Do Jewish Photographers See the World Through a Different Lens?

In Chicago Exhibit About Max Kozloff, the Ethnicity of the Medium Is the Message

Hanging Tough: Berenice Abbott’s ‘Chicken Market, 5 Hester Street, Manhattan, February 11, 1937’ is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibit ‘Max Kozloff: Critic and Photographer.’
Hanging Tough: Berenice Abbott’s ‘Chicken Market, 5 Hester Street, Manhattan, February 11, 1937’ is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibit ‘Max Kozloff: Critic and Photographer.’

By Menachem Wecker

Published December 16, 2013, issue of December 20, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Looking a bit like St. Peter crucified upside down, nine not-yet-plucked chickens dangle from hooks in a storefront window; the alignment of their bound feet evokes hamsas. There’s no warding off the evil eye for these upturned chickens, whose tail feathers are naughtily exposed, or for the two others, which are violently suspended by their beaks. The real birds contrast wittily with cartoonish illustrations of a rooster and a duck painted on the window; in this instance, life doesn’t imitate art.

The store depicted in Berenice Abbott’s “Chicken Market, 55 Hester Street, Manhattan, February 11, 1937” displays the Yiddish signage (some of it transliterated from the English): “Strictly kosher chicken market; freshly slaughtered each hour,” with the Hebrew word “kosher” circumscribed by a Star of David. The photo is one of about 80 works from the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection that appear in the museum’s exhibit “Max Kozloff: Critic and Photographer.”

Abbott, whose series “Changing New York” was funded by the Federal Art Project, was not Jewish, but as Richard Woodward noted in the 2002 New York Times article “Behind a Century of Photos, Was There a Jewish Eye?” that was no problem for Kozloff, who organized the Jewish Museum’s exhibit “New York: Capital of Photography” that year. “[Kozloff] writes about a number of non-Jewish photographers, including Lewis Hine, Berenice Abbott and Walker Evans,” Woodward wrote. “But, he explains, ‘in truth, we’re largely dealing with a picture archive of an American city visualized by Jews, to which a few distinguished Gentiles have contributed.’”

At the Art Institute of Chicago, where about 30 of Kozloff’s own photographs hang alongside 45 works of photographers he has reported on — such as Abbott — Jewish content doesn’t come up as often as it did at the Jewish Museum. But one of Evans’s works, “Girl in Fulton Street, New York, 1929, printed 1962,” which Kozloff dwelled upon in his essay “Jewish Sensibility and the Photography of New York” appears in the Art Institute show.

“Evans is interested in the disorder of the incident but frames it with slightly skewed horizontals and verticals that hold the stabbing diagonals. His concern is with a perception of apparent chaos that is contained by his discovered structure,” the Art Institute show’s wall text quotes from Kozloff’s essay. “Evans’s woman is proposed, simply, as a member of the urban habitat; he and his subject are as much at sea within it, or as much in possession of it, as anyone else.”In his essay, Kozloff juxtaposed Evans’s photograph with Lou Stoumen’s “Sitting in Front of the Strand, Times Square, 1940,” and identified Evans’s perspective as goyish and Stoumen’s as Jewish.

“It may be that Jews behave differently because of their lovers’ quarrel with assimilation,” he wrote. Stoumen achieved a portrait of “being by oneself in the city,” and his subject, “is a solitary in Times Square, the world’s busiest crossroads. Here is a wistful stranger with whom the photographer connects. The crossroads is undoubtedly a grain place, but it is not ‘theirs.’”

This aspect of Kozloff’s criticism — in which he invoked Alfred Kazin’s “Walker in the City” and asks to whom the streets of New York belong — is absent from the wall texts at the Art Institute, and indeed the question of what makes Jewish photography per se, and the suggestion that the best and most accurate photographic depictions of New York are Jewish in nature continues to be controversial.

“I think Max has been very honest and even daring in putting forward the theory about something special in Jewish photography,” says Joël Cahen, the director of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, who saw the exhibit on a recent trip to Chicago. “He is not making any kind of ‘Wir Wunderkinder’ (‘Aren’t we wonderful?’) theory out of it.”

I tend to agree with Cahen’s estimation that Kozloff is “extremely Jewish” in his eye, criticism, and reviews, and Cahen is right to note the humor in Kozloff’s work.

That “Jewish” lens that was once used to document, imagine, and examine New York may have faded somewhat in the age of “selfies” and Instagram, where every tourist and pedestrian fancies her- or himself a photographer. But even those who don’t subscribe to Kozloff’s bold claims about Jewish photography can benefit from reading (or rereading) “New York: Capital of Photography.”

The best takeaway from the essay might be its refusal to adopt a “chosen,” photographic light-unto-the-nations model. By seeking an elusive Jewish psychological sentiment in photography, Kozloff wasn’t claiming the medium as Jewish any more than he was pretending that Jews have a natural gift for the lens. Instead, Kozloff discovered in a particular group of photographers who studied New York an understanding of alienation and the experience of being an outsider that served “not as an obstacle but as an inherent part of the experience they offered.” Outsiders, after all, have created some of history’s greatest artistic works.

Menachem Wecker is a freelance writer in Chicago and the former education reporter at U.S. News & World Report.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.