- After Weegee: Essays on Contemporary Jewish American Photographers
In the past decade Jewish American photographers have attracted increasing attention from widening circles of academics. When photo scholar Jane Livingston published her path-breaking study that identified a New York School of Photography in 1992, she noted that thirteen of the sixteen photographers she chose to include in her volume covering the years from 1936–63 were “of Jewish descent,” but she struggled to interpret that fact.1 Similarly, photo historian Anne Wilkes Tucker’s influential work on the New York Photo League acknowledged the New York Jewish backgrounds of many Photo League members but avoided analyzing their Jewishness.2 Then in 2002 critic and visual studies scholar Max Kozloff published his provocative essay in the catalog accompanying “New York: Capital of Photography,” an exhibition at The Jewish Museum. Kozloff called the last section of his essay: “Jewish Sensibility and the Photography of New York.” There he explicitly suggested the relevance of Jewishness to photographing the city, seeing and being seen as part of an ongoing debate among Jewish photographers about assimilation and solidarity in a democratic society.3 Kozloff’s intervention catalyzed debate not only in the press but also among academics. Daniel Morris joins this emerging group and thanks a relatively long list of art historians, photographers, and historians of photography as well as scholars of literature, history, American culture, and Jewish studies in his acknowledgements.
Morris indicates that his essays stand in relationship to both art historians’ efforts to expand and complicate the purview of what constitutes Jewish art and Jewish photographers’ attempts to respond to an established American documentary tradition associated with images produced by the federal government’s 1930s Depression-era programs. He wisely decides to avoid debate about a Jewish photographic sensibility ignited by Kozloff except in a somewhat awkward conclusion. Rather, Morris opts to write about a number of Jewish American photographers who provide signposts in a cultural terrain. The essays lack a single connecting [End Page 93] thread beyond their post-World War II American provenance, as do the photos Morris discusses. Instead Morris offers meditations on ten photographers whose work intrigues him.
These photographers span six decades of enormous change in American Jewish life from 1945 to 2006. They include eight men—Weegee, Bruce Davidson, Jim Goldberg, Mel Rosenthal, Lee Friedlander, Allen Ginsberg, Tyagan Miller, and Marc Asnin—but only two women—Diane Arbus and Annie Leibovitz. Morris’s chapter titles suggest some of his concerns: “Hybridic Communities and Exilic Identity” for the essay on Weegee; “Aestheticism, Jewish Identity, and Representing the Other” for the essay on Davidson; “Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Diasporic Memories, and Postmodern Memorialization” for the essay on Rosenthal. Morris titles the Arbus chapter “Mirrors of Traumatic Memory in the Late Photographs.” Not all of the pieces explore questions of identity and memory. The last two chapters in the book, on Miller and Asnin, look at sacred space and Jewish masculinity respectively, although Morris does relate this examination to aspects of identity.
Reading a book of essays, one is always tempted to compare them, to pick out favorites and to let others go. Given the hundreds of Jewish American photographers who have achieved various measures of renown, a scholar’s decision to pay attention to one or another invites contemplation as well of alternative choices. Morris’s essay on Leibovitz is biting; he dissects her self-representation with consummate skill. At the same time, he offers a window into the world of popular culture portraiture and brings fashion photography into dialogue with contemporary documentary practices. Since Morris focuses here on three photo-books Leibovitz published, his literary critical skills are particularly effective and persuasive. The essay provides a useful antidote to Leibovitz’s own presentation, particularly valuable when dealing with such a consummate artist. By contrast, Morris sympathetically compares Jim Goldberg’s two photo-books, Rich and Poor and Raised by Wolves, exploring their complex and compelling relationship of image to text. Both essays are thoughtful, albeit very different, readings of photo-books.