In this issue...
Summer Issue
Home Page
Quiz Yourself
Pyramid Puzzle
Vote Your View
Next Issue
Article Search
Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction
URJ's 21st Century Photography Project
Summer 2004  
Vol. 32, No. 4

How Jews Transformed Photography
Part One: Early Exposure [1890s-1940s]

Ben Shahn's portrait of Mrs. Mulhall and Children (1935),
an Ozark family in Arkansas
by Rose Eichenbaum

he invention of the photo-making process in Europe during the 1850s and the subsequent development of the camera would by the turn of the century set the stage for a visual revolution--a revolution called photography with the power to turn the fleeting into the timeless. The new field offered individuals with an eye for artful and provocative composition a means of creative self-expression, as well as a solo career path requiring little more than a camera and a darkroom. Visionary pioneers of this emerging domain fashioned not only a new form of art, but a potent journalistic tool that would etch into our collective memory images of the century's defining moments.

Among the visionary pioneers of photography, a great many were Jewish. In chronicling the tumultuous twentieth century, they "illuminated the Jewish and American experience," declares the American Jewish Historical Society. As the eyes of the world, they would use their cameras to expose the sins of racism and injustice, portraying both the victims and the victors of war--and, in striving for tikkun olam (repair of our world), raise photo-making to a venerated art form.

Alfred Stieglitz--Vanguard of an Art Form

I was born in Hoboken, New Jersey. I am an American. Photography is my passion.
The search for truth is my obsession.
                                                                                            --Alfred Stieglitz

In the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth, photography emerged as a new and exciting medium for recording significant moments in the lives of everyday people as well as important historical events. Alfred Stieglitz was determined, however, to push photography to loftier heights--to establish a photographic aesthetic and elevate it to an art form.

Born in 1864 to German Jewish immigrants who'd made their home in Hoboken, New Jersey, Stieglitz began his higher education at City College of New York, but in 1880, when antisemitic sentiments began appearing in the school newspaper, his parents moved the family to Berlin and Alfred was enrolled in the Technishe Hochschule. It was there that he discovered photography. Mentored by Professor Hermann Wilhelm Vogel, one of the most inventive photo-chemists of the time, Stieglitz learned theory and practical applications of photography, and adopted Vogel's view that photography is the servant of art. "I loved photography at first sight," he wrote. "[It was] the driving force within me. Photography had become a matter of life and death." Entering some of his landscape and portrait photographs into competitions and submitting them to photography publications, he gradually gained recognition. Returning to the States at age 25, he found American photography, with its focus on pastorals and still lifes, to be amateurish and "overly sentimental." Determined to create a new photographic aesthetic, he pushed his camera to the limits. Photographing moving subjects, such as horse-drawn carriages, ferries, and trains, he would release the camera's shutter just as the object was at its most animated--what he called "the decisive moment." His "freeze the action in the moment" approach and preoccupation with shooting quickly, catching the most visual and meaningful aspect of a scene, would set the stage for photojournalism, which would rely heavily on capturing real events as they occurred. At the same time Stieglitz sought out images that melded shapes and human elements, as demonstrated in The Steerage (1907), about which he would write: "I stood spellbound for a while. I saw shapes related to one another--a picture of shapes, and underlying it a new vision that held me: simple people; the feeling of ship, ocean, sky; a sense of release.... "

Stieglitz also introduced the photographic series, in which a particular theme was explored in multiple rather than single images to present a more comprehensive study of the subject. With other photographic artists he helped establish the Photo-Secessionist movement, which sought to counter the prevailing attitude in America that photography was not a true art, but rather an extension of the artist's eye through the use of an apparatus. "If what I feel about life is not in a print of mine," he wrote, "then I might just as well say that any machine can take a picture and turn out a print mechanically. You might get wonderful pictures as a result, but they would not contain that something called love or passion, both of which are the essentials needed to bring forth a living print--or any other living creative expression." In addition, Stieglitz's ardent advocacy of photography led him to found the first magazines dedicated solely to this art form: Camera Notes (1897-1902) and Camera Work (1903-1917), which showcased high-quality reproductions of emerging photographers, including Clarence H. White, F. Holland Day, and Gertrude Kasbier. Stieglitz also popularized the photo exhibition in America, with his National Arts Club show in 1902 and subsequent shows in his first gallery, The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (also known as 291 because of its address at 291 Fifth Avenue). In addition to exhibiting photographers Edward Steichen, Baron de Meyer, and Paul Strand, all of whom made their American debuts at 291, Stieglitz's gallery featured painters such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Georgia O'Keeffe (who would later become his wife). Until his death in 1946, he continued to educate and inspire some of America's greatest photographers, including Ansel Adams, Man Ray, and Paul Strand.

