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.

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.


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.

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