After Weegee
By David Shneerafter-weegee.jpg

After Weegee: Essays on Contemporary Jewish American Photographers
Syracuse University Press

Lenny Bruce had it all figured out fifty years ago. When he performed his famous Jewish/goyish sketch (“Count Basie's Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish. Eddie Cantor's goyish. B'nai Brith is goyish; Hadassah, Jewish”) the comic and provocateur killed with his nightclub audience. His shtick wasn't just humorous—it was also clear-eyed and relevant. To Bruce, Jewishness has nothing to do with origins and everything to do with an urban, socially progressive, non-WASP sensibility. Bruce understood what defines Jews living in the modern, secular world, and also what distinguishes them from non-Jews.

Which brings us to the book under review. Although Bruce never got around to classifying photography, he would undoubtedly have put it in his Jewish column—as would Daniel Morris, a professor of English at Purdue University. In his new book After Weegee: Essays on Contemporary Jewish American Photographers, Morris claims that Jews take different pictures, and for different reasons, than non-Jews. Jewish photography “suggests a certain idol-busting, often ironic, relationship to authoritative (iconic) ideas about the role of art as both a quasi-religious spiritual refuge and as an instrument for social uplift in contemporary society.”

Morris’ book, which aims to define American Jewish photography, is comprised of a series of essays on classic Jewish American photographers. It opens with a chapter on Weegee (née Arthur Fellig), who is known today for his crime scene documentary photography in the 1940s and behind-the-scenes Hollywood work in the 1950s. Weegee is joined by an eclectic group of artists, all of them hard to pigeonhole. They were both serious and ironic, political and playful, Jewish and queer; in a phrase, they contained multitudes.

One thing that united them, though, as American Jewish photographers, was a propensity for mixing of text and image. Even more importantly, what most connected them was queerness. Several identified as queer, if by queer we mean something having to do with sexual desire. For Morris, queerness is about much more than sexuality. It is about the place of the outsider, about the oft-failed attempt to fit in; and it is about freakishness—both of the photographed subject and the photographer herself.

In fact, one could argue that queerness is the best definition of Jewishness for Morris’s chosen photographers. If queerness is not just about someone’s sexual identity, Jewishness is also not just about someone’s religious or ethnic identity. Both are sensibilities. The connection between queerness, Jewishness, and American Jewish photography is illustrated in my two favorite essays, about Allen Ginsberg and Annie Leibovitz. At various times in their lives, both of these photographers turned their cameras on their closest lovers and friends. Their work is the most private and intimate of any represented in the book. Ginsberg, the ultimate queer Jew, is in many ways the quintessential Jewish photographer for Morris. His queerness makes him Jewish, but more importantly, Ginsberg was fascinated with historicizing and memorializing through photography. Leibovitz built her career shooting celebrities for Rolling Stone, but it is her later photographs of her beloved Susan Sontag, dying from cancer, which bring the viewer to tears.   

Many of Morris’ subjects shared a common obsession: race and racial politics. On this subject, the book is most enlightening. In the 1930s, Jewishness was an ambiguous category and Jews were still a persecuted minority, affording them a certain kinship with blacks. By the 1960s and 70s, however, Jews had landed on the white side of the racial paradigm, and they now felt the anxiety of privilege. This proved fortuitous for their art, as it drove them to take up their cameras to document the racialized “Other.” Bruce Davidson’s edifying photographs of poor black families in Harlem followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights work, showing the dignity of the black family and the ability of a white Jewish man to build relationships with these communities. But by the late 1960s and early 1970s, after King’s assassination, Davidson likely would not have had access to the movements of Black nationalism and the Nation of Islam, who reminded American Jews that blacks and Jews were not now (if ever) on the same side of the color line.

This book is not without its flaws. To begin with, Morris’s definition of Jewish photography is not universally applicable. Jewish photographers of the same time period—like Zionist and Soviet Jewish photographers—used their camera not to produce incisive commentary about an established society, but rather to help create one. Their work was more in dialogue with Leni Riefenstahl, who helped build Nazi Germany, than with Weegee and his contemporaries.  

An even bigger problem is Morris’s sweeping claims about Jewishness in photography, which reflects a parochial interest in things American. Morris claims that “Historians of photography credit Weegee with developing the image-text collage format in Naked City that, I propose, would become significant for contemporary Jewish American photographers such as Jim Goldberg, Mel Rosenthal, Marc Asnin, and Tyagan Miller.”  But where did Weegee get this idea?  For the answer, just glance at 1930s European magazines like USSR in Construction and the many illustrated socialist magazines coming out of Paris in the 1930s.

Those issues notwithstanding, Morris’s definition of a particular American Jewish aesthetic is thoughtful and compelling, even if I’m one of those who prefers the safe ground of social history—the fact that Jews ended up in the field of photography—to the tenuous and tendentious aesthetic argument that Jews take different pictures than non-Jews.  Ultimately, Morris’s well thought out book could have used a dose of Lenny Bruce by including a non-Jewish photographer. As Sontag said in 1964, Jewishness in photography is not about blood and birth, but is about amazing social commentary, which is something that many photographers, both Jewish and goyish, were capable of.
David Shneer is a writer and professor of history at the University of Colorado, whose most recent book is Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust.
Image Credits: 1. Morris Final-33: Mel Rosenthal, “De Witt, New York: A rabbi teaches Torah to Russian Jewish refugees,”ca. 1975–83. Courtesy Mel Rosenthal and the Image Works.
2. Morris Final-29: Mel Rosenthal,“Bronx, New York: Kids playing baseball using the parking meter as second base,” ca. 1975–83. Courtesy Mel Rosenthal and the Image Works.

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