Is there such a thing as Jewish photography? Is there such a thing as black or African-American photography?
In the normal course of things, such questions might seem presumptuous or even offensive, smacking as they do of some inherent, clearly identifiable genetic or racial marker. Isn't photography, after all, the most "objective" of the visual arts, the least susceptible to intentional - or unintentional - bias?
Not quite, as it turns out. But two current shows offer an opportunity to test the hypothesis: Ken Royster's beautiful exhibition of black worshipers at Goucher College's Rosenberg Gallery, and Jack Eisenberg's edgy photographs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.
Both Royster and Eisenberg's pictures are black-and-white images in the documentary-photojournalistic tradition, and both might be said to fall loosely into the broad category of "street" photography - slice-of-life shots of people in public places going about their business with a minimum of intervention or direction from the photographer.
A list of the great masters of street photography reads like a Who's Who of the history of the medium during the 20th century: Alfred Stieglitz, Andre Kertesz, Brassai, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Eisenstaedt, David Seymour, Robert Capa, Lisette Model, Helen Levitt, Weegee, Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson, Gary Winogrand, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander.
The curious thing about this list is that all of them - with the exception of Cartier-Bresson - were also Jewish. Which raises the question: Why have Jews played such an important role in shaping the evolution of photography over the last 100 years, a role they have not played in painting or sculpture?
The issue was raised publicly earlier this year when the Jewish Museum in Manhattan mounted a show called New York: Capital of Photography. In the catalog accompanying the exhibition, curator Max Kozloff speculated that Jewish photographers in New York developed a unique sensibility - nervy, ironic, disruptive and soulful - that distinguished them from their non-Jewish counterparts.
Similarly, as early as the 1970s, the critic A.D. Coleman speculated that black photographers had evolved a visually distinctive aesthetic signature, which he identified as "large areas of undifferentiated black" in their prints, regardless of subject matter, and a preoccupation with intimate scenes of communal life.
Naturally, such broad generalizations provoked outraged protest both from artists who resented having their vision reduced to a function of their ethnicity and from critics who rightly pointed out that for every case that seemed to support such theories, one could find a counterexample that disproved it. The fact is, no photographer was nervier or more soulful than non-Jewish Cartier-Bresson, and no photographer used large areas of undifferentiated black in the print to greater effect than the non-black W. Eugene Smith.
Royster, an African-American photographer who teaches at Morgan State University, certainly has developed a distinctive aesthetic signature for his long-running exploration of black churchgoers - but it turns out to be large areas of undifferentiated, or barely differentiated, white.
White is the color of the robes worn by Royster's African-American church congregants as they perform the full-immersion baptismal ceremony that is a central tenet of their faith. In a Royster photograph, everything in the picture culminates toward the lightest tones, which aspire to a supernatural purity of expression that is a metaphor for the ritual cleansing of the soul. Royster is a master of chiaroscuro, but for him the play of light and dark isn't so much between white and black as between white and gray; the brilliant light of divinity as opposed to the dull world of matter.
Eisenberg's pictures are ironic, witty and soulful, but they are also deeply proprietary toward their subjects, a stance unaccounted for by Kozloff's idea that Jewish photographers are perpetually on the outside looking in. Eisenberg, a Baltimore native, seems as much "at home" in his pictures of conflict and strife in historic Jerusalem as were Edward Weston at Point Lobos or Ansel Adams at Yosemite. His pictures convey a deep certainty, not always shared by the people he photographs, that sooner or later Arabs and Jews are going to have to learn to live with each other, and that fundamentally both share the same hopes and dreams for their children.
The exhibition, planned as a traveling show and designed to be easily transportable on three free-standing panels, seems smaller than Royster's expansive installation at Goucher but actually contains nearly as many pictures. Curator Barry Kessler has done a superb job of organizing the images thematically, and his brief explanatory text is a model of clarity.
Taken together, these two shows present an equivocal answer to the question of whether photography lends itself to an identifiable ethnic style.
On the one hand, all artists are shaped by their culture, and in a multicultural society like the United States, one might expect to find certain artists gravitating toward particular aesthetic choices. No one, after all, objects to the idea that African-American music, for example, has readily identifiable characteristics that distinguish it from, say, bluegrass or klezmer music.
On the other hand, that same multicultural mix can make it impossible to pin down precise ethnic markers. Is Gershwin's Porgy and Bess black music or Jewish music? In photography, the problem is compounded because the camera records its images regardless of who is pressing the shutter; most of the choices open to photographers have more to do with where to point the lens and when to push the button than with the fundamental nature of the image produced, which already has been programmed to look a certain way by the manufacturers of photographic equipment.
Perhaps the most that can be said is that both blacks and Jews, as outsiders for much of their history in this country, found in photography - for most of its history an outsider to the art world - a ready-made tradition of picture-making and means of self-expression that was particularly adaptable to their own experience of modernity. Beyond that, the issue of identifiable ethnic "styles" may well be irrelevant.
Praise by Ken Royster continues at Goucher's Rosenberg Gallery until Oct. 18. The college is at 1021 Dulaney Valley Road. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. Call 410-337-6333 for evening and weekend hours. Shadows and Glances: Images of Israel by Jack Eisenberg is at the Jewish Museum through Oct. 7. The museum is at 15 Lloyd St. Hours are noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday. Call 410-732-6400.