Dream Merchants: Jews, Photography and Andre Kertesz

Article excerpt

It may be the fate of Jews to invent the dreams that the rest of us embrace. Jews, more than anyone else, created the movies, those industrialized dreams, and (more often than not) Jews created the aura of dream-like beauty around the greatest stars. As for photographs, a great two-dimensional still photo enters our minds innocently, as a routine visual event, and then remains lodged there, a dream frozen.

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A generalization is a grab for understanding that sometimes returns nothing but a handful of resentment. Should the generalization touch on sex or ethnicity, those adjoining minefields of twenty-first-century anxiety, resentment may be swift and deep. What if I suggest, for instance, that Abstract Expressionist painters were mostly heterosexual and Pop painters, their immediate followers in the chain of cultural fashion, were mostly homosexual?

Our age has allowed itself to be dominated by aggregated numbers that we pass off as social science, and those who find that manner of thought agreeable will demand to see the surveys supporting my little theory. In what refereed journals did they appear? If I tell you that I ground my opinion on nothing but forty or so years of observation, you will scorn this experience, denounce it as "anecdotal," and immediately begin searching your mind for Abstract Expressionists who were gay and Pop artists who were not.

In any case you will probably find my generalization offensive. Why should I say such a thing? Who cares? If I answer that it's a modest attempt to introduce a new perspective on an interesting subject, from which a limited amount of wisdom might someday be drawn, you may break down and admit that my notion, while questionable, does perhaps contain a seed of truth that you will generously think about for a minute or two. All this I appreciate. I promise to be upset only if you say: "Of course. Who didn't know that?" (If they knew it, why didn't they say it?)

Now consider the case of Max Kozloff, a critic and photographer, for some decades one of the heavy thinkers in the art life of New York. In 2002 he wrote the text of a catalogue, New York: Capital of Photography (Yale University Press), accompanying an exhibition with the same title at the Jewish Museum in New York. Of all the people who responded to that publication, no one publicly wondered whether, in fact, New York is the capital of photography; no one paused to suggest that Paris might have an equal or (if we're talking about history) greater claim. People were too busy arguing about something more striking that Kozloff said: to an astonishing degree, serious photography is an art practised by Jews. And when memorable photos of New York are analyzed, "we're largely dealing with a picture archive of an American city visualized by Jews, to which a few distinguished Gentiles have contributed."

Having staked this possibly outrageous and conceivably ethno-centric claim, he went further and argued that he was not describing a historical accident. He called his essay "Jewish Sensibility and the Photography of New York," the first two words of which were certain (as Kozloff knew) to inflame all those internationalist Jews and non-Jews who believe it's regressive and even vaguely sinful to define culture and sensibility in sectarian or ethnic terms, even if (as appears to be the case) most of humanity commits this sin every day of every year. Kozloff also knew that his suggestion would be anathema to anyone inheriting the views of the great Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), who came from a German-Jewish family but considered himself a cosmopolite and an aesthete, living far above parochial ideas about who belonged to which tribe.

Still, Kozloff had evidence to submit. The list of eminent twentieth-century photographers of Jewish origin goes on, apparently, forever. Aside from Stieglitz, it includes (this is a shortened version) Paul Strand, Man Ray, El Lissitzky, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Brassai, Robert Capa, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Weegee (greatest of news photographers, a. …