Robert Frank & Jewishness

A reader sent me this link  about Robert Frank and Jewish photographers.  The Jewish part is something I have thought about, and I think it’s aptly explained in the essay.  There’s also a link to a film called Pull My Daisy which Frank co-directed.

Yes, being a Jew has placed a critical distance between myself and this society.    I suppose it began early on when I was picked on by the local Irish kids.  I can remember some of these young kids throwing rocks at me when I was leaving a local Jewish school (I didn’t attend Jewish School but some of my friends did).  And I was involved in fights with these kids nearly every day.  Sometimes I won, sometimes I lost.  It didn’t matter.  I was a target, and I wasn’t sure why.

One day I was caught by a few of them and hung by my feet over a churchyard wall where there was a ten foot drop.  Somehow I squirmed out of their hold and got back on solid ground.

When I went to college, a guy that I played cards with asked if he could see the top of my head.  His parents had told him that Jews had the stump of horns in their hair.  I hadn’t heard that one before but I let him look away and he was surprised that the top of my head was pretty much like his.  He had just never seen a Jew, and believed what he was told.  We remained good friends.

And of course,  if there was any doubt about how the world felt about us, there was the holocaust.  I knew that the Jews were blamed for the death of Christ – but even that never made much sense to me.  I used to ask my own father why would G-d have picked a Jew to be his son in the first place since he must’ve known all this was going to happen.  And if He didn’t know what was going to happen, then he was a G-d with limited powers.  The religious thing is still puzzling to me.  Many Jews that survived the holocaust continued to believe in Him.  And skim briefly over the holocaust, how could the U.S. have turned away ships of Jewish emigrates, or that the great liberal Roosevelt did nothing to make the trip to the death camps more difficult for the Nazis.  The artist, whatever their cultural identification doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  The sense of otherness that individual artists feel, can only be amplified by such social alienation.

And I’m not sure if there’s agreement – to this day – on whether Jewishness is a religion, a race, a culture or what.  Seems to be all three.  Jews from Eastern Europe are subject to genetic diseases that others from Eastern Europe are not subject to.  So obviously there’s a genetic influence.  I wasn’t brought up to believe in G-d, but I we did celebrate the Jewish Holidays.  The bible stories were seen as important fables, but not actual events.

Suppose you’re reading your favorite author at the time and everytime a Jew is described, it”s this evil stereotyped version, and you go on to find out that indeed Thomas Wolfe was very anti-Semitic.  Or that Ezra Pound was a fascist.  For me, I go past that to the writing and just recognize it as ignorant.  The artist is certainly not free of the prejudices of the society where they grew up.

At any rate, the Frank post does give a similar explanation for why so many Jews ended up in the arts, i.e. alienation – and I can’t really disagree, though there are other factors.  Probably the biggest one being that the arts, the written word, in short education, was always seen as the way out.

My parents played records about the lives of artists and musicians for me as I went to sleep.  I can still remember the swell of dramatic music when Franz Liszt dies.

But I do think that this combination of culture and alienation from contemporary society is a big part of why so many Jews wind up as comedians, artists, writers photographers, movie-makers, etc.  And it also explains why so much of their artistic output is urban.  That’s the territory we both know, and are alienated from at the same time.

So we’re alienated.  We’re outsiders.  Of all the arts, why photography?  Photography, by it’s scientific nature, is an easy way of documenting society.  The ironic juxtaposition of subjects, one of the main techniques in city photography – is a way of saying: Did you ever notice how…

Yes, it’s the Seinfeld line.  It’s the stand-up comedians take on things in two dimensions.

POSTSCRIPT.   I may be writing about Jews, and my own experiences,  but there is a universal point about being part of the Other that I’m circling around.   I am not an art historian, but for a parallel example, you could look at the development of  “the blues” in music.  It didn’t suddenly appear in a vacuum but can be traced back through blacks in the south, back through slave songs, back to African styles.  It doesn’t mean that only blacks can sing the blues (though let’s leave Pat Boone out of this for now) – but that certain art forms develop as an outlet in an insular culture that has it’s own culture, and is separated by prejudice from the mainstream culture.  In short, artists are already by their nature a minority in their own   society, and this sense of  being apart is further amplified by the otherness of the minority culture they were born into.  It’s not the only influence on an artist, but it is a big one.


9 thoughts on “Robert Frank & Jewishness

  1. The question of why some people gravitate towards the arts has always fascinated me. In our modern culture, certainly by the time we (well, my generation, anyway) hit High School those divisions are already beginning to crystalize. In my case, certainly by junior year the cliques had formed, the jocks, the math geeks, the theater geeks, the slackers/pot heads, and the artists. There was cross-over (artists and theater geeks tended to hang out together, but not every theater geek was an artists and vice-versa).

    One thing that continues to fascinate me is how in the technology fields (computer science, for instance) those boundaries are more than a little fuzzy. Photography is sort of a classic example, where many photographers are very technically savvy.

    Very interesting.

  2. Chris. Yes, I have spent a lot of time wondering about it. My mother was an artist — a concert pianist and child prodigy. I was writing songs by the time I was 13, and doing photography at 14. It was just a genetic fluke. Neither of my sisters got those genes.

    My high-school only had two cliques: jocks and non-jocks. I can’t remember any art classes, or artists. If they were there, they kept it to themselves as did I.

