Abigail Lewis: Jews behind the Camera, 1850-1950

Michael Berkowitz, Jews and Photography in Britain (Austin, TX: University of Texas at Austin Press, 2015).

Fans of the Netflix show, The Crown (2016-present), may recognize the presence of photography in the show’s presentation of the royal family. Photography appears in multiple facets throughout the show, including Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh’s enthusiasm for the camera, the Thursday Club for photographers in the social elite, the royal family’s constant appearance before media and royal photographers, and Princess Margaret’s marriage to risqué photographer Lord Snowdon (Antony Armstrong-Jones, 1930-2017). Most viewers would not recognize that many of the photographers depicted in the show were Jews, including Snowdon and his mentor, Baron Sterling Henry Nahum (1906-1956). Jews’ prominence in photography silently lurks in the background of the show. Historian Michael Berkowitz’s 2015 book, Jews and Photography in Britain, contends that the history of photography is a Jewish story. However, Jews’ success in photography has been disproportionate to the recognition they have received by scholars and the public. “They were so successful” Berkowitz quips “that almost nobody noticed” (Berkowitz, 5). Jews and Photography in Britain is an answer to this scholarship, telling the stories of these “unsung visionaries” who helped to popularize and revolutionize photography.

Berkowitz begins Jews and Photography in Britain with a thrilling preface: a private interview with Prince Philip himself, to discuss the contribution of Jews to British photography. Berkowitz garnered the rare interview at Buckingham Palace after writing to the Queen regarding Philip’s close friend and personal photographer, Baron Sterling Henry Nahum, known as Baron. Part of what drew Berkowitz to Baron was his intimate photographs of the royal family, in which they “appeared relaxed, with cheesy grins, and truly cheerful” (Berkowitz, xx). Baron notably photographed the marriage of the Queen and Prince Philip in color and he established the Thursday Club, Philip’s photography club for the social elite. Baron’s only depiction in the show is as the leader of the Thursday Club, reading letters aloud regarding Philip’s adventures to the rest of the members.[1] Philip’s close relationship with Baron revealed that the royal family had maintained friendships with Jews that went beyond professionalism or mere cordiality. Baron also piqued Berkowitz’s interest because he was explicit about his Jewishness. In Baron’s posthumous memoir (Baron, 1957) Baron recounted his family’s Jewish history from North Africa to Britain and beyond. Baron’s Jewishness was at the core of his identity, however, Prince Philip remarked that he had thought little of Baron’s background. Instead, he challenged Berkowitz, asking, “Why Jews and photography? Aren’t Jews everywhere in the arts and professions? So what?” (Berkowitz, xxi).

Berkowitz’s book shows that Jews were everywhere in photography and that “from the 1850s to the 1950s, if one’s picture was snapped for a price, there was a good chance that the person behind the camera was born a Jew” (Berkowitz, 2). Philip’s remark adds fodder to Berkowitz’s point that these photographers have not received acknowledgement for their contribution as Jews. And so what? Berkowitz demonstrates that their Jewishness shaped their opportunities and limitations in Britain as photographers. Throughout the richly illustrated 392 page book, Berkowitz gives voice to a multitude of Jewish photographers’ stories spanning from the rise of studio photography in the mid-19th century to post-World War II. Berkowitz arranges each chapter chronologically, beginning with studio photography in the mid to late nineteenth photography, and ending in the postwar, and around developments in photography. In doing so, Berkowitz illuminates the Jewishness of photography with a wide lens, including Jews as studio photographers, art dealers, inventors, publishers, photojournalists, and scholars.

Berkowitz is not just focused on closing this gaping hole in the history of photography. He also aims to examine how and why photography developed into a heavily Jewish occupation and the role of national difference on Jews’ successes and failures in photography. What makes his subjects “Jewish” is not really their religious affiliation or a particular artistic style; rather, Berkowitz focuses on their “Jewish origins” that “helped to determine the content, limits, and possibilities of their social and socioeconomic opportunities and sometimes their opposition to antisemitism” (Berkowitz, 9). In this sense, Berkowitz is interested in the social character of photography, including its socioeconomic opportunities and social and professional relationships that helped Jews make a living as photographers. Because photography was always seen as a less than respectable profession, it was open to both Jews and foreigners to make a living. Photography provided opportunities for Jews in British society, allowing them to participate in “government-sponsored, photographic expeditions, preservation efforts, and state-building projects. Jews were also court photographers—officially and surreptitiously, in Britain and elsewhere in Europe—from the time of photography’s inception. They advanced film and optical technologies, as individual inventors and employees of major companies such as Kodak and Ilford Limited” (Berkowitz, 3). Jews succeeded in photography because of its socioeconomic character. Perhaps for the same reason, Jews’ treatment as outsiders, also helps to explain their absence as Jews in the history of photography.

