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Two Jewish Views Of Photography


Wedding with a Chuppah Held Up by Rifles and Pitchforks (1952), photograph by David Seymour © Chim (David Seymour)/ Magnum Photos

Wedding with a Chuppah Held Up by Rifles and Pitchforks (1952), photograph by David Seymour © Chim (David Seymour)/ Magnum Photos

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So too he found a Wedding with a Chuppah Held Up by Rifles and Pitchforks, a pictorial ode to the pioneer socialist ideal of early Israel. Notice the carefully planned composition in which the darker participants surround the white clad and well-lit couple. Not surprisingly everyone is concentrating on the magic trio of chassan, kallah and the rabbi, all protected by the tattered chuppah. David Seymour framed it perfectly, placing the shy boy exactly in the center, with the right side open to allow a view of the hills beyond. In these photographs composition is everything.

Tashlich Women at the Edge of the Sea (1954) Photograph by David Seymour.  © Chim (David Seymour)/ Magnum Photos

Tashlich Women at the Edge of the Sea (1954) Photograph by David Seymour. © Chim (David Seymour)/ Magnum Photos

Of Seymour’s work with Jewish subjects the image of Tashlich Women at the Edge of the Sea (1954) is possibly the most compelling. Female piety of this degree was almost certainly not in Seymour’s experience and yet he felt compelled to record it. As a professional he reached over the divide of personal experience to understand Jewish religiosity.

David Seymour continued his work as a photojournalist photographing working people, the rich, the famous, the political and the ordinary. For him, all humanity was worth capturing and bringing back. Tragically, on assignment to cover a prisoner exchange at the very end of the Suez Crisis David Seymour was shot and killed by Egyptian soldiers in 1956.

Roman Vishniac Rediscovered

While Roman Vishniac (1897 – 1990) is the photographer most associated with pre-war Eastern European Jewry, tragically his documentation of that world became its eulogy. In this expansive exhibition curated by Maya Benton at the ICP the enormity of the Holocaust is inescapable. With the recent discovery of much unknown and unpublished work, this groundbreaking exhibition radically reassesses a 20th century master, who focused on European Jewish life in a much wider and complex scale than ever imagined.

Vishniac was born in 1897 to an affluent Russian Jewish family and grew up in Moscow, eventually becoming a biologist. During the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918 his family fled to Berlin because of anti-Semitic attacks. There he quickly developed into an accomplished amateur street photographer reflecting Weimar Modernist technique. One such image taken in the late 1920’s – early 1930’s is the interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof train station. This austere image, taken from above features three figures in complete silhouette. It captures just enough of the figures to spin a mystery as to their disparate missions, even while emphasizing the abstract quality of the long cast shadows and silhouetted architecture. It is quiet a modern masterpiece.

Nazi Storm Troopers Marching in Berlin (1935) photograph by Roman Vishniac.  © Mara Vishniac Kohn. Courtesy International Center of Photography

Nazi Storm Troopers Marching in Berlin (1935) photograph by Roman Vishniac. © Mara Vishniac Kohn. Courtesy International Center of Photography

As Vishniac developed as a photographer the world around him was becoming Nazified. He took it upon himself to document the rise of Nazi power, focusing on the everyday incursions: anti-Semitic posters, swastika flags and graffiti. Nazi Storm Troopers Marching in Berlin (1935) is a brilliant example, framing a mere 3 soldiers marching, framed by streetlight poles and against a foggy Berlin Cathedral in the background. It is understated, subtle and terrifying.

In 1935 the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC) commissioned Vishniac to document remote Carpathian Ruthenia Jewish communities as part of fund raising and relief efforts for Eastern European Jewry. Further trips were undertaken at the behest of the AJDC to record the incredible poverty and suffering of Jewish life in Warsaw, Krakow, Lodz, Munkacs and Bialystok among other locations. These images are among Vishniac’s most well known.

One 1938 project was “A Pictorial Visit to the Jewish Children in Poland,” a collection of 90 photographs and captions by Vishniac that document the “hunger, fear and disease that stalk through the Jewish streets in Poland.” In this photographic essay Vishniac charts the progress from urban poverty to the relative joy of the AJDC summer camps that gave Jewish children a respite from their grim homes.

Sarah (Warsaw 1939) photograph by Roman Vishniac.  © Mara Vishniac Kohn. Courtesy International Center of Photography.

Sarah (Warsaw 1939) photograph by Roman Vishniac. © Mara Vishniac Kohn. Courtesy International Center of Photography.

His work of these years was extensively used for AJDC fundraising as well as an award winning 1983 book A Vanished World. His uncanny ability to engage and earn the trust of his subjects, child and adult alike, is not to be underestimated. Many of the images are of children and adults living in squalid basement dwellings. “Since the basement had no heat, Sarah had to stay in bed all winter. Her father painted the flowers for her, the only flowers of her childhood. Warsaw 1939.” It should be noted that in light of research by curator Maya Benton, many of Vishniac’s captions accompanying the images cannot be taken as factual reflections of the photos, rather they express the general plight of the oppressed Jewish population.

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About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


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