Photojournalist gets the picture and stories of iconic photographers

Penny Wolin has been around the block. And across the country. Up and down the coasts. Several times. And each time, she has captured the essence of American photographers of Jewish descent. Each time she has sought answers to why so many Jews or those with Jewish heritage have flocked to the arts, to photography in particular. And then excelled.

“Henry Hollander’s Grandparents,” inset circa 1925 photo/penny wolin

In Wolin’s new book, “Descendants of Light: American Photographers of Jewish Ancestry,” the Sebastopol portrait photographer and photojournalist probes the idea that Americans of Jewish lineage are drawn to photography because it is an art form that captures time and place rapidly. Each of her subjects, 70 prominent photographers who include Annie Leibovitz, Robert Frank and Arnold Newman, answer the question differently. But most acknowledge a pattern that supports Wolin’s theory.

“There are multiple themes that bubble up to the top of the project about having your bags packed, about it can happen again, about observance, curiosity, tikkun olam, healing the world,” said Wolin. “It’s a very strong motivator in photography. And these are commandments; Jews are commanded to do this.”

Wolin is sitting in her home office, which lies up a long dirt driveway canopied by old, gnarled oak trees. Photographs line the walls that aren’t filled with books. (Her previous works include “The Jews of Wyoming: Fringe of the Diaspora.”) She has a free and easy manner, eager to discuss her work and the motivations behind it. She said her curly gray hair turned from its original brown during this project, which started with an idea in 2002 and began to manifest in 2006, when she first took to the road to interview her subjects.

New York City photographer Elinor Carucci photo/penny wolin

The seed was planted when Wolin read an essay by the scholar Alan Trachtenberg called “The Claim of a Jewish Eye,” which looked at Jewish influence in photography (an excerpt is printed in the beginning of Wolin’s book). In it he poses the question, or perhaps it’s a dare, that to find the true influence of Jewish religion or culture on photographers, somebody needs to go out there and ask them: Make an oral history, a record about what they believed or disbelieved. Show how their identities as Jews mattered in their work.

“And it took me 30 seconds to say to myself, well, I’m the one to do that. Because the nature of photography [means that] any photographer is very skilled at participatory observation,” Wolin said. Plus, as a photojournalist, she had the knack “to go out and talk to people.”

Newman, who died in 2006, was her first subject. His double-page spread in the glossy 244-page book includes a reproduction of baby Newman’s brit milah on March 10, 1918 in New York and a snippet from their recorded interview, in which Newman tells a joke about Yiddish.

On the adjacent page, Wolin has arranged four portraits of the photographer into a single portrait she made in 2006.

All of her interviews had the same structure. She posed the same questions to each subject and made a portrait. Family heirlooms and photographs were unveiled. But even with the uniformity, the entries reveal the uniqueness of each photographer.

Venice photographer Lauren Greenfield’s grandparents in Los Angeles, circa 1965 (right)

“They allowed me to come into their lives and ask me about their Jewish selves,” said Wolin. “They brought out the pictures of their ancestors. And the process of doing that with me, I think it enriched their lives. It enriched mine.”

“Descendants of Light” is organized into three sections. After an introduction by the author and Trachtenberg’s essay, Wolin’s work unfolds as she presents each subject, alphabetized by last name. Pages for the photographers who have died are gray — the late Alfred Stieglitz is included — and Wolin includes illuminating interviews with their survivors, as well as excerpts from their writings.

A middle section features photographers who declined to be interviewed or photographed, or who couldn’t be included because of time and space. This section also presents quotes from the subjects about ideas of superstition, anti-Semitism, assimilation and religion.

The third section features the subjects’ iconic photographs, including Lois Greenfield’s portrait of David Parsons in midair, Philippe Halsman’s surreal “Dali Atomicus” and Annie Leibovitz’s Rolling Stone cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono shot hours before Lennon was murdered.

Wolin calls these photographers the great thinkers of their time. The camera and its art form ushered them into the modern world, where Jews were often not welcome.

“If I would have started the project when I first picked up a camera at age 10 and continued until my 120th birthday, I never could have contacted all of them,” said Wolin. “So it’s not final, it’s not complete. It’s 70 people I could get to,” either directly or through their survivors and their writings. “It’s a cross-section. So I think these people, though, are pleased to be there, and I hope that it does make us consider a re-evaluation or at least an evaluation of our Jewish identities, our lives as Jews.”

“Descendants of Light: American Photographers of Jewish Ancestry” by Penny Wolin (244 pages, Crazy Woman Creek Press)

Shoshana Hebshi
Shoshana Hebshi

Shoshana Hebshi is a freelance writer and former J. copy editor living in the North Bay.