The Art World: Photos and the 'Jewish eye'

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Aug. 8, 2002 at 12:05 PM
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NEW YORK, Aug. 8 (UPI) -- Just when the idea of women's art shows has outworn its welcome because they ghettoize women artists, along comes another bad idea that should be quashed: a photography show that attempts to prove that some photographs can be identified as the work of the "Jewish eye" just by looking at them.

The show has been mounted by the Jewish Museum under the title of "New York: Capital of Photography" and may be viewed through Sept. 2. It was organized by Max Kozloff, art critic and photographic historian, who writes in an accompanying book of the same title (Yale University Press, 216 pages, $60) that the images of ever-photogenic New York recorded by Jewish photographers in the last century tend to reveal a unique "social tension" not found in the work of non-Jewish photographers.

There are more than 100 black and white and some color photographs in the show by 60 photographers. Covering the years 1898 to 2001, many of the prints deal with New Yorkers and recent immigrants on the margins of society, a perspective that "came to inform the language of street photography and its sly poetry of everyday life," according to a museum release on the show.

Kozloff goes even further, when he states that "20th century photography in New York is a giant picture archive largely visualized by the practitioners represented in this exhibition, two thirds of whom are Jewish." His theory is that the Jewishness of street photographers is rooted in seeing the city from the viewpoint of a displaced minority.

"These photographers," he continues, "are notably unable to hide their affection for the city, even as they brilliantly document what they see as its shortcomings. Their work, marked by exuberance, pathos, and an identification with human suffering, still provides the core images, the foundation, from which contemporary photographers draw to picture life today."

That's a pretty big claim and unfortunately overlooks the fact that the pioneer of New York street photography, social reformer and journalist Jacob Riis, was a Danish-born gentile. Many other early "muckraker" photographers also were non-Jewish and socially aware including Lewis Hine, credited by the museum as "one of the first of many photographers who have viewed the city as a crucial testing ground for the promise of democracy."

To start labeling some photographers as being more susceptible than others to social ills that threatened to undermine the foundations of Republic, is about as pointless as the old saw that white jazz players couldn't swing, a conceit laid to rest years ago when trumpeter Roy Eldridge took black musician Leonard Feather's blindfold test and won, proving that white musicians can swing with the best of the blacks.

It would be interesting to try a blindfold test at the Jewish museum, taking away the attributions given these photographs so that the public could make up its mind unaided as to whether images can be related to the religious or ethnic backgrounds of the "eye" that captured them. The results would certainly be predictable because it can't be done with any with even a modicum of authority.

The Jewish Museum has survived a recent controversial show of tasteless Holocaust art by artists born after World War II, which it had every right to mount no matter how insensitive it seemed to many Holocaust survivors and their families. But it seems to be on an embarked on a more reckless path in presenting a photographic show that makes claims that are impossible to support and has nothing to do with the artistic achievements of photographers labeled Jewish or non-Jewish.

Presented without such labels, the show would still be an attractive one with works on view by several generations of fine camera artists including Weegee (Arthur Felig), Lisette Model, Margaret Bourke-White, Leonard Freed, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, Alfred Steiglitz, Paul Strand, William Klein, Nan Goldin, Larry Fink, Garry Winogrand, and Mel Rosenthal. The show will travel to the Madison Art Center, Madison, Wis., from Dec. 8 to Feb. 16, 2003.

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