Paul Strand--America's Avant-Garde Modernist

The power of any medium is dependent on the purity of its use.
                                                                                            --Paul Strand

Paul Strand (Paul Stansky) was still in high school at New York's Ethical Culture School (founded in 1876 by Felix Adler, the son of Rabbi Samuel A. Adler of New York's Congregation Emanu-El), when his photography teacher, the social documentary photographer Lewis Hine, introduced the promising young protégé to Alfred Stieglitz. Influenced by Hine's social moralist views and Stieglitz's photographic aesthetic, Strand came to believe that the role of the artist was to translate the world into a "work of art [which] becomes a new and active widen and transform man's experience." By 1915 Strand was experimenting with Cubism, which emphasized two-dimensionality and abstraction, while he was simultaneously drawn to the human subject. "Strand brought...into his work the lessons of abstraction combined with his deeper feel for the lives of ordinary people," wrote Miles Orville in American Photography. Affected by what he called the "human condition," which could be crushed by the political events of the day, Strand was determined to make a difference. Commenting on his famous 1916 portrait of a blind woman, he wrote, "It is one thing to photograph people; it is another thing to make others care about them by revealing the core of their humanness." And in his slightly out-of-focus, uncomfortably up-close, candid image called Man, Five Points Square, taken with a concealed lens, he heightens the viewer's sense of reality by magnifying and abstracting the man's features to show what it is to be down on one's luck.

Along with many "displaced" New York Jewish intellectuals, Strand was in search of a culture and artistic expression he could call his own, explains photo historian Alan Trachtenberg, one that "casts...additional light on the politics of his aesthetic modernism."

Ben Shahn--The Great Commentator

It is not just the artist's experience, but his values, his judgments...that live in the works of art and make it significant to the public.
                                                                                            --Ben Shahn

Ben Shahn was 8 years old when his family escaped the religious persecution and pogroms of their native Lithuania. His early education had consisted almost exclusively of traditional Jewish studies, and one midrash about the Holy Ark of the Covenant remained with him throughout his life. While being transported to the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem by two oxen, the Ark rested precariously on a wooden board balanced between the animals. God warned that the board might shift, but forbade anyone to touch it. When the board did slip, a man reached out instinctively to steady it. He was immediately struck dead. Outraged by what he felt was unjust punishment, the young Shahn vowed to fight injustice whenever and wherever he encountered it. "Whatever my basic promptings and urges may be," he would later write, "I am aware that the concern, the compassion for suffering--feeling it, formulating it--has been the constant intention of my work since I first picked up a brush."

The son of a socialist intellectual who made his living as a woodcarver, Shahn was drawn to art and activism at a very early age. At 14, he took a job as a lithographer in his uncle's shop to pay for art lessons. At various times from 1916 to 1921 he attended the Art Students League, New York University, City College of New York, and the National Academy of Design. Establishing himself as a painter, he enjoyed his first critical and commercial success in 1932 with his series entitled The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti--twenty-three small gouaches in response to what he saw as the persecution and martyrdom of two Italian Americans whom many felt were falsely accused of murder and executed because of their political beliefs. Encouraged by his studio partner, the photographer Walker Evans, Shahn began taking pictures--and immediately turned his lens toward vagrants, union demonstrators, and poor American Blacks on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Through his camera, he could call attention to class struggle and racism, issues at the forefront of Jewish activism at the time. His preoccupation with exposing human suffering and injustice became a government job in the 1930s, when the Farm Security Administration's Historical Section recruited a team of talented but then unknown photographers, including Shahn, Walker Evans, and Dorothea Lange, to create a pictorial record of the hard times faced by jobless, starving Americans. Their images of dustbowl farm workers would elevate photographic documentation of Depression-era America to the level of fine art.

Like Paul Strand, Shahn believed that art could be an effective instrument of political and social change. "Propaganda is to me a noble word. It means you believe something strongly and you want other people to believe it; you want to propagate your faith....Art has always been used to propagate ideas and to persuade." Indeed, his paintings, murals, and photographs, including those of migrant farm workers and coal miners, were conscious efforts to shine a light on the misfortunate and the sidelined. "The photographs that Ben Shahn made in these coalmining communities," wrote art historian Susan H. Edwards, "cast a critical eye on the disparity between the haves and the have-nots."

