"No Pictures:
Some Thoughts on Jews in Photography" (1998)

by A. D. Coleman

Famously, Walter Benjamin proposed that photographs would inevitably desacralize their subjects. On this, as on some other matters, he was wrong. In his classic essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," he spoke naively of the anti-auratizing function of the photograph -- its destruction of the "authenticity," the "authority" of the original subject.1 Yet what artifact has more "aura" than the original fading snapshot, made by a Nazi, of an anonymous young Jewish resistance fighter before the firing squad in Vienna? And is that auratic aspect noticeably diminished when we encounter that image "mechanically reproduced" in either a new textbook or a now-yellowed newspaper clipping of the period?

Benjamin's particular examples were religious icons and tribal ritual objects. He was neither the first nor the last to consider the relation between religious faith and visual art. More recently, communications theorist Neil Postman has proposed that God -- specifically, the Jehovah of the Mosaic tablets -- was the first media critic. Nine of the ten commandments brought down by Moses from the mountain, Postman points out, treat issues of basic social control, tribal survival and interpersonal behavior: I'm the god in charge here, don't kill each other, leave your neighbor's goat alone, keep your eyes off his wife, take good care of your parents, and so on. Rules by which previous tribes, indeed whole civilizations, had learned to abide, nothing new.

But one commandment, the second, stands out, anomalous, peculiar, unprecedented: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself before them, nor serve them . . . " Which, in essence, means: No pictures.

No pictures? Why should the God of the Jews have cared if people drew, painted, carved -- cared as much about that as about adultery, theft and murder? Postman argues that God's insight here (or that of Moses, or of the authors of the Book of Exodus, depending on what you believe) rested on a sophisticated understanding of the psychological functioning of visual media: with no pictorial representations of the deity to serve as externalized watchdogs over behavior, the image of God would have to be constructed and maintained within the individual's consciousness -- internalized, converted into conscience, and thus truly ever-present.2

Judaism was not the only religion to adopt such a prohibition against images, of course, nor did that imposed taboo fail to evoke extended debate. The prioritizing of vision as the most importance sense eventually led, in the west, to the emergence of theological theories of vision based on the Christian conception of God as an all-seeing eye observing man from the fixed vantage point of Heaven.3 This symbolic monocularism is exemplified by Augustine's elaborate theory of vision in The City of God; he considered vision to be the "divine sense."4 Operating on the same belief -- that sight was a God-given sense -- Pope Gregory the Great (540?-604), who died in the same year as Augustine, defended religious paintings as non-idolatrous with a rationale of seeing that anticipates Susanne K. Langer's distinction between discursive and presentational symbol systems.5

Prohibitions notwithstanding, by the time of photography's invention images of all kinds had become so integral to cultural life -- both public and private -- throughout eastern and western Europe, the United States, and their various colonies and protectorates, that none but a few fundamentalists of any faith active in those lands still urged their proscription. And photography as both a profession and an avocation attracted all kinds of people from all walks of life. So there is no easy way to explain the fact that, by the early decades of the twentieth century, a considerable proportion of its serious practitioners -- more than statistics would project as likely -- were of Jewish descent.

Yet here we have an intriguing fact: strip the medium of Jews and you lose Alfred Stieglitz, Man Ray, Robert and Cornell Capa, Margaret Bourke-White, Weegee, Gisele Freund, Lee Friedlander, Walter Rosenblum, Ruth Orkin, Brassa•, Joel-Peter Witkin, Edwin Land, and hundreds and hundreds of others so integral to photography's history as we habitually think of it that a written version of that history excluding these figures is difficult to imagine.

How are we to make sense of this? The problem first became foregrounded for me a few years ago while reviewing Jane Livingston's critical study, The New York School: Photographs 1936-1963.6 In this survey, Livingston, the Chief Curator of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., tracked the coalescence in New York, during the middle third of the century, of an informal but complexly intertwined group of photographers whose commonalities are such that they can be said to constitute a "school."

