E-Mail: ofer.ashkenazi [at] mail.huji.ac.il
Jewish Photography in Nazi Germany
This research is based on the idea that, generally speaking, the works of Jewish photographers in Nazi Germany manifest distinguished Jewish sensibilities. As visually encoded expressions of particular sensibilities, Jewish photography under Nazism exhibits a plethora of emotions, perceptions and dispositions vis-à-vis the experienced, photographed reality. “Jewish” in this framework does not refer to an a-temporal, inherent Jewish quality, but rather to the specific position of Jews in the distinct social, political and psychological circumstances in Nazi Germany. The project’s hypothesis is that a careful reading of Jewish photography will disclose hitherto hidden or marginalized aspects of Jewish experience in Nazi Germany, and the ways this experience was negotiated among German-Jews.
Photography is an effective means to discover unheeded views and perceptions. As several scholars noted, photography offers an intriguing combination. On the one hand, it inevitably refers to a state of things that existed in reality and, on the other hand, it is an artificial encoding of objects and the relations between them. In Nazi Germany, the arenas where Jews could manifest their perception of reality and the means for such manifestations were increasingly limited. Photography, because of its dual position in relation to reality, provided an avenue for intricate contemplations of Jewish experience of reality. Not all Jewish photographers, amateurs or professionals, consciously endeavored to negotiate their particularly Jewish sensibilities. I argue that the apparatus, the legal restrictions, and the shared knowledge of visual iconography often resulted in manifestations of such sensibilities, regardless of the photographer’s intention. It is crucial that these photographers took each picture as Jews, since the Nazi regime constructed a social world in which “Jewish” was the fundamental category. Taking a picture of Heimat iconography as Jews, for instance, has a specific meaning of seclusion and displacement; a portrait of an acculturated man by his desk—again, using the contemporary iconography of bourgeois portraits—renders irony or dissent, which is absent in a similar non-Jewish portrait of the same time.
There are two difficulties in analyzing Jewish photography within these parameters. First, due to lack of systematic research of Jewish photography under Nazism, little is known about its repeating conventions and influences. The first part of the research will therefore focus on examining the archival materials and mapping its characteristics. Second, since this research seeks to examine a wide variety of materials, both professional and amateur photography, of various styles and subject matters, it should apply a complexed analytical approach. My analysis will consequently have three layers, which will consider the discursive functions of the photograph, its role in the constitution of identities—photographers and their subjects—and the political functions of the photograph (or the “photographic event”). The first layer will analyze the use and misuse of visual iconography in Jewish photography; the second will focus mainly on analysis of camera’s point of view in relation to its subjects, and the framing of the gaze within the photograph; the third layer will analyze the work of the photograph in providing an intricate version of the state of affairs, a break of the dichotomy between us/them, good/evil, etc., which (according to Azoulay 2010) is a precondition for a photographic dissent. In developing this multilayered model of analysis, I expect to find photographs that open way for multiple readings. As such, these photographs simultaneously negotiate the expected, the conventional, and the otherwise unarticulated perceptions, narratives and emotions. My analysis will highlight the latter in order to reveal the views and emotions they reflect.