With their own long history of suffering oppression and hate fresh in their minds, many American Jews played important roles in the civil rights movement. Jewish merchant Julius Rosenwald, who bought one-fourth interest in Sears, Roebuck and Co. before it became a huge business, founded the Julius Rosenwald Fund in 1917 to help improve education for African Americans. The fund helped launch over 5,000 schools in 15 states in the south, as well as several universities. In 1964, Jews were arrested with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel prominently marched with Dr. King in the struggle for civil rights. In the arts, Jewish, Puerto Rico-born photographer Benedict J. Fernandez recorded many of the events of the U.S. civil rights movement. His images of Dr. King’s funeral are now iconic.
The current show at the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center, “Through Their Eyes: Captured Moments of Childhood,” explores the powerful black and white photographs of the Jewish photographers Godfrey Frankel and Helen Levitt that depict Jewish and African American subjects.
Frankel (1912-1995), a Cleveland native, got started in advertising photography and somehow found himself covering the nightclub scene in the nation’s capital. He met the nightclub editor of the Afro-American, who took him to nightclubs on U Street. In an interview with Merry Foresta of the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Frankel described his experiences: “I started looking around the city, a strange city to me then, and I found these alley dwellings. I think there are still one or two left, [a] very small area. This was where poor people and mostly blacks lived I would find myself down there three or four times a week in the late afternoons when the sun was good before I went out to visit nightclubs. It was perfect.”
Frankel also worked in New York, where he described his photographs as “probably my most important work.” In the interview, he said his interest in New York was “mostly the edges of the city – the East Side and West Side. On the Lower East Side, I guess I’ve taken most of my pictures.” Although Frankel did not use the word Jewish once in his interview with Foresta, his typical day began with him setting out in the morning with four or five rolls of film, taking the elevator or subway to the Lower East Side and shooting pictures until he got hungry and tired. He would “get into Ratner’s or some place and get some matzah ball soup, [laughing] some bagels or something and rest for an hour. Get out again about three or three-thirty and shoot some more pictures.”
One of Frankel’s photographs in the JCC show is “Kids on Storefront Steps” (1943). In the photograph, seven African American children sit on a step in front of a store with “all bran” signs in the windows. The steps are in bad shape, and they seem unable to bear the children’s weight, let alone to reinforce the store for long. But, for the most part, the children seem happy, despite the grimy setting. Some of the boys seem asleep, while others smile or look off into the distance. However, none of the boys meets the gaze of the viewer. They are in their own world, wholly oblivious to the viewer.
Godfrey Frankel. “Kids on Storefront Steps.” (1943) Vintage gelatin silver print. 9 3/4″ x 6 1/4″.
Other photographs by Frankel show young Jewish boys studying the Talmud. “Mount Krisco, NY Yeshiva” (1948) shows two young boys reciting the Shematogether. One boy turns his back on the viewer, facing his partner who covers his eyes. The two boys sit on chairs with books open in front of them on a table. The composition is a bombardment of triangles, from the boys’ elbows to suspenders to the shapes of the flowers in the bottom left corner. Another boy watches from afar, perhaps laughing at the two praying boys. And perhaps the most fascinating part of Frankel’s photographs of children is that they rarely make eye contact with the viewer. They are either shut off in their own world or literally distracted by something out of the picture frame.
Godfrey Frankel. “Mount Krisco, NY Yeshiva.” (1948) Vintage gelatin silver print. 8″ x 10″.
In another image, also titled “Mount Krisco, NY Yeshiva,” Frankel shows the same boy who was covering his eyes in the last photograph, sitting in the same chair. His partner has left (and his empty chair and open book attest to his absence). The boy from the background has drawn closer, but he seems uninterested in the boy as he walks past. The boy, with his finger keeping his place in the book, turns to look over his left shoulder at something out of the picture frame to the right. The boy is at once rooted in the task at hand (his finger marking his place in the Talmud) and distracted.
Helen Levitt’s photographs are equally voyeuristic. Levitt’s “Dancing Girl” shows a young girl and a boy separately dancing in the street. The horizon line is cropped high up in the photograph, so the image becomes more about the street than about the buildings lining the street. With the exception of some stairs and banisters, nothing that suggests a context for the joint dance invades the image. The Caucasian girl wears a polka dot dress and stretches her arms in a twisted pose, decidedly unglamorous but cute, as an African American boy looks on and dances with his hand atop his head.
Helen Levitt. “New York, c. 1945.” (Dancing Girl) Black and white silver print. 16″ x 20″.
Born in Brooklyn in 1913 (although the JCC exhibit mysteriously says 1907), Levitt dropped out of school to pursue photography. She became obsessed with children’s chalk drawings and photographed many children drawing. Like Frankel’s subjects, the children in Levitt’s photographs do not make eye contact with the viewer. However, where Frankel’s children are intentionally oblivious to the viewer, Levitt’s might be performing a street dance for the viewer’s benefit.
Levitt’s photographs in the JCC show children in strollers – climbing, dancing, hugging, and engaging in a variety of activities. One particularly engaging image shows three boys playing in a yard covered with dirt and rocks. Behind them, chalk writing on a wall reads, “Home team the Reds.” One boy carries a stick, while the other carries a small leafless bush. Levitt has caught the boys in the middle of their motion as they run and leap about. One wonders how the boys find joy in that most dreary of places, but at least for the moment in which Levitt has captured them, they frolic happily.
The children that Levitt and Frankel capture in their photographs are worlds apart from those that photographer David Seymour-Chim portrays, as were discussed in these pages (June 21, 2006, “Smile And Say Cheese: Children Maimed By War”). Where Chim portrayed children who were sick, maimed, and otherwise struck by war, Levitt’s and Frankel’s images show children who have not suffered through wars and the Holocaust. But like Chim, Levitt and Frankel sought out the humanity and the optimism in the children’s situations. In the work of all three photographers’, children play and smile like children despite the bleak context. And as Chim found life and hope in war, Frankel and Levitt used their photography to find common ground between the lives of Jewish and African American children as they played in parks, alleyways, and on storefront stairs.
Menachem Wecker is a painter and assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at email@example.com
I graciously acknowledge the articles about the civil rights movement and Helen Levitt and Godfrey Frankel in Encyclopedia Britannica Online (www.britaannica.com) and Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/).