Jews in Photography A Significant Contribution to Civilization

Fact Paper 7

© George Gilbert, all rights reserved

Jews were prominent in photography throughout its history from 14th century Levi ben Gershom's experiments with a pinholed box to the development of the electron microscope as photographers, photojournalists, and as photographic artists throughout the world.
photo of Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein ranks as one of the great conceptual revisors of man’s understanding of the universe. His theories of relativity overshadow his other works and activities, such as his treatise on the meanderings of rivers, a book about Zionism in support of the creation of the State of Israel, and his protests against the proceeding of the McCarthy House Un-American Activities Committee. Among his least-known accomplishments is the invention of the Light Intensity Self-Adjusting Camera in collaboration with Dr. Gustav Bucky.

The art and science of photography was anticipated by heliography ("sun-writing). Levi ben Gershom, a Jewish mathematician, astronomer and philosopher (1288-1344), used a camera-like box to measure the apparent size of celestial bodies, and to safely observe the phenomenon of the eclipse without looking directly at the sun Ben Gershom published an essay "Of Angles, Chords, And Arcs," in which the use of a camera obscura was described.

Gershom also invented the "Jacob’s Staff"; it enabled mariners to determine their position at sea, making ocean-spanning voyages possible.

The process of registering an image on a silver plate was discovered by (non-Jewish) Jacques Daguerre in 1839. The process took 10 minutes, and was restricted mainly to panoramic or architectural subjects.

Only two years later, in 1841, Hermann Biouw, a Jewish artist and the son of an artist, ran an ad which offered "silver plates... in a maximum of ½ minute to 2-minute settings." Biouw achieved fame as the photographer of the Great Fire of Hamburg, and so became one of the world’s first news photographers. His portrait of Franz Liszt made him the portraiter of choice for the bourgeoisie, and of royalty. He photographed Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia, Prussian ministers, and immortalized in images the King of Saxony and his court, Kaiser Wilhelm IV, and a host of other greats.

Among Biouw’s achievements were prints from copper plates, hand-coloring, and the gold-tone process. Perhaps not the least of Biouw’s claim to fame is that he was the first to photograph a Jewish family (the Hahns) and the first to photograph a rabbi, Rabbi Samuel Hirsh. Biouw’s album of 126 engravings was published posthumously. Biouw’s name is absent from the leading nineteenth century encyclopedias!

George Barron Goodman was a pioneer settler in Australia, In 1842, (note the early date!), Goodman opened the first portrait studio in Sydney. Among the family portraits taken at his marriage in the Sidney synagogue in 1843 must have been one of the officiating rabbi; if so, it would predate the Biouw portrait!

Australia’s photographic industry owes much to Jewish entrepreneurs and artists. Jabez Small’s gallery in Melbourne was the root of Australia’s earliest camera store chains. His son, Herbert, opened shops in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, and Adelaide; the firm also manufactured and even exported photographic products.

In America, David and his son, Solomon Nunes Carvalho (1815-1897), introduced photography into their studio in Charleston. Solomon, a scientist, inventor, and religious philosopher, joined Colonel John W. Fremont in 1853 as chronicler of the famous expedition to the Wild West to search for a route for the proposed trans-continental railroad.

In 1854 Carvalho founded a photographic shop and the first Hebrew School in Los Angeles. Returning to New York, his experiments with powering with super-heated steam led to patenting a method by which U.S. Navy steam vessels (and other steam vehicles) could save one-third of their fuel. He was a regular contributor to a Sephardic publication, The Israelites, on philosophic questions. He is buried in Brooklyn.

Photography was among the significant arts and industries jews introduced throughout the Diaspora. The list of photographic pioneers include Friedrich Lessman (Venezuala, 1844); Maximilian Fajans (Warsaw, early 1850's); Michael Greim (Ukraine, 1860); Mendel Diness (made Aliyah to Israel in 1846).

Jewish women were likewise among photographic pioneers as portraitists, artists, and photo-journalists. Frau Bertha Beckman, a mot remarkable woman, was the first Jewish, and perhaps the first European photography professional. As early as 1843, she traveled in southern Prussia. In 1848, on the death of her husband, she took over the operation of their Leipzig atelier. Thereafter she opened a chain of stores, including one in Vienna and another in New York!

In 1862, the Ateliere Adèle opened in Vienna, named after Adèle Perlmutter-Heilpern. In that city, the photographic salon Madam D’Ora (from her name, Dora Kalmus), earned a well-deserved international reputation. When the Nazi’s overwhelmed Austria, "Madame S-Ora" moved to Jerusalem to become the first woman-operated photographic establishment in Israel.

Sonja Narinsky and her husband Shlomo, Kibbutz Degania members holding Russian passports, were expelled in 1916 from Ottoman Palestine. Sonja supported her husband in Cairo with photography for four years. Sonja had access (as a woman) to the harems of the Egyptian elite, for veil-free likenesses. Hers were the first such portraits in the history of Egypt’s wives and families.

A dauntless reporter, Julia Paired, documented the French resistance movement of Marseille in WW II at great personal risk.

Who does not recognize the name of Margaret Bourke-Weiss? No, her name is not spelled wrong. Max Weiss, her grandfather, and her grandmother, were Orthodox Jews from Poland! Margaret Bourke-White’s work in LIFE became the standard of the trade.

