Picturing the Century

Jews and Photography

A number of recent photographic displays and exhibitions in the UK point to the remarkable influence of photographers of Jewish heritage on the development of 20th century photography. In late spring 2018, The Shape of Light:100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art opened at Tate Modern, showing important work by Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand, both sons of Jewish parents who had emigrated to the USA from Central Europe, Man Ray (born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Pennsylvania to Russian-Jewish immigrants), the Hungarian Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, and Aaron Siskind, who was closely involved with the Abstract Expressionist movement.  The V&A opened its new photography centre in autumn 2018, showing prints by many of the above, as well as other Jewish photographers including legendary photojournalist Robert Capa, fashion photographer Irving Penn and a selection of Linda McCartney’s photographs.   

Diane Arbus. Lady on a bus, N.Y.C. 1957.Gift of Danielle and David Ganek, 2005, Courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Meanwhile, at London’s V&A Museum of Childhood, Dorothy Bohm is exhibiting photographs of children, a major exhibition devoted to the work of Roman Vishniac is on at the Jewish Museum and the Photographers’ Gallery, and the Hayward Gallery is showing the work of Diane Arbus. Finally, the contribution of photographers who came to this country as refugees from Nazism will be explored throughout 2019 as part of the year-long UK-wide Insiders Outsiders Art Festival, celebrating refugees from Nazi Europe and their contribution to British culture.

I wanted to find out why so many Jews were involved in photography, particularly in the middle of the 20th century. I spoke to two leading researchers in the field, Professor Michael Berkowitz, author of Jews and Photography in Britain, who is currently preparing a new book on Jews, photography and modernity, and Colin Ford, first director of the UK National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford. 

Dorothy Bohm, Toledo Spain 1955, Dorothy Bohm Archive

Professor Berkowitz, one of whose own antecedents was photographer to the Russian Tsar, argues that one reason that so many Jews became portrait photographers in the very early days after the invention of the medium was because it was not considered a respectable profession. “It was often a very dirty job”, he explains. “Jews were the people who were instructed to get the equipment and learn photography. To me, this is one of the reasons that Jews who were literally living in the middle of nowhere became photographers.” In a 2016 interview with the Times of Israel, he explained that, “photography was considered weird and shady in Britain and Europe. It was something that involved touching people [to pose them for portraits] and working in the dark [for developing film]. It was frequently associated with pornography and forgery.” 

Both Berkowitz and Ford point out that little training was needed to become a photographer, a definite bonus at a time when many countries had quota systems in place allowing only a very few Jews access to higher education. Ford, an expert on Hungarian photography, points out Moholy-Nagy, Robert Capa and André Kertész, all Hungarian Jews, “disguised their Jewish origins, partly because after the First World War, Hungary had a government that was antisemitic. When Admiral Miklós Horthy took over as dictator, he introduced the numerus clausus, limiting the percentage of Jewish people allowed to attend university to five per cent. This meant that Hungarian Jews often had to leave their homeland merely to get a university education. 

“I was told by Andor Kraszna-Krausz, the founder of the Focal Press, himself a Hungarian Jew, that [a camera] was quite a standard birthday present for a teenager. I suspect that it was a traditional bar mitzvah present. So Jewish boys and occasionally Jewish girls would be given a camera when they were very young.” Roman Vishniac was given a camera at the age of seven. Dorothy Bohm was given one by her father when she was 15.  

The Beatles at Brian Epstein’s home in Belgravia, 1967. Photograph by Linda McCartney

Ford points out that “in 1928 the Leica camera arrives [which you could] put in your pocket” – a useful advantage for those forced to leave their homes to escape antisemitism. Bohm told an interviewer in 2014 that, “My father was one of those who believed in anything new and so in the 1930s he was using a Leica. And when I was shipped off to England because Hitler had come, and life had become impossible, saying goodbye to me he took off his Leica and gave it to me. It was strange. He said, ‘It might be useful to you.’” 

This short exchange between father and daughter reveals another key reason why so many Jews took up photography: it was a way to earn money. As Berkowitz says, “The vast majority of people were in photography to make a living. It wasn’t the greatest way of making money but it was actually pretty good, particularly for women. It probably was women photographers who were the most successful professional cohort around the turn of the century. I can’t think of any other semi-professionalised group of women who even come close.” 

