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Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction
URJ's 21st Century Photography Project
 
FALL 2004  
Vol. 33, No. 1

JEWISH EYES:
How Jews Transformed Photography
Part Two: A Lens Onto the Psyche [1945-2004]

Image courtesy of George Gilbert
by Rose Eichenbaum

hroughout the postwar years, Jewish photographers continued to play a pivotal role in the advancement of photography. Whereas in the first half of the century their predecessors had achieved prominence by recording historical events and exposing injustice, in the hands of such masters as Arnold Newman, Philippe Halsman, Richard Avedon, and Annie Leibovitz, photography would become a medium of psychological investigation, revealing as much about the photographer as the subject.

 

Arnold Newman--Changing the Face of Portraiture

Before I took a single shot, I thought, "Arnold, it's not the same as painting, it's not the same as drawing. It's entirely psychological."--Arnold Newman

In the 1940s, a photographer still in his early 20s would revolutionize portraiture. Rather than using "the artificial atmosphere of a studio," Newman photographed his subjects in their professional or private surroundings and infused the portraits with his own reaction to the subject, thus creating an unspoken dialogue.

Moving to New York City in 1941, Newman focused his lens on artists, painters, sculptors, and other photographers--people "who graphically lent themselves to my concept." Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, and Georgia O'Keeffe were among the subjects who populated his 1945 "Artists Look Like This" exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Five years later, Newman's portrait of composer Igor Stravinsky sitting at his grand piano with its gracefully curved lid was hailed by photographers and art critics as one of the most artful photographs ever created. "My approach has become popularly known as 'environmental portraits,'" Newman wrote, "but this suggests only part of what I've been trying to achieve. The fact is often overlooked that the work is also 'symbiotic'....I am not so much interested in documentation as in conveying my impressions of individuals....I am interested in what motivates individuals, what they do with their lives, their personalities, and how I perceive and interpret them....Inevitably there is a great deal of the photographer in his finished product. If there isn't much of him, then there isn't much of a portrait."

In 1963, Newman traveled to Bonn, Germany to photograph Alfred Krupp, the industrialist known to have collaborated with the Nazis and issued the order that Jewish and other slave laborers be chained to machines during Allied bombings to prevent them from running for cover. At first Newman refused the assignment--"I think of him as the devil," he protested--but he changed his mind when he envisioned the photo he would create. As he explained in a 1984 Reform Judaism interview: "I chose a location in one of the factories with welding torches and an eerie light falling from above. I asked Krupp to lean forward. When he did, my hair stood on end. This whole hideous image suddenly came together, one I'm as proud of as any picture I ever did. Krupp was furious (he looked like the devil) and tried to have me declared persona non grata in Germany. As a Jew, it's my own little moment of revenge. It enabled me to nail him down in history visually."

Widely regarded as one of the foremost portraitists in the world, Newman, who feels "very strongly about being Jewish," has photographed many Israeli leaders, including David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir, as well as numerous US presidents. His works have been exhibited worldwide and become part of the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the International Museum of Photography, the Israel Museum, and other major institutions. At 86, he maintains his studio in New York City, where he continues to explore the intimate relationship between subject and photographer.

Philippe Halsman--Creator of the "Psychological Portrait"

Every face I see seems to hide--and sometimes fleetingly to reveal--the mystery of another human being. Capturing this revelation became the goal and passion of my life.--Philippe Halsman

Philippe Halsman caught the "photography bug" at the age of 15 in his native Latvia. Discovering an old camera in the family attic and consulting a how-to book, he taught himself how to take pictures by practicing on his sister and developing images in the bathroom. "[That first image]," he later said, "was one of the most magical moments of my life."

In 1928, the 22-year-old amateur photographer began his studies in the Technische Hochschule in Dresden, Germany. During a vacation break he joined his parents in the Austrian Alps. While hiking, his father stumbled and fell down a ravine; Halsman ran to a nearby inn for help, but by the time a rescue party returned to the accident site, his father had been robbed and murdered. In this intensely antisemitic environment, Halsman was falsely convicted of manslaughter. During his two-year incarceration, he read the Talmud and during Passover found solace in recalling the resilience of the Jewish people. Meanwhile, "the Austrian Dreyfus Affair" prompted interventions by such renowned figures as Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, and Sigmund Freud--an effort that eventually succeeded in winning his release.

