I first met Cheyenne, Wyoming-born photographer Penny Wolin at the October 3, 2012 preview of the New Jewish Rep’s Yiddish version of “Waiting for Godot” hosted by Nahma Sandrow (author of “Vagabond Stars: World History of Yiddish Theater) and her husband, photographer William Meyer, at their Upper West Side home. Wolin—who in 2000 published the photographic tome “The Jews of Wyoming 1860-2000)— mentioned that evening that she was working on a book about American Jewish photographers.
Fast-forward to May 2016 and the publication of the “Descendants of Light: American Photographers of Jewish Ancestry” [Crazy Woman Creek] and our lunch chat at a Chinese restaurant a few days prior to her May 3 appearance at the 92nd St. Y where she shared the spotlight with documentary photographers Jill Freedman and Ed Kashi (who are also profiled in the hefty coffee table volume).
Wolin’s photographic career began when she got her first camera from her brother who [ got it for his bar mitzvah] and, ended up the high school photographer. She described her eight-year long journey through America photographing and interviewing more than 70 of the most original American photographers in history including Annie Leibovitz, Arnold Newman, Robert Frank and sometimes relatives of those deceased.
ML: Which photographers influenced you greatly?
PW: Diane Arbus, Arnold Newman, Philippe Halsman, Yale Joel, Roman Vishniac….
ML: In my 20’s I worked at the ASMP (American Society of Magazine Photographers) where these iconic photographers had been my collective bosses and though many were Jewish…none of them at that time articulated they Jewishness.
PW: Look—quoting Bruce Davidson—‘You’d go to 47th Street in front of Marty Forscher’s Camera Repair. I’d be on line with them. We didn’t look at each other and say ‘Jew! Jew! Jew!’ They lived it. And—in a way—it took me—an outsider from Wyoming who lived on the fringes of the Diaspora— to see that wow!! look at what these people did and how many of them there were…. Incidentally, I could not find a single living relative of Weegee.”
ML: He was a sad soul. He used to sleep over at the ASMP office (1476 Broadway—now 1 Times Square) and go down into the streets at night or dawn to shoot whatever human detritus or tragedy he could find.
PW: I think Jewish culture is under-photographed. It wasn’t cool to do so…so I realized I was the window in the mirror. I am both reflecting what I see and transmitting it. Because I am an American photographer of Jewish ancestry. I understand what the game is…. We are highly selected survivors here in America and we are the artists and what we do is pick up tiny little instruments and make pictures of what’s going on. Ready to put our feet on our back [English version of Yiddish “men nemt di fis oyf di pleytzes”- the mantra for Jews’ departures]—because our great-ancestors had the seychl (smarts) to come here when they did.
ML: Your book is a breakaway from the one-dimensional view of famous photographers by showing the diversity of Jewish photographers.
PW: I’m not from the Holocaust. My father survived pogroms—Grodno Gubernia—there were Cossacks. He wanted nothing to with remembering. Came to Wyoming at the turn of the century. Why do you think there are so many Jews in photography? It’s another language and you are on the edge of what you are photographing [but] you can’t be in it! People thought I was photographing only famous photographers … There are many Jewish photographers who are not famous…In my hometown; Cheyenne the best photographer was Bernie Feingold.