Jewish photographers were particularly involved in commercial photography, namely portrait photography, photojournalism and fashion. Many of the great photographers began their careers working in commercial areas. Though Man Ray is particularly celebrated today for his experimental rayographs, which he made without a camera by placing objects onto photosensitised paper that he then exposed to light, he made his living in Paris between the wars almost entirely from his fashion photography for Vanity Fair, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. In New York, André Kertész worked for House and Garden for many years while taking the more artistic shots of the city for which he is renowned.  Berkowitz recalls his interviews with Lotte Jacobi (1896–1990), a German-born photographer whose father and grandfather had also been photographers. She escaped to New York in 1935 where she opened a portrait photography studio in Manhattan. “It wasn’t till the end of her career, until decades after that she was able to think about doing something as art.” Jacobi, like Man Ray, experimented with camera-less processes whilst earning her living taking portraits. Dorothy Bohm studied photography at Manchester College of Technology and then established herself as a portrait photographer, supporting her husband while he completed his PhD before turning her camera on other subjects. Another refugee from Nazism, Edith Tudor-Hart (née Suschitzky) (see Jewish Quarterly, autumn 2018), who studied photography at the Bauhaus, worked as a photojournalist after she and her husband fled to the UK in 1933. Diane Arbus’s family owned a Fifth Avenue department store and she started out creating ads for the family business. As Berkowitz points out, the success of Jews in the world of fashion photography “is an incredible phenomenon – but the ties to the schmatta business are just obvious”. 

Man Ray (La Maison 1890-1976 from the ‘Eléctricité’ portfolio by Man Ray, published by Compagnie Parisienne de Distribution de l’Elétricité, Paris, 1931 Photogravure from a photogram Man Ray/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Another advantage for photographers fleeing Nazism was that that it is basically a profession in which you do not have to talk very much – useful for those who would have found it difficult to access other professions because of their immigrant accents or broken English. Colin Ford knew Kertész up until the end of his life. Though he had lived in New York since 1936, he still spoke English with a heavy accent. “He could not get through a paragraph without dropping in at least one Hungarian or French word.” He also recalls how the only way fashion photographer Martin Munkácsi, who moved from Budapest to New York, could get a model in the bathing suit to run was to gesture. He had no words to tell her what to do. As Ford says, “to communicate visually when you find it so difficult to communicate verbally is quite understandable”. 

It is worth noting that Jews were not only taking the photographs.  Many photography journals were run by Jews. Alfred Stieglitz, the New Jersey-born son of German Jewish immigrants, was no only a great photographer, but also the publisher of Camera Work, a journal promoting photography as a fine art. He also founded and ran Manhattan’s renowned 291 gallery, showing artistic photographers and avant-garde European artists. In London, many of the émigré photojournalists were employed at Picture Post, founded in 1938 by Stefan Lorant, another Hungarian-born refugee from Nazism. Berlin-born John Hillelson, described in his obituary in 2012 in the Jewish Chronicle as “perhaps the most prominent individual figure in the era of photo-journalism agencies”, represented Magnum in London from 1958 to 1987. Friends with Robert Capa and his brother Cornell, Hillelson and his wife Judith were also great collectors of photography and donated a significant body of work to the Victoria & Albert Museum. Works from their collection have been included in the displays at the new Photography Centre. 

Friendships developed between émigrés. Dorothy Bohm was close to André Kertész and credits him with encouraging her to start experimenting with colour and move away from black and white entirely. In New York, Diane Arbus attended classes run by émigré photographer Lisette Model whom, according to Arbus’s biographer Arthur Lubow, her husband Allan credited with for Arbus’s artistic growth. “He described it as an overnight transfiguration. ‘That was Lisette,’ he said. ‘Three sessions and Diane was a photographer.’” Although Model grew up in Vienna and Arbus in New York, and there was 21 years between them, both came from similar wealthy, assimilated Jewish backgrounds. 

Mara Vishniac People behind bars, Berlin Zoo, early 1930’s. Maria Vishniac Kohn courtesy International Center of Photography

Most of these photographers were more interested in photographing people than landscapes.  Edith Tudor-Hart’s communism was often reflected in her photography, and Arbus is famous for documenting outsiders, as is Nan Goldin, whose photograph of a cross-dresser is on show in the V&A. In a 2003 article for Commentary, William Meyers, another Jewish photographer, attributes this to a tendency towards the left-wing politics and humanist values that “provided these Jews with a way of seeing. They could photograph blacks, and migrants, and derelicts, and gangsters, the dispossessed and the homeless, because they had a social framework in which these subjects could be understood.”    

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