- The Jewish Identity Project: New American Photography
It is no coincidence that two central terms of identity-political discourse, “stereotype” and “cliché,” derive etymologically from processes for mechanically-reproducing images. In the past 150 years, few representations have done more than iconic photographs to standardize thinking about Jewish identity. The mind’s eye easily conjures the people, places, and events of this received image: the ultra-orthodox Hasid in dark suit and sidelocks who prays at the Wailing Wall; the emaciated body of the Holocaust survivor who stares exhaustedly from behind the barbed wire of Nazi concentration camps; the armed Israeli in olive fatigues who faces off with an Arab woman in hijab at a checkpoint; and so on. For all of their ubiquity, photographs such as these nevertheless do not—indeed can not—convey the diversity and irreducibility of Jewish identity. As visual shortcuts, each image forms a predicate for controversial propositions that begin: “The Jew is…” and ends with any number of stereotypes.
Although the traveling exhibition The Jewish Identity Project: New American Photography has recently ended in its run at New York’s Jewish Museum, the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, and the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, this exhibition’s important contributions towards rede- fining the visual lexicon of Judaism remain in an important catalogue edited [End Page 103] by curator and art historian Susan Chevlowe. This exhibition represented an important attempt to recast the terms of Jewish identity and visual culture, in this case by examining the contemporary image of Judaism in America. The catalogue of The Jewish Identity Project consists of ten commissioned photographic, video, and multimedia projects. Each is careful to stress that “Judaism” comprises only part of who the photographed are.
In her thoughtful introduction, Chevlowe critiques the problematic history of “Jewish” photography. Particularly in the immediate postwar period, photography of and by Jews “sought to emphasize the common ground of Jewish history, religion, and culture despite a plurality of Jewish faces, customs, dress, and ethnic and national origins, in an effort to perpetuate group struggle.”(3) The achievement of The Jewish Identity Project lies in the ways it complicates the category of Jewish identity. In so doing, it departs from the ethnographic traditions of the available work on Jewish photography, most notably Lucjan Dobroszycki and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s path-breaking Image Before My Eyes: A Photographic History of Jewish Life in Poland, 1864–1939 or Yaffa Eliach’s There Once Was a World. Pre-war images of Jews such as these by Majer Balaban, Alter Kaczyne, and Roman Vishniac, are deeply overdetermined by the Holocaust. They inadvertently become tombstone epigraphs. Like other recent scholarship that seek to transcend definitions of Jewish identity linked either to the Holocaust or Zionism, such as Caryn S. Aviv and David Shneer’s The New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora, Chevlowe’s The Jewish Identity Project also seeks to complicate this narrative. It instead reveals Jewish identity as alive and constantly in flux and, in what would seem a paradoxical use of photography, not always visible.
The catalogue’s ten projects take as their starting point the heterogeneity of lived Jewish experience. Photographs and video depict Jews in a wide range of activities that, except for their inclusion in the framework of The Jewish Identity Project, might not seem “Jewish” at all. Chris Verene’s Prairie Jews, 1997–2005, for instance, consists of portraits with handwritten captions that document his family and hometown in Galesburg, Illinois. One photograph shows elderly man in a baseball cap lighting candles at dusk. Only the caption “Sabbath” alerts a viewer that this image is poignantly merging received traditions and modern experience. Similarly, within the frame Prairie Jews, a series of images of Verene’s friends next to Jewish tombstones also becomes more than just young people posing in a verdant cemetery.
Another project, Nikki S. Lee’s series The Wedding (2005), examines an institution that has both helped perpetuate Judaism and assimilate it into majority cultures. Lee’s images depict...