"I cannot separate art from life," Shahn explained, and central to his life was his love of Jewish history, culture, and the Hebrew language. As a calligrapher, he made frequent use of the Hebrew alphabet, most notably in his books The Alphabet of Creation (1954) and Love and Joy About Letters (1963) as well as in several editions of The Haggadah. "Shahn raised the aesthetic level of graphic art in the United States," the Encyclopedia Judaica explains. "He was often a commentator on the social scene, always outraged at injustice, but also amused by humanity's foibles and weaknesses."

Alfred Eisenstaedt--"The Father of Photojournalism"

"The dedicated photojournalist is constantly aware that he must make awesome judgments on good and evil. Eisie knows and accepts the responsibility. History and photojournalism can both thank the circumstances that lost the button salesman but gave us an inspired witness to our time."
Life magazine publisher Henry Luce

By the 1930s, American documentary photographers found their largest audiences in the emerging genre of picture magazines, most notably Life, which Time and Fortune magazines publisher Henry Luce had modeled after a number of successful European photography publications. Life featured "photo-essays" by staff photographers sent into the field with a "shooting script" in line with the editor's particular angle on a given story. Several Life staff photographers, including Alfred Eisenstaedt, were Jewish émigrés who had fled Germany after the rise of Hitler.

Born in West Prussia in 1898, Alfred Eisenstaedt became fascinated with photography when his uncle gave him an Eastman #3 camera for his fourteenth birthday. He spent all his money on photo supplies and chemicals, and most of his free time in the darkroom developing portraits of relatives and country scenes. After serving in the German army during World War I, Eisenstaedt took a job as a button-and-belt salesman in Berlin, but continued taking photos in his free time. In 1927, while on vacation in Czechoslovakia, he photographed a woman playing tennis "with her shadow"; it was a perfect double image. He submitted the picture to Der Welt Spiegel and received a fee of fifty marks for its publication. Eisenstaedt was astonished: "You mean you can make money with pictures?" In 1929, when his income from photography exceeded his belt-and-button sales, he resigned from the company. His employer told him, "You are digging your own grave," but only days later, Eisenstaedt received his first assignment from the Pacific and Atlantic Picture Agency, forerunner to the Associated Press. Within a year he was photographing throughout Europe, shooting everything from Nobel Prize recipients to ballet dancers at the Grand Opera de Paris.

These early assignments helped Eisenstaedt develop his intimate, up-close shooting style and his mastery of photography using available light. On one such assignment, at the 1933 League of Nations meeting in Geneva, he photographed Paul Josef Goebbels, Hitler's minister of propaganda. "Goebbels seemed so small, while his bodyguards were huge," Eisenstaedt would later recall. "I walked up close and photographed him. It was horrible. He looked up at me with an expression of hate. The result, however, was a very strong picture. There is no substitute for close personal contact and involvement with a subject, no matter how unpleasant it can be."

Eistenstaedt fled Germany to America in 1935. Hired by Luce a year later, he would in the next forty years carry out more than 1,500 Life photo assignments and see some 10,000 of his photographs published, 100 of them on Life covers. His best-known photograph, The Kiss, was snapped on V-J Day in Manhattan at the end of World War II. Observing a soldier jubilantly kissing every female he could find, young and old, Eisenstaedt spotted a nurse in the crowd wearing a white dress and focused on her. As he had hoped, the sailor approached, grabbed, and kissed her. Eisenstaedt would later attribute the famous photo to a combination of good luck and split-second timing.

"Eisie showed that the camera could deal with an entire subject--whether the subject was a man, a maker of history, or...a social phenomenon," Henry Luce wrote. "That is what is meant by photojournalism. And that is why Eisenstaedt is called the father of photojournalism. His range of themes is approximately equal to the range of human experience in our time."

Margaret Bourke-White--America's Most Prolific Assignment Photographer

Utter truth is essential, and that is what stirs me when I look through the camera.
                                                                              --Margaret Bourke-White

Although Margaret Bourke-White would come to pride herself on photographing "utter truth," her own identity was shrouded in secrecy. Raised as a Christian by her parents--Joseph White (a Jew who changed his name from Weiss and aligned himself with the Ethical Culture Movement) and Minnie Bourke (an antisemitic Irish Catholic)--she was stunned to learn at the age of 17, after her father's death, that he had been Jewish. Deeply troubled by the revelation, and fully aware of the quotas barring Jews from certain schools and professions in that antisemitic era, she decided to conceal her Jewish heritage.