Throughout each chapter, Berkowitz pays careful attention to the unique stories of Jewish photographers, publishers, collectors, and historians including well-known individuals such as Robert Capa (1913-1954), Stefan Lorant (1901-1997), and Helmut Gernsheim (1913-1995). Critically, he also tells the stories of a constellation of lesser known photographers, who have received little scholarly recognition for their contributions to photography. The sheer magnitude of the stories in the book make a strong argument that Jews were integral to the evolution of photography in Britain and beyond. Berkowitz begins the book with nineteenth-century studio photography and the story of Henry Walter Barnett (1862-1934) in Australia. Barnett’s work in studio photography and celebrity portraiture, and his practice in photo restoration, brought him international acclaim. Barnett had even photographed the royal family, making him “tremendously appreciated, even a sensation, wherever he went” (Berkowitz, 44). Barnett frequently traveled to the US and UK to sell his photography and his inventions and to promote photography as a dignified labor and as an art (Berkowitz, 52). When Barnett moved to Britain at the turn of the twentieth century, Barnett had reached celebrity status as an innovator of photography. After his move to Britain in 1897, he founded the Professional Photographer’s Association, and was later elected to the council of the Royal Photographic Society. As an example, Barnett serves as a figure who found international success and significantly shaped the field of studio and commercial photography. Working as businessman, innovator, and artist, he elevated and popularized photography. Another successful photographer who crossed paths with Barnett in the United States, is Nahum Luboschez (1869-1925). Luboschez was a Russian immigrant to the United States, and worked at Eastman Kodak. Aside from being a prominent portrait photographer, Luboschez revolutionized photography’s use in radiology and in medical diagnosis. Therefore, we have Jewish photographers to thank for much of the technology that defines photography’s use today, including in medicine and the sciences.

Jewishness – both in terms of solidarity with other Jews and ethnic difference – molds the opportunities and limitations in each of Berkowitz’s stories. The story of Salmon Stemmer epitomizes the opportunities that photography created for Jewish innovators and its usefulness for recent refugees, who had fled to Britain from antisemitism in Eastern Europe and in Germany. When Jews fled Eastern Europe, they were able to use their expertise and their connections to find work in Britain. Stemmer, a German Jewish refugee and photographer, first moved from Germany to France to Palestine before heading to Britain. Stemmer invented a photo-viewer, called the “kucker” and was encouraged to immigrate to Britain “expressly with the aim to introduce his patented process and ‘open a factory’” (Berkowitz, 62). Thus, Stemmer found himself in England for the express purpose of producing his photo-viewer. When Stemmer arrived in Britain, he first marketed his process in schools. Because Stemmer did not know English, he pretended to be deaf and dumb in order to receive commissions. Although photography created opportunities for Stemmer in Britain to produce and market his innovations, he still faced potential discrimination as a Jew and foreigner.

Inge Ader fled to London from Germany in 1938 in the wake of Kristallnacht. She had learned to photograph in Germany in the late 1930s. Ader was lucky to protect her camera from the Nazis and successfully smuggled it to London. Once in London she quickly took work with a German-Jewish fashion photographer, who had fled from Berlin. Ader then opened her own studio in 1942 and hired primarily other Jews and refugees, providing the same kind of support she had received when she first moved to London. Once Ader began her own studio, she too provided a place of employment for refugees. Berkowitz draws on Adler’s story to illustrate a Jewish-friendly subjectivity and solidarity manifested in photography. Critically, Stemmer, Ader, and many other photographers, succeed in Britain because of help from other Jewish immigrants and refugees, and they influenced photography’s popularity, accessibility, and usefulness.

Berkowitz devotes the final three chapters to Helmut Gernsheim, a photographer, collector, and scholar. Gernsheim’s extended history sheds light on the importance of his Jewish identity on the course of his career and the impact of his mistreatment in Britain. Gernsheim emigrated from Germany to England in 1937 and was one of the few commercial photographers at the time. Despite his prominence as a photographer, Gernsheim was deported from Britain as a German Jewish refugee in 1940 and held abroad the ship Dunera with nearly 2,000 other Jewish refugees. During his captivity, Gernsheim taught other captive Jews about photography and this sparked his scholarly interest in the history of photography. In 1941, Gernsheim returned to England and became involved with the Warburg Institute, a research center known to be friendly towards Jews that had employed his brother, Walter.

What is most striking about Gernsheim’s place in the book was his quest after World War II to establish his photographic collection as the national photography collection in Britain. Gernsheim’s collection contained nineteenth-century treasures, including some of the earliest surviving photographs by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826, and images taken by Lewis Carroll. Gernsheim originally exhibited his photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum and aspired to create a national photography museum to thank Britain for accepting him as a refugee. However, Gernsheim was “treated less than sympathetically” in his quest to establish the national photography center (Berkowitz, 245). Berkowitz shows that Gernsheim was even mocked by his peers for his demeanor and treated less than respectably because of his Jewishness. Fellow photographers, scholars, and publishers saw Gernsheim as an outsider. Gernsheim’s mission to sell his collection as the cornerstone of a British center for photography, the first of its kind, ultimately failed. Rather, Gernsheim found amenable partners in his “pathbreaking photo-historical mission” in other Jews across Europe (Berkowitz, 245). A Jewish book dealer, Lew Feldman, helped to broker a historic deal with the University of Texas-Austin. The Harry Ransom Center acquired Gernsheim’s collection of 33,000 photographs and 4,000 books for $300,000, a high price at the time. Today, the collection forms the foundation of the Harry Ransom Center which houses five million prints and negatives, and serves as a major center for the study of photography. Berkowitz presents this sale of the collection as a considerable missed opportunity for Britain and an example of the challenges Jews faced in Britain.