In its art-historical usage, the term "school" connotes a connectedness among a group of artists that goes beyond friendship and social interaction to deeper levels of bonding and influence: master-apprentice relations, stylistic kinships, parallel and overlapping trains of thought, and general agreement on what the important questions are in the field -- what the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn would call a shared paradigm.7

In that sense, there's no question that by 1950 a distinct "New York school" of photography had emerged. The idea is hardly radical to anyone even passingly familiar with contemporary photographic activity: the personal, professional and imagistic connections that link Lisette Model, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Alexey Brodovitch, Robert Frank, William Klein, Weegee, Bruce Davidson and Helen Levitt (who are among this cohort's best-known constituents) have long been a matter of record. And their gritty, black & white, collective vision of Metropolis at mid-century has been imitated around the world. Yet not until the publication of The New York School had anyone attempted a critical study that would define this group and its core issues.

For anyone who knows even a smattering of photo history, the existence of such a matrix is not a startling proposition; indeed, it can even be considered stating the obvious. Yet the obvious often doesn't rise to consciousness until it's stated, and Livingston went far beyond that: she made the case thoroughly, persuasively, and provocatively. The hallmarks of the group's practice, Livingston proposed, included an attraction to the rapidity and unobtrusiveness of small-camera shooting under available light; a conception of the urban milieu as a proscenium; a fluid, spontaneous, gestural responsiveness to the constantly-shifting scenario; an embrace of the blurs, graininess and slightly skewed quality that resulted from working under those assumptions; and the attentiveness to nuances of behavior and body language in public spaces characteristic of what Alfred Kazin called "a walker in the city"8 and Walter Benjamin described as the "flaneur."9

In addition to Arbus, Avedon, Brodovitch, Davidson, Frank, Klein, Levitt, and Model, the photographers Livingston identifies as central to this form and to this moment are Ted Croner, Don Donaghy, Louis Faurer, Sid Grossman, Saul Leiter, Leon Levinstein, David Vestal and Weegee -- sixteen in all. Some of these names are of course famous, while others are less familiar (the imagery of Croner, Donaghy, Faurer, Grossman, Leiter and Levinstein has begun to resurface in recent years, but was never widely known outside this city). Yet there's no question that they constituted a nexus of activity, diversified but clearly interrelated.

In assorted configurations, they were each other's friends, enemies, lovers, editors, teachers, students and competition; they affected each others' works and lives profoundly. Not all of them shared all the above-mentioned elements of practice, but there's a remarkable homogeneity to the work they produced during that period. Collectively, they built on the models of Lewis Hine, Walker Evans and Cartier-Bresson, with Action Painting, film noir and jazz as parallels in other media; treating the life of the streets as theater, they forged provocative, idiosyncratic ways of describing its dramas. Their vision of New York as the archetypal twentieth-century city -- raw, rough-edged, vital, charged, magical -- is still influential today throughout the world.

When Woody Allen chose to film Manhattan in black & white, he was deliberately evoking a vision of Gotham familiar today mainly through those very photographs. Unlike that filmmaker, most New Yorkers think nothing of the fact that so many major twentieth-century photographs were either made in New York City or look as if they were. Yet pictures of this megalopolis made by photographers who (even if they were not natives of this city) spent some years of their lives here have had a shaping effect on international photography over the past hundred years; among all the planet's major cities, only Paris has been so thoroughly and influentially rendered in silver.

What is consistent in many of these images, and especially those of the "New York School," is a sense of life glimpsed but insubstantial, beyond touch. There's a feeling of contingency, even ephemerality, that's hardly surprising in the work of, say, a former yeshiva student like Saul Leiter contemplating his fellow citizens in the wake of the Holocaust. (Leiter, who moved to New York from Cleveland in 1946, was introduced to photography by the Abstract Expressionist painter Richard Pousette-Dart.) Which leads me to suggest that it's probably not coincidental that fully two-thirds of the photographers included in Livingston's survey were and are of Jewish descent, working during the uprooting and destruction of Jewish culture throughout Europe -- a fact also true of a great many of their peers in their own cohort (e.g., Friedlander, Orkin, Morris Engel, Garry Winogrand).10