In 1921 Bourke-White began her studies at Columbia University, majoring in herpetology (the study of amphibians), but after taking a photography class taught by Clarence White, a member of Alfred Stieglitz's Photo-Secession group, she dedicated herself to photography. An early photograph of the High Level Bridge in Cleveland appeared on the cover of Trade Winds, the publication of the Union Trust Company, and a steady stream of corporate photo assignments followed--the Otis Steel Company, Terminal Tower, Ford Motors. Impressed by her work for Otis, Henry Luce invited her in 1930 to join the staff of his newest creation, Fortune magazine. Her first photo assignment was to chronicle the process of meatpacking from "live hog to dressed carcass" at the Swift plant in Chicago. Bourke-White's sequenced images depicted the hogs arriving, the hanging on hooks, the bacon being trimmed by meat cutters, the packaging of the meat, and finally the mound of pig dust destined for livestock feed. The highly acclaimed series, printed in Fortune's first edition, is believed to be the first "photo-essay" ever published.

Bourke-White would go on to take many independent commissions, among them an assignment from Walter Chrysler to chronicle the construction of the Manhattan skyscraper bearing his name. She was also becoming one of America's leading advertising photographers, supplying images to Buick, Goodyear Tires, and Eastern Airlines. In 1936 she shot Life's inaugural cover, a picture of the world's largest earth-filled dam. And a year later, she collaborated with novelist Erskine Caldwell on what would become the first photo book. You Have Seen Their Faces integrated words and text to document the poverty and hardship of life in the deep South. As Bourke-White would later explain, "to understand another human being, you must gain some insight into the conditions which made him what he is." Causing a stir in Washington, the book would lead to legislation that improved sharecroppers' conditions. That same year, while on location in Louisville, Kentucky, Bourke-White took another photograph that strikingly revealed the inequities of American life: African American flood victims lining up for food in front of a billboard that read: "World's Highest Standard of Living--There's No Way Like the American Way." She would later write: "Sometimes I come away from what I am photographing sick at heart, with the faces of people in pain etched as sharply in my mind as my negatives. But I go back because I feel it is my place to make such pictures."

During the war years, Bourke-White documented raids against the Germans; the bombing of Moscow; and the liberation of concentration camps. In order to shoot The Living Dead of Buchenwald (1945), her photograph of the survivors in striped uniforms with desperate eyes lined up behind barbed wire, she had to distance herself emotionally. "I had to work with a veil over my mind," she wrote. "I hardly knew what I had taken until I saw the prints of my own photographs."

As a witness to the brutal treatment of Jews in Europe, Bourke-White expressed through her lens the anguish she felt about concealing her Jewishness, explains her biographer, Susan Goldman Rubin. As evidence, Rubin points to The Talmud Class, a photo taken in Czechoslovakia in 1938, just before the Jews were rounded up for deportation to concentration camps. It was one of her most tender, as if she shared the pain of their impending ordeal. Throughout her career, Rubin points out, Bourke-White believed that injustice and inhumanity "demanded to be recorded." She hoped that the truths revealed in her pictures might wake up an indifferent world to human suffering.

Robert Capa--The Quintessential War Photographer

Capa could show the horrors of a whole people in the face of a child.
                                                                                            --John Steinbeck

When the U.S. entered World War II, the American armed services assigned photographers to document the war on all fronts. So did Life, Look, Newsweek, and other magazines, sending their finest photojournalists to the battlefront armed only with a camera and a prayer.

Among the bravest and most prolific of the war photographers was Robert Capa. Born Andrei Friedman in Budapest in 1913, Capa trained with the news agency Deutscher Photoienst, then began working as a freelancer in Paris. In 1936, while on the front lines covering the Spanish Civil War, his camera caught a solider just as he was hit in the head by a bullet. Death of a Loyalist Soldier appeared in the French magazine Vu and brought Capa instant fame. Never before had a photograph brought the viewer so close to witnessing the instant of a soldier's death on the battlefield.

Indeed, Capa believed the only way to convey the emotions and impact of events was through intimacy and immediacy. Living by his motto, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough," he thrust himself into war's fury with Maccabean bravery, positioning himself nearer to peril than most war photographers dared--yet possessing the formidable presence of mind to concentrate on the aesthetics of photo-making. Swimming ashore with the first wave of American troops on D-Day, he photographed the amphibious landing on the French Normandy coast (Omaha Beach). "The bullets tore holes in the water around me, and I made for the nearest steel obstacle," he wrote. "It was still very early and very gray for good pictures, but the gray water and the gray sky made the little men, dodging under the surrealistic designs of Hitler's anti-invasion braintrust, very effective."