Told over three chapters, Gernsheim’s story is a paradigmatic example of a tension that runs throughout the course of the book. On the one hand, Berkowitz shows us that these Jews were successful in photography thanks in part to their Jewishness. On the other hand, however, just as Prince Philip didn’t quite notice a central aspect of Baron’s identity, there’s a persistent message regarding the failure of Britain to wholeheartedly accept these Jewish photographers as Jews. One gets the sense that these individuals contribution to British photography could have been greater if they had been given the chance. Instead, it was thanks to Gernsheim’s Jewish connections across Europe that led to the sale of his collection to the US. Berkowitz remarks that, whether Gernsheim realized it or not, he never would have become a photographer without help from other Jews; “the Warburg Institute gave him an institutional home when he had no prospects; his initial publishers were often imprints of émigrés and refugees; Lew Feldman brokered the deal that brought him financial security and set his core collection in a permanent home” (Berkowitz, 258). Gernsheim left Britain for Switzerland in the 1960s following the sale of his collection.

Berkowitz’s book is not necessarily a success story, despite giving voice to previously overlooked photographers. Many of his vignettes reveal Britain’s reluctance to fully accept Jewish refugees as British. Berkowitz’s book is peppered with examples of Jewish persecution and marginalization in Britain, including Gernsheim’s captivity and his difficulty in establishing his collection in Britain; Stefan Lorant, the creator of Picture Post, who was forced to immigrate to the United States in 1940 after failing to gain British citizenship; Stemmer’s need to feign deafness to avoid discrimination as a foreigner; and a fake story cooked by the BBC in 2007 regarding a disagreement between Jewish photographer Annie Leibovitz (b.1949) and the Queen. While the BBC made it look like the Queen stormed out of the photoshoot, Berkowitz says that they actually got along “splendidly.” This story inspired him to look closer at Baron’s relationship with the royal family.

Berkowitz presents a series of stories that emphasize Jewish contributions to photography and also a string of missed opportunities for the British. Berkowitz’s book raises further questions regarding Jews’ place in British society and antisemitism. Particularly, what marks the difference between figures like Nahum and Snowden, who find themselves in the inner circle of the royal family, and other individuals in his story? Are these society figures an exception? What conclusions should we draw from his stories regarding the treatment of Jews in Britain? And what has Britain lost as a potential center for the innovation of photography by not fully accepting these Jews? Thinking back to Prince Philip’s challenge to Berkowitz’s project and his disregard of Baron’s Jewish identity, is implicitly part of the very problem that Berkowitz highlights. Jewish photographers were everywhere and invisible at the same time.

Berkowitz, the final PhD student of George L. Mosse, allows his readers to see clearly the critical Jewish contribution to the history of photography as studio artists, photojournalists, camera makers and innovators, publishers, merchants, and academics. These stories are so numerous that they can at times overwhelm the reader’s ability to keep track of them all. But, this approach seems critical to his overall project, to flood the reader with the immense contributions of Jews to photography, and then their conspicuous absence in the historiography. As Berkowitz recounts in an interview, the sum of these stories exhibit that, “due to their particular historical situation, Jews introduced approaches to photography that helped make it more popular, accessible, higher-quality, and culturally significant.” From this perspective, Berkowitz’s multifaceted book reveals more than a handful of silent heroes in photography, who, due in part to their Jewishness, shaped photography as we know it today.

[1] Baron, played by Julius d’Silva, appears in season 1 episode 6 and season 2 episode 2 at the Thursday Club.

Abigail Lewis, 2018Abigail Lewis is a historian of Modern Europe and Modern France. Her research focuses on collective memory and visual culture of World War II, the Vichy Regime, and the postwar in France. Her dissertation, “The Collaborationist Eye,” examines the role of photography and photographers in occupied France and for the Vichy Regime during World War II. Her research explores the ambivalent contribution of photographers and their photographs in supporting and subverting propaganda and state power during the German occupation of France. Furthermore, her dissertation traces the ways that these occupation photographs in the postwar years shaped French collective memory, helped to bring collaborators to justice, and provoked debates regarding collaboration and resistance. Her work has been generously funded by the George L. Mosse Program, a Chateaubriand Fellowship, the Société des Professeurs Français et Francophones d’Amérique, the Mellon Foundation, UW-Madison Center for Jewish Studies, the UW-Madison Institute for Regional and International Studies, and the Graduate School.

 

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