    The one thing that I know, is that if it’s in you – it will come out one way or another. It just nags at you to find some form. People who told me that it was brave to leave certain money (not that certain anymore) to do art – it wasn’t like that. It was that same old nagging that I had tried to sweep under the rug for a number of years forcing me into a new life.

    It’s esp. fascinating for me to watch kids growing up and seeing how artistic inclinations are rarely nurtured. On the other hand, as I say – if it’s there, it will eventually make it’s appearance.

  3. I teach dramatic writing at the Art Institute of Phoenix (it’s writing for games, but it’s dramatic writing at heart). The Art Institute is filled with kids who want to build art for video games. So they’re artists. But they usually view writing as akin to poison. Writing equals the high school English teacher who failed them for getting their grammar wrong.

    But I teach dramatic writing from the love of it. I’m an old theater guy, and there’s nothing more moving than a film or play that gets it right.

    Every time I teach the class, by the end of it there are usually one or more students who have handed in some good work, and when I ask them about it, universally they always WANTED to write, but no one ever encouraged them, told them to go with it, taught them how to structure, etc.

    Like you say, if it’s in there it’s gonna come out sometime.

  4. Frank was European and haughty and ironic and an outsider because of his (wealthy, unsemtimental, nonreligious) upbringing and not because of his Jewishness.

    I don’t know if you remember this but not long after 9/11 the Jewish Museum hosted a deeply flawed show called New York: Capital Of Photography, curated by Max Kozloff. The thesis behind it (which resulted in a book with the same name) was that street photography was somehow a uniquely Jewish-American invention. As the NY Times said at the time, Kozloff “outlines the economic and cultural forces that drew Jews to photography. He also attempts to define the Jewish sensibility that he sees in the best of these photographs. His arguments can be hard to follow. He writes that Jewish photographers were especially sensitive to a feeling of alienation (or a feeling of community, depending on the picture), while most gentile photographers were not. The evidence he cites is difficult to see in the images themselves.”

    Kozloff’s idea that there’s a “jewish eye” is akin to those who claim that whites can’t play jazz.

    No reason to shoehorn anyone’s aesthetics into a religious upbringing they didn’t have, any more than to claim a (diverse) group’s interest in photography to Jewishness they might or might not have had (while ignoring the similar achievements of non-jews).

  5. I have Kozloff’s book and his theory is flawed, but reality creates these type of theories. If I said only black men can play wide receiver in the NFL it would be untrue because in the past there have been a few good white wide outs. But today, well over 95% of the wide outs, are black. (so are the running backs) If someone back in the 60’s said only British musicians could play good rock, they would have been dead wrong…but imagine rock & roll without the British. I’m sure there may have been a few very funny protestant comedians working the Catskills, but the Jewish ones got most of the limelight (maybe because of the mostly Jewish audience). The truth is anyone can do anything, but one can’t help but wonder why certain fields are represented so heavily by one group. It’s politically incorrect to even suggest there are types of people with with superior skills in any field, even if it may be true. I believe that at a certain point, coincidence tends to give way to mathematics…

    Subtract Monk, Parker, Davis, Gillepsie & Coltrane from the Jazz scene half a century ago and what’s left? No offense to Baker, Evans & Brubeck etc…

    So Kozloff was wrong, but in his defense, when you think of post war photography, particularly in New York, then the list of Jewish photographers is hard to argue with:

    Weegee, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Helen Levitt, Diane Arbus, Lisette Model, Louis Faurer, Andre Kertesz, Joel Meyerowitz, Danny Lyon and of course Sid Grossman and many of the members of the New York photo league.

  6. Of course I don’t think that whites can’t play jazz. But they didn’t invent it either.

    And I sure wasn’t saying that Jews invented street-photography; only that given their numbers in the population there is an inordinate number of Jews that made a mark in that field. Was that a random event or is it worth thinking about why that should be.

    On the other hand, if you don’t agree with that premise, then there is no question and nothing more to try and understand.

    Put in musical terms – of course there have been great white jazz musicians. But you surely couldn’t say that it was invented by whites. So you look back into time and see that it originated with blacks, mostly in the south. And then you ask yourself, now how did that happen? Why didn’t jazz begin in California? And you study the history and it takes you back to slavery – and then to Africa. And you begin to get a sense of how it developed and why.

    I do think that new art forms often develop in insular communities that are alienated and discriminated against. In some countries, they may be Catholics. In another country, the minority might be French.

    It may not be p.c., but the idea that there is a Jewish sensibility, or a black sensibility that effects how and what a photographer shoots – that feels true to me. Yes – “feels right” is all I can say without devoting the rest of my life to try and prove it. I’ll leave that for the art historians.

  7. Approx. 2 million Jews in metro NYC (2001 census), out of 8 million + total. Almost 25% of the population makes for a distinct ‘advantage’.

  8. To uncover the historic link between Jews and photography, one simply has to recall the story of Passover. What is matzo, if not the earliest reduction of a three dimensional object (leavened bread) to a two dimensional representation (unleavened bread)? Matzo is, in fact, a photo of a loaf of bread (with the clever added benefit of digestibility). Some scholars posit that the Ark of the Covenant was actually the first camera and that contained within were not only the Ten Commandments, but an undeveloped photo of God handing them to a smiling Moses. Archaeologists have unsuccessfully searched everywhere for the Ark, but have they tried the storeroom at B&H?

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