One day about a decade ago Michael Berkowitz, a professor of modern Jewish history at University College London, got a call from an elderly lady in Haifa, Israel. She introduced herself as Lily Titova, and said she was his cousin. This came as shock to the American-born Berkowitz, who had been under the impression that none of his Lithuanian family survived the Holocaust.
What also surprised the professor was that this long-lost cousin confirmed a bit of family history that he had always assumed was just a bubbe meise, an old wive’s tale. Titova told Berkowitz that a branch of the family in Lithuania and Russia were photographers. Moreover, Berkowitz ancestor had been a photographer to the Czar.
Berkowitz’s ears perked up, for coincidentally, both he and his father had worked in Rochester, New York, for the Eastman Kodak Company.
The elderly relative’s claim checked out: It turned out that what Berkowitz had thought was just his grandmother’s wishful thinking was actually fact. Some of his ancestor’s work is actually in the Royal Collection in the UK, through gifts to the British royal family by contemporary Russian oligarchs, or through earlier European royal family connections.
The revelation spurred Berkowitz, who had always been interested in the contribution of material culture and visual experience in understanding nationalism, to begin research for an international history of the Jewish engagement with photography.
Berkowitz assumed he would not uncover much about Jews and photography in Britain, his adopted country. However, what was expected to be a few sentences ended up becoming an entire book on how Jews have had a disproportionate influence on the development of all aspects of photography in the UK.
“Jews and Photography in Britain” (University of Texas Press, 2015) focuses on 1850-1950, when photography was one of the most viable avenues for Jews to make a living and contribute to mainstream culture in Britain. Most studio and street portrait photographers were Jews, and others in the community were the prime movers in developing the field of photojournalism. Jews also introduced the concept of photography as fine arts and were involved in the emergence of photography criticism and history as distinct fields.
“Originally I simply wished to fill gaps and detail the activities of persons and institutions that had escaped scholarly scrutiny. I soon surmised that most of them had not been examined for the perspective of how Jewishness and attitudes toward Jews had informed their perspectives and may have boosted or blocked their careers.
“Beyond this I came to see that our understanding of the history of photography in Britain might be substantially enhanced if greater sensitivity to social and cultural history, which would include consideration of not only class and gender but ethnic difference, were interwoven into the narrative,” Berkowitz wrote in the book’s introduction.
Jews, some having gained photography skills before immigrating from Central and Eastern Europe, were able to work as photographers simply because it wasn’t considered a respectable trade.
“Unlike the the United States, photography was considered weird and shady in Britain and Europe. It was something that involved touching people [to pose them for portraits] and working in the dark [for developing film]. It was frequently associated with pornography and forgery,” Berkowitz explained.
One of the difficulties Berkowitz, 56, faced in his research was that there was a greater degree of changed surnames by Jews in Britain than in the US. In addition, many of the Jewish photographers made up fanciful biographies for themselves that bore little connection to their real backgrounds.
“The trail simply went cold on a lot of these people,” Berkowitz said.
However, “Jews and Photography in Britain” is full of examples of how Jews made a huge impact, and also how negative attitudes toward Jews ended up diminishing what could have been an ultimately larger contribution.
Helmut Gernsheim and Stefan Lorant are cases in point. Gernsheim was a pioneer at collecting and publishing about photography as history and art. However, the British art establishment was not interested in accepting his vast and valuable collection, which ended up being split between institutions in the US and Germany. Lorant, who changed the face of magazine publishing with his spectacular photo editing, was denied British citizenship and moved on to the US.
“Key figures left the British scene. They relocated and did well, so they moved on and didn’t harp on it,” Berkowitz noted.
The scholarly yet readable “Jews and Photography in Britain” begins with what for the author was the highlight of his work on the book.
In the preface, Berkowitz recounts how at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, March 13, 2012, he found himself in the library of Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, at Buckingham Palace. He ended up staying for 45 minutes and having an excellent, wide ranging conversation with the duke.
“How and why would a historian who has not been accorded an official ‘honour’ be invited for an audience at Buckingham Palace? It was a result of chutzpah, on my part, combined with Prince Philip’s willingness to speak about someone he fondly remembered, the photographer known as Baron — Baron Sterling Henry Nahum — who had rarely been discussed since his death in 1956,” Berkowitz wrote.
The author knew that the royals had had good relationships with quite a few Jewish photographers over the decades, including the famous American photographer Annie Leibovitz, who did a photo shoot with Queen Elizabeth in 2007.
However, Berkowitz discovered that Baron’s relationship with the royals went beyond professional cordiality to real friendship. He also learned that the photographer Snowdon (Anthony Armstrong-Jones, first Earl of Snowdon, who was once married to the Queen’s sister Princess Margaret), had a partly Jewish background and apprenticed with Baron.
‘How and why would a historian who has not been accorded an official “honor” be invited for an audience at Buckingham Palace? It was a result of chutzpah’
Prince Philip confirmed for Berkowitz that he and Baron had been a good friends, and that they had both been members of a group of young men who met once a week above Wheeler’s Oyster Bar in Soho in the post-WWII years. They were “a little club to lighten the gloom that surrounded us all,” Baron wrote in his autobiography, in which he shared openly that he was Jewish, though not religious.
The two men remained close friends, and Baron regularly visited the palace to play squash with the prince. The relationship ended when Baron died suddenly of a heart attack immediately before he was to have accompanied Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth as official photographer on their worldwide tour after her accession to the throne.
The Duke told Berkowitz that as a general rule he doesn’t ask people about their religion or family origins, and that he never asked Baron about his.
“Prince Philip might have been aware that there was some ‘foreign’ element to Baron’s background but he thought nothing of it,” Berkowitz wrote.
As impressed as Berkowitz was by Baron’s relationship with the royals, he was even more impressed by the photographer’s work.
“The royal couple, photographed by Baron, appear relaxed, with cheesy grins, and truly cheerful,” he wrote. And that was truly a photographic accomplishment.