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American Jewish History 90.4 (2002) 466-468

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New York: Capital of Photography. By Max Kozloff. New York and New Haven: Jewish Museum and Yale University Press, 2002. x + 205 pp.

Max Kozloff's New York: Capital of Photography is a beautifully produced compilation of images of the city by some of the most prominent American photographers of the twentieth century. It includes 116 duotone images, fifteen color prints, and an interpretive essay by Kozloff. Focusing on street photographers, Kozloff's essay offers a provocative take on the motivations and aesthetic sensibilities that link these images. The book accompanied an exhibition, curated by Max Kozloff and Karen Levitov, at the Jewish Museum in New York (April 28-September 2, 2002). The exhibit and the book take as their starting point the unusual number of Jews who make up the ranks of the most distinguished photographers of the city, offering scholars and lay people alike a highly focused collection of powerful street images of New York City in the twentieth century. In what follows, I offer a critique of Kozloff's essay focusing on his provocative argument for a Jewish photographic aesthetic in these images.

Kozloff's essay begins with an account of the various social and economic communities that made up New York City at the turn of the 20th century and the role photography played in both supporting and challenging social relations among these groups. It divides the photographers who provided these supports and challenges into three groups: those who offered "a material inventory of streets, interiors, and milieux"; those who depicted the poetic mood of the city "simultaneously anxious and heroic"; and those dedicated to using photography as a tool for social change (11). In the first section of the essay, Kozloff's desire to offer an all-inclusive narrative becomes clear as he glosses over the subtle differences among and between the photographers he places in these categories. Both here and in the sections that follow, Kozloff, like the "poetic" photographers, must synthesize seemingly contradictory impulses for the sake of his grand narrative. This move is a departure from most recent work in cultural studies that offers close readings of specific cultural artifacts in order to present more nuanced accounts of [End Page 466] single artists or images. Within this framework, Kozloff begins to form his argument for what makes an image Jewish. He attempts to link photographer Lewis Hine to the philosophy of John Dewey, which, he argues, "was interestingly convergent with the Jewish understanding that beauty is defined, above all, through moral behavior" (15). In this way, he makes Hine's work Jewish, yet he gives no evidence to support his claim. In each section of the essay, Kozloff makes sweeping generalizations about whole eras of photographic history in New York that, like the first, smooth over tensions and contradictions.

In "The Jewish Sensibility of New York Photography," the final section of his essay, Kozloff focuses on the fact that "the great majority of the photographers concerned were or are Jews" (69). He writes: "In truth we're dealing largely with a picture archive of an American city visualized by Jews, to which a few distinguished Gentiles have contributed" (69). The awkwardness of this language is disturbing. Jews are immediately contrasted to "Gentiles," a religious term generally used to describe those who do not adhere to the Jewish faith. This is a strange distinction, given that the vast majority of "Jewish" photographers presented in the text were not religious Jews. Kozloff then goes on to describe these same photographers' Jewishness in terms of their "ethnic background," never explaining the distinctions he is drawing between ethnicity and religion. Instead, these messy distinctions, like so many others, are glossed over—this time in an attempt to articulate distinct "Jewish visual 'traits'" (69).

There is no irony in Kozloff's argument. He sees a uniquely Jewish "instinct" in these works: "As it happened, the sense of a general 'atmosphere' took shape only when I recognized the part that instincts play in the construction by Jewish photographers of a personalized space. . . . They...