovitz, Mary Ellen Mark, Joel Meyerowitz and Nan Goldin.
Winogrand was by no means alone in observing that a vast number of the outstanding 20th-century photographers were Jewish. Over the years, a few curators have noted the fact in private, as have some Jewish photographers themselves.
''I've had this conversation with many of my colleagues,'' said Mark Haven, a photographer who teaches at the Rochester Institute of Technology. ''It's hard not to notice it. And it's hard to talk about. People can accuse you of being an ethnic chauvinist.''
Now this open secret has been aired in a public forum, in the exhibition ''New York: Capital of Photography'' at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan. The show, organized by the art critic Max Kozloff, underscores the essential role of Jewish photographers in capturing New York City. In a series of provocative essays in the catalog (published by Yale University Press), Mr. Kozloff speculates why this group, medium and city made such a good match.
The answers he proposes rely on some dubious aesthetic notions. He suggests, for example, that photographs of New York taken by Jews show a sensibility distinct from those by non-Jews. It's not clear who will feel more insulted by some of his ideas: Jewish photographers who have never regarded themselves as such, or non-Jewish photographers who, in Mr. Kozloff's opinion, have usually evidenced in their work a more stable and also a less soulful vision of the city.
But faced with the huge body of memorable images produced by Jewish photographers in New York, Mr. Kozloff, a former executive editor of Art Forum magazine and the author of several books of photographic criticism, is at least offering to explain this glaring statistical anomaly. And no one should fault his selection of rarely exhibited prints.
Mr. Kozloff confines his survey to street photography, which he considers a ''Jewish invention.'' He writes about a number of non-Jewish photographers, including Lewis Hine, Berenice Abbott and Walker Evans. But, he explains, ''in truth, we're largely dealing with a picture archive of an American city visualized by Jews, to which a few distinguished Gentiles have contributed.'' In his essay ''Jewish Sensibility and the Photography of New York,'' Mr. Kozloff says this is no accident.
He seizes on a quote in The New Yorker last year by the photographer William Klein, who posited an opposition between what he calls ''goyish photography'' (the landscape school of Edward Weston and Ansel Adams) and ''Jewish photography'' (''funky'' urbanists like Weegee and Arbus).
Mr. Kozloff accepts this division of schools and argues that images of New York by Jewish photographers during the middle of the century tend to reveal a unique ''social tension,'' which is usually not found in the work of their non-Jewish colleagues. Wrestling with issues of cultural assimilation, Jewish photographers devoured New York with their cameras while at the same registering a sense that they stood apart.
''They present the city as formed instant by instant out of their impulsive responses,'' Mr. Kozloff writes. ''It is their improvised exchange with their subjects, not a kit of fixed and essential attributes, that distinguishes their work.''
Mr. Kozloff is aware that his theory is, to say the least, problematic. In a telephone interview, he acknowledged that some Jewish photographers are not happy with his thesis. ''They've spent their careers trying to escape these parochialized terms,'' he said. ''They think I'm putting them back into a ghetto. But that's not my intent.'' [..]
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