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Jewish World Review July 25, 2002/ 16 Menachem-Av, 5762

Robert Leiter

Picture this: Jews, Jews everywhere? | I'm just crazy about New York: Capital of Photography, published by Yale University Press, in conjunction with the Jewish Museum, where a show featuring these photos is now on display. I can't imagine a more exciting collection of street photography about a city I find of boundless interest. And I even feel this way despite the fact that the entire project is built on a faulty premise.

If this book and the accompanying show had merely set out to prove that New York has been the capital of photography in the 20th century, and probably beyond, that would be unassailable --- though lovers of Paris might want to argue for a while. The problem is that the author of the monograph, art critic Max Kozloff, who also happens to have assembled the show, has other notions.

The majority of the photos he's chosen were taken by Jewish photographers, and he has attempted to prove that there is a particular Jewish perspective at work in the way New York has been visualized over the last 100 years or so. What's fascinating is how all the evidence he's gathered helps undo his thesis.

Doubtless, there are great, great Jewish street photographers, and many are represented here: Helen Levitt, Ruth Orkin, William Klein, Lisette Model, Garry Winogrand and Weegee, perhaps most of all.

But what is the "Jewish" perspective they bring to the New York landscape? Does it have to do with subject matter? There are few Jews per se pictured here. In fact, there are only two clearly recognizable religious subjects. One is in Leonard Freed's "New York, USA," which shows two young boys with payes framed in a doorway and the other is in Rebecca Lepkoff's "Henry Street, Manhattan," which shows an old woman, religion indeterminate, walking past a boarded-up synagogue, Congregation Anshei Sholem Kadonower.


New York: Capital of Photography

Max Kozloff, Karen Levitov (Introduction), Johanna Goldfeld
Hardcover, 208 pages
Yale University Press

-- Purchasing this book by clicking on title helps fund JWR

If other, more secular Jews are caught in these photos, it's hard to tell. All sorts of ethnicities are depicted, but the most you can do is guess at that, and such an endeavor seems either beside the point or lessens a picture's emotional range.

What, then, does the Jewish perspective consist of? Kozloff says that Jewish photographers bring a "social tension" to their work.

But what I think he's talking about is pure New York Jewish liberalism, which finds expression here in the photographing of many African-American individuals at a time when it was not the fashionable thing to do. But there is no Jewish sensibility extended to these subjects; in fact, the best photos exist either as in works of art, in a compositional or tonal sense, or in a purely documentary sense, as many black people happen to live in New York.

Kozloff also wants to make a case for Jewish photographers as great street photographers, and this is doubtless so. But his compilation shows that the real pioneers in this genre -- except perhaps for Andre Kertesz (who isn't included) -- were all non-Jews, and that later Jewish photographers drew strength and style from them. Perhaps the most important of the pioneers is Walker Evans, and I would say that if this collection proves anything, it is that almost all of these artists came out from under his artistic overcoat.

You see Evans' influence everywhere, in Walter Rosenblum's "Block Party, New York East Side," in Arnold Eagle's "On the Elevated" and in Louis Faurer's "New York City." But in none of these do I see the kind of "social tension" Kozloff speaks of.

So, a caveat. If you decide to buy the book or go to see the show, do so for the excitement, beauty and emotionalism of these images --- and check all those grand theories at the front door.

JWR contributor Robert Leiter is Literary Editor for the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. To comment, click here.


© 2002, Robert Leiter