The years between the two world wars yielded stunning artistic achievement in France, with the medium of photography flourishing alongside painting and literature. The advent of the miniature Leica camera, which used standard 35 mm rolls of film and required no tripod, allowed photographers a new freedom to wander the streets of the City of Light and spontaneously capture images representing the zeitgeist of the times in ways never before possible.
The work of 16 celebrated photographers in and around Paris from 1900-1945 is on view at the Frick Pittsburgh in the exhibit “Street Photography to Surrealism,” running through May 5. What may surprise many visitors to the show is that a disproportionate number of the leading photographers of the era were Jews.
The number of Jewish photographers in Paris during this “golden age” of photography “is astonishing,” noted Sarah Hall, the Frick’s chief curator and director of collections. “Photography in particular seems to be a field that really took hold [with Jewish artists]. Whether that has to do with being immigrants and looking around at the city as outsiders — what the reasons are it’s hard to know. But it is amazing, and the work is fantastic.”
Jewish photographers showcased in the exhibit include André Kertész, Man Ray, Ilse Bing, Erwin Blumenfeld, Lisette Model (whose father was Jewish) and most likely Brassaï, although his Jewish heritage is less clear.
Jewish photographers were pivotal in shaping the art form, according to Hall.
“Someone like Kertész, he is really seminal when we think of modernist photography,” she said. “There is also this idea of a sort of combination that is intellectualism and creativity.”
Some Kertész photos in the Frick show are remarkable for their gritty and simultaneously gentle look at the streets of Paris, as in his “Clochards [homeless men] by the Seine,” while others offer a nod to surrealism, such as his distorted nude series — which actually began as a humor assignment for a magazine.
Kertész trained as a stockbroker but became interested in photography at the age of 6. What began as a hobby became a calling, and he moved to Paris in 1925. Just two years later, he was given a one-man show at the art gallery Au Sacre du Printemps, and in 1928, he became a photojournalist. His work, hallmarked by unusual camera angles and cutting-edge subjects, is widely considered to have made a major contribution to modernist photography.
“His photographs are so beautiful, and you get a sense of him as an observer and there is a little bit of aloofness,” Hall said. “They are so tender to me. Even if he is standing far away looking at people, he is looking incredibly sensitively.”
Like so many other Jewish photographers working in Paris at the time, Kertész was motivated to emigrate by the rise of Nazism. He moved to New York in 1936, and worked there for more than 30 years shooting photos for Condé-Nast.
The American-born Man Ray, who is celebrated for his surrealist paintings as well as his photographs, stayed in Paris as long as he could, not returning to the United States until 1940.
Born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia, Man Ray studied art in New York before moving to Paris in 1921, where he became part of the artistic and intellectual elite, forming relationships with James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Max Ernst and Picasso.
In addition to several of his dramatic portraits, the Frick exhibit features some of Man Ray’s “Rayograms,” a process he developed in which he placed objects directly onto a photosensitive paper, then exposed the image to light — not using a camera. The dreamlike images straddle between the real and the imaginary.
The photographs of Ilse Bing are notable for their novelty — unusual camera angles as well as content. A photo of a Greta Garbo billboard, with the star’s face peeling and fading, can be read as contemplative social commentary, as can an image of a group of men examining Yiddish theater posters.
“Ilse Bing was a fascinatingly restless intellect,” said Hall. “She starts out majoring in math, and then she moves to architecture and art history, and apparently picked up a camera to help shoot architectural images to illustrate her dissertation. She then mastered the camera and became such a unique visionary that became her main creative focus for a number of years, mostly the 1930s in Paris. Then she turns to poetry and collage work.”
The breadth of the creativity of Bing and other Jewish photographers may have been a product of the social unrest of that time in Europe — “this cultural time period, the eve of World War II, the pressures and stress of urban living and social issues creating a generation of people who are examining their world, and also in many incidences becoming activists, and trying to use their artwork to get people to see the world differently,” Hall said.
That Jews historically have played a key role in the evolution of photography has been noted by several experts on the subject. A 2002 exhibit at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan organized by art critic Max Kozloff highlighted the contributions of Jews to photography in New York. To accompany the exhibit, Kozloff wrote a series of essays speculating why Jews have made such an impact in the genre — including the controversial claim that photos of New York produced by Jews “show a sensibility distinct from those by non-Jews,” wrote Richard Woodward in a 2002 New York Times article.
The photos displayed in “Street Photography to Surrealism” are extraordinary, not only for their sheer beauty and evocative content, but for their historical significance in representing the vast creative output in France prior to the Nazi invasion, after which the world would be changed.
“One thing you get from the exhibition is a desire to wish you could time travel back to 1930 to 1935 in Paris when there is this amazing group of people in painting, in photography and in literature all working, maybe dancing too fast, knowing it is all going to be shut down,” Hall said. pjc