Halsman moved to Paris and soon established himself as one of the most successful photographers in Europe. "I considered the human face the most interesting subject to photograph," he wrote, "[and] hoped I could explore it the way my favorite writers, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, had explored human nature--with psychological depth and honesty." It was then that he developed his signature trademark--"psychological portraits"--in which he insinuated into the image something of the subject's "inner person," something not known to the general public. Reaching for that fleeting moment when his subjects would truly reveal themselves, Halsman engaged them in conversation in order to swing attention away from the camera. Sometimes he asked them to jump into the air. "When you ask a person to jump, his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping and the mask falls away so that the real person appears," he explained. Among the scores of luminaries who leapt for Halsman's lens were the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Robert Oppenheimer, and Richard Nixon.

In 1940, the Nazis invaded Paris, and Halsman found refuge in the United States (Albert Einstein had once again come to his aid, this time appealing to Eleanor Roosevelt). He never spoke publicly about "the Austrian Dreyfus Affair"--even his autobiography makes no reference to it--preferring to project an optimistic view of America's post-World War II culture by photographing Hollywood celebrities (Marilyn Monroe and Groucho Marx) as well as world leaders (Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy). His portrait of Albert Einstein, which appeared on the cover of Time magazine's "Person of the Century" edition in January 2000, is perhaps his most famous. "I don't want to show anybody that I, Halsman, made this picture," he said. "I want to show Einstein the way Einstein was. A true portrait should, a hundred years from today, be the testimony of how the person looked and what kind of human being he was."

Halsman died in 1979 at the age of 73, leaving a huge body of work, including an estimated 100 Life magazine covers. Ironically, the man who kept secret his false imprisonment had perfected the art of unmasking some of the most memorable figures of the 20th century.

Richard Avedon--Revolutionary of Portraiture and Fashion Photography

Sometimes I think all my pictures are just pictures of me. My concern is...the human predicament; only what I consider the human predicament may simply be my own.--Richard Avedon

Richard Avedon's portraits demonstrate that a unique reality is more interesting than a rendering conjured by stylists and retouchers. He emphasizes his sitter's real physical attributes--facial lines, scars, posture, weight, skin--almost as an act of rebellion against artificial representation. Through his lens, Avedon casts light on features of his subjects commonly kept in the dark, and, in the process, has expanded the notion of beauty in fashion photography and portraiture.

Born in 1923 to Jacob Israel Avedon, an orphaned Russian Jewish immigrant, and Anna Polonsky, the owner and operator of the women's specialty shop Avedon's Fifth Ave., Avedon became fascinated with photography at the age of 12, when he joined the YMHA Camera Club and used his Kodak Box Camera to take pictures of his younger sister Louise (photos which would become the prototype for his early fashion images). During World War II, he dropped out of high school and joined the Merchant Marine's photographic section, where he was assigned the job of taking servicemen's ID pictures. "I must have taken pictures of maybe one hundred thousand baffled faces before it occurred to me I was becoming a photographer," Avedon recalled. Returning from the service in 1944, he enrolled in design classes at The New School in New York, where he met Alexey Brodovitch, who would become his mentor and open his eyes to the idea that commercial and advertising photography need not be devoid of artful expression.

Following his creative instincts, Avedon began experimenting with depth of field and focus. Sometimes he staged his models as if they were actors in a movie--sitting in a café or running in the rain. Imaginative images such as these elevated fashion photography to an art form and soon catapulted Avedon to celebrity status. He also broke all the rules of photographic presentation, including size. In his Marlborough Gallery exhibit in 1975, for example, some of his portraits took up an entire 100-foot-long wall--a first for a photographic exhibition.