LOOK owes its success to Arthur Rothstein, its Director of Photography, chosen because of his documentary work for the Farm Security Administration, and winner of 36 photographic awards, and to Ben Shahn, who later became even better known as a painter. They made the magazine a formidable rival to LIFE.

The Jewish photographer "Weegee" is no less famous as a photojournalist.

Alfred Stieglitz, among the most renowned of the nineteenth century photographers, left his family’s printing business to become one of the first to promote photography as a fine art. Stieglitz left an incomparable legacy of images of nature, portraits, and street scenes.

In wartime, Jewish army photographers Walter Rosenblum, Robert Capa, Martin Lederhandler, and Cpl. Louis Weintraub are the most recognized of the multitude of Jewish photographers who documented the events from D-Day to V-Day. The most famous WWII photograph was taken at Iwo Jima by Associate Press photographer Joseph Rosenthal.

At the beginning of the 18th century, the Jew, Hans Herschel of Moravia established a brewery in Dresden. In England, three of his descendants became noted astronomers. His great-grandchild, Sir John Frederick William Herschel, was the first to "fix the image" with hypo; to create an image on a glass plate; to make a positive print on paper; to speed exposure with sodium bromide; to make a color photograph of the spectrum, to demonstrate the appearance of a negative as a positive; forecasting the ambrotype method; the first to use a camera obscura in chemical and light research.

Leon Vidal perfected a system to derive 3-color plates to make photochromic printing possible. His history of color printing (1875) was a milestone of its day.

In 1882, Antoine Lumiere and his sons established a plant in Lyons which became a laboratory for startling chemical developments for both black-and-white and color photography. In 1895 they patented and offered for sale their cinematographe, a simple, efficient apparatus for showing moving pictures.

The Lumiere machine was the first true movie projector’ the images it cast onto a screen could be viewed by many persons at a time, unlike Edison’s "kinescope," which only a single person could view.

The Jewish scientist Gabriel Lippman won a Nobel prize in 1908 for the first practical system of color photography. The next Nobel photographic prize was granted in 1971, when the Jew, Dennis Gabor, won the coveted prize for his invention of holography.

Arthur Traube first sensitized dy plates with ethyl red in the factory of the Jewish manufacturer Otto Perutz. In 1892 Perutz began to manufacture sensitized material on a celluloid base.

Kodachrome film is based on the invention of two Jewish scientist-musicians, Leopold Mannes and Leopold Godowsky.

About 1882 at Ellis Island, Avram Solomonovich and family were instantly Americanized by the registrar as the "Land" family. The Land name has been made famous by his grandson, Edwin. One of the most revolutionary photographic developments of modern times, is undoubtedly the Land, or Polaroid camera.

A truly amazing story is that of Moscow-born Dr. Emanuel Goldberg. Frustrated in pursuing his passion for engineering by the Russian quota system, Emanuel went abroad, and ended up working for Zeiss. In 1912 Goldberg had made a major break-through in microminiaturization, even now vital in the computer industry. During World War I he served the Germans with early aerial photography projects. As senior scientist, he performed a series of brilliant chemical and mechanical innovations, and played a significant role in the development of the Contax camera, the Zeiss counter to the Leica.

Dr. Goldberg was a genius so valuable to the company that he was hidden away by the Zeiss company after the Nazis forced his removal from the company. Nazi thugs kidnaped Dr. Goldberg, and bound him to a tree, where he remained for three days and three nights until the Zeiss company succeeded in getting him released. In 1933 Zeiss sequestered Dr. Goldberg and his family in Paris as a secret head of a subsidiary under conditions he compared to a "golden cage."

In 1937 Dr. Goldberg made Aliyah to Tel Aviv He founded a laboratory in which he developed fire control and optical instruments for the Allies.

The brothers Louis and Mandel Mandel opened a new industry in photography by the invention of sensitized postcards, permitting photographs to be made in the streets. It brought near-instant photographs to country fairs and amusement parks on tintypes, button tintypes, paper prints and miniature postcards.

The high precision, subminiature "spy" camera, the Minox, was the invention of a Latvian Jew, Walter Zapp; flash photography was made universally workable by the synchronization of shutter to flashlamp. A Jewish Daily Forward freelance photographer, Morris Schwartz, devised a mechanical, instant synchronizer; the all-electric synchronizer was invented by Sam Mendlesohn, a New York camera repairman.

Among the noteworthy photographic inventions is that of Albert Einstein, an erstwhile mathematician, and Dr. Gustav Bucky. In 1934 the Einsteins were given refuge at the Rhode Island home of Dr. Bucky, whose research involved photographic sections of the body. Hampered by the need for changing F-stops at each lamp-to-subject distance, the coinvented and patented the first automatic Light adjustment camera!


This Fact Paper contains digested selections from George Gilbert, The Illustrated Worldwide Who’s Who of Jews in Photography, New York, 1966. It lists but some of the scores of Jewish innovators and inventors in photography and a mere glimpse into their background. References for such a cursory review cannot be adequately given. Those who would like a fuller exposition and bibliography should obtain Gilbert’s book.