Through interviews, portraits, essays, and photos, this large-format book explores the role of Jewish ancestry in the work of more than 70 leading American photographers.
Wolin (The Jews of Wyoming: Fringe of the Diaspora, 2000), a commercial, editorial, and documentary photographer, noticed that any list of influential American photographers would include many Jewish names and wondered why: “What could bearing Jewish ancestral roots possibly have to do with the skills involved in being a photographer?” This book, the result of her five-year project investigating the question, includes interviews, family photos, Wolin’s portraits of her subjects, and (in a separate section) an iconic example for each, presented in a large, generous format. “The Claim of a Jewish Eye,” an essay by Alan Trachtenberg of Yale University, discusses problematic issues inherent in such a project, though in a way that raises more questions than it answers—as when quoting other writers’ claims about difference: Jewish photographers are funky and restless, Gentiles “more settled.” Trachtenberg calls these claims “raffish” and “dazzling,” but they could also be labeled vastly, unhelpfully oversimplified. Some of Wolin’s subjects, especially those who experienced pressure to assimilate, see little or no connection between a Jewish background and their artistry. But for those who do perceive a link, the Jewish experience of being an outsider—someone who is necessarily watching others—is significant, both as a stance from which to observe and because photography was, like many other arts, a profession open to Jews. Also important, they say, is the Jewish intellectual tradition of humanistic questioning and interest in existential problems. The entries, arranged alphabetically, offer an intriguing range of opinions, styles, eras, and insights together with large, beautifully reproduced photographs. Reading photographers on their own work delivers the book’s most intriguing moments. For example, Joel Meyerowitz comments that “Photographing is about the potential meaning of things that are at loose in the world....Intuition is a form of mysticism,” while for Toba Tucker, “Photography is my great identity. The camera is the answer.”
A rich, well-documented collection for students of photography and Jewish culture.