In his studio Avedon also experimented with positioning his subjects in front of a white background. The absence of props or "environment," he found, allowed the graphic elements of clothing, hairstyle, gesture, and other visual clues to assert themselves, helping his subjects become what he called "symbolic of themselves." In one such picture, Avedon focused on Andy Warhol's chest, zigzagged with scars from his multiple surgeries, thereby showing America one of its most influential artists as never seen before. Fascinated with what he called the "unresolved mystery between reporting and storytelling," Avedon also challenged himself to seek out the deepest part of his subject's nature: "I often feel that people come to me to be photographed as they would go to a doctor or fortuneteller--to find out how they are. So they're dependent on me. I have to engage them. Otherwise there's nothing to photograph." At the same time, he says, his images are "less a portrait of [my subjects] than...what I think of them."

From 1969-1973, Avedon made a series of portraits of his father. Jacob Israel Avedon was suffering from cancer, but Avedon made no attempt to camouflage his father's pain. His father was disturbed by the harshness of the images, but Richard refused to violate his photographic principles in fashioning anything less than an image that faithfully expressed how he viewed and felt about his father. If the observer remains somewhat in the dark about the nature of their relationship, so be it; for Avedon, photography alone is his spokesman. Rarely does he use words to convey opinions or emotions. Even his autobiography is a wordless compendium of photographs.

From revolutionizing fashion photography to broadening the parameters of what constitutes an unmasked portrait, Richard Avedon's influence on the art form has been monumental.

Annie Leibovitz--Purveyor of Style and Popular Culture

I've had a good, solid background in journalism, and I've gone into this portrait work and I've applied it, and it's as simple as that. I don't think there's any hocus-pocus.--Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibovitz got her big break in 1970 at the age of 21 when she was hired by Rolling Stone magazine after showing its art director, Robert Kingsbury, photographs of people and of a ladder in an apple orchard which she had taken while on a work study program in Israel. This was not the kind of thing that photographers usually took to Kingsbury, but Leibovitz came in with a background in journalism and as a devotee of photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose capture "the decisive moment" philosophy permeated her work.

Her first assignment was to create a portrait of John Lennon. This experience became "the basis of how I was to approach everyone from then on," she would later tell an interviewer. "Lennon was honest and straightforward and cooperative; he made me feel human right away....It meant so much to me at the time to be treated well by someone who was so famous, who stood out as a legend in my mind. He made me realize we were all people and we were all here on earth, and it was the basis of how I was to approach everyone from then on."

From her earliest work, Leibovitz differed from most photographers in preferring to work behind the scenes. "It seemed to me that a concert was the least interesting place to photograph a musician," she said. "I was interested in how things got done. I liked rehearsals, backrooms, hotel rooms--almost any place but the stage. I had an idea at that point about how musicians lived, but when I went on the road with the Rolling Stones in 1975, I learned how music is made." Her Rolling Stones covers became the most talked-about photos in the business, not only for their intimate nature, in which the stars appeared accessible, but also for their editorial potency (they seemed to give voice to an inside story) and for their sense of relationship, perhaps because Leibovitz made sure to establish a rapport with each of her subjects during their photographic encounter.

In the decades that followed, Leibovitz began staging portrait sessions by exaggerating her celebrity subjects' public personas, as seen in her image of Clint Eastwood bound in ropes in what appears to be an old deserted town. Her trademark "choreographed" portraits signaled a move away from the psychological approach that had dominated photography throughout the postwar years. For Leibovitz, the subjects became incarnations of what they did--the dancer, actor, musician--rather than who they were.

In 1981, Leibovitz was invited to work on the prototype for Vanity Fair and soon became the magazine's principal contributing photographer. Ten years later she became the first woman to receive her own photographic exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. Today, this editorial, advertising, portrait, and fine-art photographer continues to exhibit her work in galleries and museums worldwide.


From Alfred Stieglitz' achievement in elevating photography to an art form to the bold photojournalism of Robert Capa to the revolutionary fashion and portrait photography of Richard Avedon, Jewish photographers have transformed the art of photography. As Jews, they were outsiders; yet, through the lens, they became consummate insiders, capturing images that would define their times.


Rose Eichenbaum is an award-winning photographer (The Number on My Grandfather's Arm, UAHC Press) whose photo-essays have appeared in Dance magazine, Dance Spirit, and other publications. Her book, Masters of Movement: Portraits of America's Great Choreographers, will be published by the Smithsonian Institution Press this fall.


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