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New York: Capital of Photography
Exhibition and book by Max Kozloff
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Article added on May 1, 2003
  
Writer and critic Max Kozloff has first brought the exhibition New York: Capital of Photography to New York's Jewish Museum. It is currently on display at the Musée de l'Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland.

In the book accompanying the exhibition, with an introduction by Karen Levitov and artist biographies by Johanna Goldfeld, Max Kozloff explores on some seventy pages the relation between subject and artist in the case of New York City and its photographers.
 
The exhibition and its catalogue do not focus on just Jewish photographers, but they are a key element. The largest wave of Jewish immigrants came to the United States from Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1924. By 1918, the US had the world's largest Jewish population. Among filmmakers and photographers, there is a disproportionately high number of Jewish artists.
 
Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) came from a wealthy German-Jewish family in Hoboken, New Jersey. He was "a man of independent means who announced himself as a cosmopolitan aesthete and a messiah of photography as fine art" (Max Kozloff). His circle, known as the Photo-Secession, included e.g. Edward Steichen (1879-1973) and Karl Struss (1866-1981). Stieglitz' deluxe magazine Camera Work (1903-1917) served to promote the ideal of artistic freedom in photography.
 
Artistically, the Stieglitz group was indebted to painters such as Camille Corot, James McNeill Whistler and George Inness, "whose late work at Montclair, New Jersey, is a direct precedent of Steichen's landscapes" (Max Kozloff). The Pictoralist photographers cast a veil over their subjects. The effect was realized through muted shades, half-lit zones and soft-focus lenses.
 
The Ethical Culture Society of New York (originally called the Workingman's School) had been founded by Rabbi Felix Adler in 1876 as an instrument of Reform Jewish progressivism. The school's curriculum stressed the acculturating of the children of immigrants to American ideals. The Ethical Culture Society influenced photographers who used photography e.g. "as a tool for assailing prejudice against immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe" (Karen Levitov).
 
A good example of this are the photographs of immigrants at Ellis Island by the self-taught photographer Lewis Hine (1874-1940), who taught geography at the Ethical Culture School. Between 1903 and 1913, more than ten million immigrants passed through the port of entry at Ellis Island. "To Henry James, the newcomers were a class of people who exerted an unattractive pressure upon the fondly remembered genteel New York of yore", whereas to Lewis Hine, "the arrival of these newcomers signaled an opening up, a portent of cultural enrichment, and a welcome test of American democratic values" (Max Kozloff). Hine determined the urban photography's central issue (Kozloff): "what is the relation of industrial capitalism to American democratic values?"
 
Paul Strand (1890-1976) had been a student at the Ethical Culture School and a member of a camera club organized by Lewis Hine. Alfred Stieglitz's 291 gallery was an appreciated stop on the club's field itinerary. By 1915, Stieglitz regarded him accurately (according to Kozloff) as someone who would take Photo-Secession to a more advanced level. In fact, Strand's Wall Street, New York photograph of 1915 (catalogue number 11) is one of the exhibition's masterpieces. It combines the artistic play with light and shadow and pure poetry with philosophical and social meaning.
 
Technology influenced photography. The advent of the Leica, a miniature, roll-film, rapid-fire camera manufactured in Germany, allowed instinctive work. A new grabbed, notational and intrusive style emerged in the 1930s. Among the new photographers, Kozloff counts Ben Shahn (1898-1969) who "used the Leica as a flexible means of capturing the moods of people who, like him, were living through an impoverished era with empty pockets." The son of an Orthodox Jewish carpenter (who was also a social activist) aimed at more than street portraiture. Therefore, Shahn shot faces in context.
 
Walker Evans (1903-1975) was not only a close friend of Ben Shahn, he had also taught him the rudiments of photography. They were briefly neighbors in Greenwich Village, shared a studio and were both antiauthoritarian free spirits. Their backgrounds however were poles apart. Evans came from an affluent Midwestern WASP family. He saw the city as a crucible of modern perception (Kozloff).
 
The New York subway pictures, taken between 1938 and 1941 with a concealed camera (which was against the law), were conceived by Evans as an inventory of common people "in a dream 'location' for any portrait photographer weary of the studio and of the horrors of vanity."
 
Both Shahn and Evans were influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson (born 1908) who "brought them decisive news of the camera's possibilities" (Kozloff), e.g. when they saw an exhibition with his photographs at the Julian Levy Gallery in 1933. The Bauhaus and the legacy of Atget, whose work was first published in a monograph by Berenice Abbott in 1930, were other influences on  Evans.
 
Kozloff recognizes a gradual shift in the late 1930s in the social atmosphere of photographs depicting ethnic and racial minorities in New York. "The normalcy of community has replaced a nagging, everyday sense of impoverishment. No longer considered estranged or victimized, people appear in cohesive social situations - their 'otherness' naturalized in the process. The familiarity of their ways takes precedence over the specificities of their different cultures, even as their cultures are affirmed as sources of strength."
 
Aaron Siskind (1903-1991) and his collaborators from the Photo League's Feature Group, which Siskind had established in 1936, shot the famous Harlem Document (1937-1940). The aim was a sociological study of the Black ghetto of Harlem. They refused to see Harlem residents as either heroic or dangerous. Their photographs defy media stereotypes, documenting real behavior and moods.
 
These are just a few comments on several of some 60 photographers and their 101 photographs documented in the exhibition and its accompanying book New York: Capital of Photography. Among the younger, contemporary photographers included let's just signal Nan Goldin (born in 1953) who uses color in her work with the gay world, transvestites, cross-dressers and the "third gender" (neither male nor female). Goldin is "a realist artist who observes transsexual social display as a normal phenomenon, and with true affection" (Kozloff).


Get the book New York - Capital of Photography by Max Kozloff. The Jewish Museum New York, Yale University Press, 2002, 205 p. Get the book from Amazon.com, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon Canada.
 
The exhibition New York - Capital of Photography:
The Jewish Museum, NYC, April 28 - September 2, 2002.
Madison Art Center, Madison, Wisconsin, December 7, 2002 - February 16, 2003.
Musée de l'Elysée, Lausanne, Switzerland, April 10, 2003 - June 9, 2003.
 

For the wider context of New York photography check Miles Orvell: American Photography, Oxford History of Art, 2003, 256 p. Get it from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr, Amazon Canada.
 
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