Livingston herself made a point of identifying this ethnic/religious background for eight of her sixteen nominees (something she did not do for any of the non-Jews among them), yet curiously made nothing further of it. Instead, she spent a great deal of effort trying to puzzle out the sources of the pervasive sense of alienation and marginality, the outsiderness, that they all felt. The simple fact that, whether practicing or not, the majority were assimilated Jews who'd just seen their European ancestry go up in smoke and were residing in the only major U.S. city truly hospitable to those of their lineage goes a long way toward explaining that attitude.

By the same token, it also sheds light on the stylistic rebelliousness and intellectual contention that were among the benchmarks of this cohort. Here were people in many cases descended from practitioners of a faith that prohibited them from making graven images, who (even if they themselves were lapsed from that belief system) found themselves inexorably drawn to that very practice; people who debated into the wee hours the nuances of photographs, much as some of their forebears and peers did over politics and the Torah, following in their own fashion the Talmudic tradition of arguing with God; people of "the people of the book" whose highest goal (inexplicably, to Livingston) was to produce not exhibitions but books. And all of them, Jewish or not, were functioning in the liberal-left bohemian intellectual atmosphere of New York City at the time, which was strongly Jewish-influenced. It was an environment in which an urban-Jewish attitude permeated everyone's thinking, including that of many non-Jews, a classic case being W. Eugene Smith (whose presence on the scene during this period was germinal).11

One might propose, then, that there's a history of Jewish photography to be written. Having made that suggestion almost five years ago,12 I may have to accept some responsibility for the fact that we now have at least the rudiments of one: The Illustrated Worldwide Who's Who of Jews in Photography,13 George Gilbert's self-subsidized, ground-breaking and absolutely fascinating research project on this subject. The book brings together a wealth of basic information about the involvement of Jews in photography throughout the medium's history and on all its levels, raising intriguing questions.

Once one begins to look at the roster of germinal figures -- in addition to those already mentioned, Erich Salomon, Arthur Rothstein, Helmut Gernsheim, and many of those included in this survey exhibition of Austrian emigrŽs, just for starters -- one has to ask why this medium pulled to it so many practitioners with Jewish roots. And, conversely, whether there's some identifiably Jewish inflection to their individual and collective visions. Gilbert doesn't explore these issues, nor even broach them; he concentrates instead on providing brief biographical information on 500-plus figures he's identified as Jewish: scientists, inventors, critics (this writer among them), historians, collectors, and of course picture-makers in all genres from around the world.14 Yet, simply by bringing them together under the rubric of their ethnic, religious and/or cultural background, he asks us to look at them in a different light. Where we take it remains up to us, but the subject has been broached.

The issue will prove difficult, I suspect, if not intractable, because, as always, the term "Jewish" describes not a unity but a diversity. Some of the photographers one would necessarily gather under that rubric practiced the faith of their forebears (though few of those, if any, were Orthodox; most were of the Reform persuasion); others had fallen away from the faith; some were fiercely atheistic. Some seem strongly Jewish-identified, others not; only a few had Zionist inclinations. Some photographed aspects of distinctively Jewish life around the world, either for specific projects (Roman Vishniac's documentation of Polish shtetl life, Robert Capa's coverage of the birth of Israel) or recurrently and at length; others addressed such subjects only incidentally, if at all.

Stylistically, of course, they're all over the place: exploring the photographic possibilities of the "picture press" (Erich Salomon, Inge Bondi), pursuing a small-camera lyric poetry (AndrŽ Kertesz, Ralph Gibson), experimenting with the medium's formal possibilities (Lotte Jacobi, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy), working within the strictures of traditional documentary forms (Walter Rosenblum, Richard Misrach), using the medium for satirical purposes (Les Krims, John Heartfield) . . .

