Defining the Jewish Photographer

Many of the qualities that author Daniel Morris describes as characteristic of Jewish-American photographers are present in many photojournalists and not necessarily the Jewish or American ones, writes Alex Levac.

After Weegee: Essays on Contemporary Jewish American Photographers
by Daniel Morris. Syracuse University Press. 320 pages, $29.95

The subtitle of this book really annoyed me. I’ve always thought the language of photography was international and didn’t need translation. Photographers are citizens of the world; their nationality and religion are of no importance. It never occurred to me that photographers could be classified by their ethnic backgrounds. And I still feel that way, even now, after reading this fascinating book.

In fact, many of the qualities that Daniel Morris says are characteristic of Jewish-American photographers are present in many of the photojournalists I know, and not necessarily the Jewish or American ones. William Klein, a terrific street photographer from the second half of the 20th century − the period covered in the book, in which he makes an appearance − once made the ironic comment that there were two kinds of photographers, Jews and non-Jews.

“Times Square,” by Lee Friedlander, 1974
From the book “After Weegee.”

But in the United States, Morris explains, the word “Jew” doesn’t necessarily mean the ethnicity or religion of someone socially inferior, or “other” or forever alien, like black Americans. It also means talented and first-rate.

Morris, a professor of English at Purdue University, in Indiana, and editor of the quarterly journal of Jewish studies Shofar, characterizes the “Jewish” photographer as someone who doesn’t belong ‏(a child of immigrants, for example‏), who looks on critically from the side: someone who easily blends into the margins of the society to which he belongs.

From the book “After Weegee.”

Comedian Lenny Bruce said it this way in one of his most famous routines: “Dig: I’m Jewish. Count Basie’s Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish. ... To me, if you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn’t matter even if you’re Catholic; if you live in New York, you’re Jewish.”

Morris doesn’t write about the talent or excellence of Jewish photographers. He claims that their Jewishness expresses itself in the subjects they choose. What do Weegee ‏(the pseudonym of Arthur Fellig, who lived from 1899 to 1968‏), Annie Leibovitz and Allen Ginsberg have in common from a photographic point of view?

“Drug Dealer, New York,” by Bruce Davidson, 1966

A news photographer, Weegee shot hard-core crime scenes in New York. Leibovitz made her international reputation photographing celebrities. As to the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, I confess, I didn’t even know he was a photographer.

But he certainly fits in with Morris’ thesis, as well as belonging among the photographers mentioned by cultural studies professor Sara Blair, in her 2003 essay “Jewish America Through the Lens.” According to Blair, Jewish photographers share the immigrant’s sense of alienation and a tendency toward left-wing politics.

For further reading:

Blue and white in black and white
Photography / Self-portrait of a documentary power
Photography / The role of photojournalism in a violent world

The photographers discussed by Morris are witnesses who document and expose the socioeconomic margins of society. Bruce Davidson documented blacks in Harlem in the 1960s. Diane Arbus photographed New York’s freaks and others from society’s margins.

Lee Friedlander, in his work on national monuments in the United States, depicted monumental environmental bizarreness. It is true. There is a common denominator to all these artists: a critical attitude toward American culture and society. But they were not the first. Their work was preceded by that of the Farm Security Administration photographers, who, beginning in 1935, documented the misery of the rural inhabitants of America’s drought-stricken Dust Bowl.

Morris raises the possibility that the influence of World War II and the Holocaust, which created a desire to document and preserve memory, can explain the appearance of so many “Jewish” photographers working at the same time.

They shared an aspiration to make people aware of political and social injustice.
Non-Jewish photographers of the same period, such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, turned their lenses outward and dealt with the aesthetics of composition and form. Adams, for example, focused on monumental American landscapes and Weston on shells and peppers in the studio.

They saw themselves as artists. Morris’ photographers look inward at humanity − first of all at the stranger, the other − out of solidarity, compassion and sensitivity. In that sense, they functioned almost like social workers.

In an interview last year with Habitus, a journal of global Jewish culture, Morris said that while writing the book he became aware of the complex nature of the definition of “Jew.” If a “Jewish photographer” is defined as one who embodies the essence of the spirit of Judaism − the compassion and faith of the biblical commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself” − then those described in “After Weegee” certainly qualify.

Different kinds of Jews

But not all Jewish photographers necessarily demonstrate this Jewish spirit. During the same mid-century period, there were other Jewish photographers from the same cultural background, and the same traumatic Eastern European past. They too were new immigrants to a foreign land − Palestine, later Israel. But the Israeli Jewish photographers tried to forget the past. They were mobilized for a cause, out of a willing belief in a born-again nation. They photographed the Zionist narrative − the consensus, not the margins − and without any critical sense whatsoever.

When a photographer is obsessive and sees only one aspect of a subject, in our case the nationalist one, and is careful to show only light without shadow, he fails to adequately fulfill his role as witness. And this is how Jewish photographers in the years before and after statehood − Paul Goldman, Zoltan Kluger, Boris Carmi − worked. For them, the only subjects worth documenting were the Jewish pioneers and the realization of Zionism in the new country.

These photographers, some of them excellent, ignored the Arabs who were being displaced, and failed to record the poverty and failures, refusing to allow inconvenient facts to mitigate their enthusiasm for Jewish settling of the land.

It is no wonder that at the end of his life, Yaacov Ben Dov (1882-1968‏), perhaps the most renowned photographer of Zionist settlement in Israel, particularly in the Jordan Valley, burned 10,000 negatives, fearing that they would fall into more critical hands than his, hands that would not make the great Zionist enterprise look quite so praiseworthy.

Alex Levac, a 2005 winner of the Israel Prize in Photography, has been a photographer for Haaretz for nearly two decades.