Covering the 1948 Israeli War of Independence with the knowledge that many of his relatives in Hungary had been murdered by the Nazis, Capa nevertheless used his camera to project a sense of hopefulness, such as a Jewish farmer with a kipah and tzizit carrying a piece of lumber over his shoulder preparing to build a new settlement in his own homeland, and a shipload of Holocaust survivors arriving in Haifa determined to rebuild their lives. "The immigrants on these boats," he wrote, "are the motley remains of a people who two thousand years ago left these shores to scatter to the far corners of the earth and are now coming back, most of them to live and some of them to die, in the Holy Land."

In 1947, in an effort to gain more independence from magazine editors who dictated assignments, determined which photos would be published, and ultimately retained rights to a photographer's work, Capa joined Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, William and Rita Vandevert, and other colleagues to form the photographic collective Magnum Photos. Owned and operated by its members, Magnum gave photographers the freedom to shoot what they wanted, sell their images on the open market, and own their own copyrights. Their initiative led to the growth of a new business--stock photography, today a burgeoning industry and a source of income for photographers throughout the world.

Though a pacifist who despised the barbarity of war, Robert Capa was nevertheless drawn to battle zones around the globe, from the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) to the Japanese invasion of China (1938) to World War II (1941-1945) and the French Indochina War (1954). During Israel's War of Independence, he accompanied Colonel David Marcus (of Cast a Giant Shadow fame) in the battle for the "Burma Road" to break the Arab siege of Jerusalem. Unable to resist the call to witness war, in 1954, at the age of 40, this fervent humanitarian accepted an assignment that would be his last. While covering the French Indochina war, Capa died after stepping on a landmine.

Roman Vishniac--The Supreme Witness

I was unable to save my people, only their memory.
                                                                                            --Roman Vishniac

Roman Vishniac, a Jew who held fast to his Jewish roots with love and pride, would, at great personal risk, document life in Jewish communities of Eastern Europe on the eve of their obliteration by the Nazis.

Born in 1897 in St. Petersburg, Vishniac first studied biology in his native Russia and then art in Germany at the University of Berlin. Watching with horror the treatment of Europe's Jews in the 1930s, Vishniac, using a hidden camera, set out to record what he feared would soon be lost: bearded rabbis in long black caftans, yeshiva students poring over talmudic passages in dimly lit rooms, little cheder boys learning their aleph bet, porters, tailors, maintenance workers, bagel peddlers, women in babushkas going about their business. Inside a Warsaw basement dwelling that doubled as a workshop, Vishniac photographed two beds that slept nine people; in another basement he captured the loneliness of a young girl named Sara forced by the cold to stay in bed all winter with only painted flowers on the wall to entertain her. And to capture the racist policies of the Nazi Reich, he would pose his young daughter Mara amidst antisemitic propaganda posters and, on one occasion, in front of a shop window that advertised a device that supposedly measured the difference between Aryan and non-Aryan skulls.

Vishniac's mission to bear witness sometimes met with internal opposition; Orthodox Jews accused him of violating the biblical prohibition against making graven images, to which Vishniac replied that cameras had not yet been invented when the Torah was written, so how could photographing people be a sin?

In the mid-1930s Vishniac was imprisoned by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp in Zbaszyn, Poland. He escaped to France, but was apprehended and interned at Camp du Richard in Clichy. In 1941 he once again managed to escape, this time for good. Immigrating to the U.S., he renewed his studies in medicine and began a career in the biological sciences. Using his photographic skills, he established himself as a pioneer of time-lapse cinematography (the photographing on motion picture film of a slow and continuous process at regular intervals) as well as light-interruption photography and color photo microscopy (both used in the research of marine microbiology and the physiology of circulation systems in unicellular plants). His applications of photography to the field of science, particularly the study of human microorganisms, would earn him a place in the history of photography as one of its most distinguished innovators.


In the early part of the twentieth century, Jewish photographers (Stieglitz, Strand, Shahn, Eisenstaedt, Bourke-White, Capa, and Vishniac, among many others) would transform photography from a novelty into a celebrated art form, an instrument of journalism, and a catalyst for social change. Through the lens, they defined what photography at its best could be, while creating some of the most dramatic and resonant images in history.

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.

First Place Award Winner for Excellence in Jewish Journalism
and a Benefit of Membership in a Union Congregation

Return to TopReform Judaism Magazine Home Page Reform Judaism Magazine Home Page

Copyright © 2004, Union for Reform Judaism