So there is no benchmark that distinguishes photography made by people of Jewish descent, no way of recognizing a "Jewish photograph" by anything in the way it looks, its subject matter, its strategy of description thereof, or its response to its content. Any unified field theory of Jewish photography is surely doomed to inadequacy from its very conception. In photography, as in virtually all other walks of life, put two Jews together in a room and you have three opinions.

Some tentative answers to these questions may be teased out in the process of the microstudy of various aspects of photography now underway. Sociological scrutiny of the function of photography in Jewish households in different countries, the statistics on photography as an occupation and a hobby among Jews, biographical commentary on individual photographers -- all may disclose some of the context that might explain the phenomenon. Yet I would be surprised if, ultimately, we get much further than this:

Once internalized, conscience not only insists on witnessing but demands to bear witness, to externalize itself. In Hebrew, the words for history and I remember are the same. Yet, in our time, the pace of history has so increased that it comprises quantitatively more than individual memory can contain; and the substance of history has become such that it encompasses more than individual memory can bear.

So conscience nowadays requires its own data storage system, a place in which to disgorge its surplus; the camera helps conscience shoulder the burden of memory. And conscience, with its photo album of the century now ending, has burning questions to ask -- of humanity, certainly, but also of any superhuman forces as well. If, on the occasion of this imminent millenium or any other, Jews (along with the rest of humankind) will owe their deity some justification of their actions, including their breach of the taboo against images, then those same forbidden pictures suggest that God also will have some explaining to do.


1 In Arendt, Hannah, ed., Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), pp. 217-252.

2 Postman, Neil, "The Medium is the Metaphor," Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York: Viking Books, 1985), pp. 8-9.

3 This concept would subsequently inform the design of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, that purgatorial prison of which Michel Foucault wrote so eloquently.

4 Augustine, The City of God.

5 Gregory's argument is discussed by a 13th-century cleric, William Durandus, in an essay, "Of Pictures and Images," in Neale, J.M., and Webb, B., translators, Rationale divinorum officiorum (London: Leeds:Green, 1843). This is cited in The Portable Medieval Reader, edited by James Bruce Ross and Mary Martin McLaughlin (New York: Viking Press, 1949).

6 Livingston, Jane, The New York School: Photographs 1936-1963 (New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1972).

7 Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).

8 In his autobiography with the same title.

9 In "Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century," Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), p. 150.

10 Nor does it seem coincidental that an equally sizeable proportion of their successors in this school -- e.g., Bruce Gilden, Arlene Gottfried, Larry Fink and others of its subsequent generations -- also share Jewish heritage.

11 For an atmospheric first-hand account of this scene during that period, see Helen Gee's recently published memoir, Limelight: A Greenwich Village Photography Gallery and Coffeehouse in the Fifties (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997).

12 In my review of Livingston, op. cit., "Focusing on a Lesser-Known Cohort of Avedon and Arbus," New York Observer, Vol. 7, no. 5 (February 8, 1993), p. 16.

13 Gilbert, George, The Illustrated Worldwide Who's Who of Jews in Photography (New York: Gilbert, 1996; ISBN 0-9656012-0-X).

14 This selection can't exhaust the list of prospects, indeed barely scratches the surface (as a parlor game of sorts, I sat with a friend for two evenings and compiled a list of at least one hundred figures Gilbert missed). I hope that someone will see fit to fund a revised, expanded edition of this important project, for, virtually by definition, it's the pioneering work on the subject, and needs all the help it can get.

This essay first appeared, in both German and English, in Exodus from Austria: Emigration of Austrian Photographers 1920-1940 [Ubersee: Flucht und Emigration Osterreichischer Fotografen 1920-1940], the exhibition catalogue issued in 1998 by the Kunsthalle Wien (ISBN 3-85247-14-5). Subsequently it appeared in the Winter 2000 issue of The Photo Review, Vol. 23, no. 1. © Copyright 1998 by A. D. Coleman. All rights reserved. For reprint permissions contact Image/World Syndication Services, POB 040078, Staten Island, NY 10304-0002 USA;T/F (718) 447-3091, imageworld@nearbycafe.com.

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