Photogram. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, 1922. George Eastman House. (George Eastman House 81:2163:0004. © 2006 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

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Invented in Western Europe in 1839, the new technology of photography soon migrated to Eastern Europe and Russia. Beginning in the 1840s, East European Jews were leading figures in developing photography as a new art form, a tool of documentation, and a medium of social criticism. Although initially an expensive and rarified technology, as photography became less costly, easier, and therefore more popular at the end of the nineteenth century, Jews rushed into this new burgeoning field.

Photogram. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, 1922. George Eastman House. (George Eastman House 81:2163:0004. © 2006 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

The most popular forms were landscape photography and portraiture, a new way of honoring and remembering family members. By 1862, there were 33 photography studios in Warsaw alone, most of them dedicated to private portraits. Maksymilian Fajans (1827–1890) became known worldwide as a master of both landscapes and portraits. After the late nineteenth-century mass emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe, postcards of family photographs, known as cartes de visite—taken by local, primarily Jewish, photographers in small towns throughout Eastern Europe—became a popular way for families to keep in touch. Archives are filled with such Jewish family photographs, making the local and traveling Jewish commercial photographers, who earned a decent living from their craft, the first popular Jewish photographers in Eastern Europe.

In addition to portraiture, Jewish photographers used the camera to document daily life. Michał Greim (1828–1911) opened a photography studio in 1860 in Kamenets Podolski, and quickly acquired a reputation as a first-rate photographer of anthropological and historical subjects. Samuel Weissenberg (1867–1928), who had trained to be a physician, took numerous photographs of Jewish folkways that were published in illustrated journals at the turn of the century. The ethnographic tradition in Jewish photography continued through the first half of the twentieth century as writer–ethnographers such as S. An-ski (S. Z. Rapoport) documented a Jewish life that seemed constantly to be dying away.

Wandering Violinist, Abony, Hungary, 19 July 1921. André Kertész. Gelatin silver print. (The Estate of André Kertész)

Just as photography was becoming a commercially successful mass phenomenon, it also developed as a new art form. Some of the most important and earliest artists working as photographers in the Russian Empire were Jewish. It is not surprising that Jews entered freely into this new field of art. There were no art schools, juries, state laws, or other forms of authority to admit or deny them entry. (This newness allowed other marginalized groups who had been denied access to more traditional forms of art, such as women, also to enter freely into photography.)

One of the founders of Russian art photography was Moisei Solomonovitch Nappelbaum (1869–1958). Born in Minsk, Nappelbaum had by the age of 15 already joined the important Minsk photography studio of Osip Boretti. Nappelbaum became one of the most important portrait photographers of both the prerevolutionary and the early Soviet period. Unlike the portrait photographers and photographic ethnographers, who used their cameras to take pictures of Jews, Jewish photographers like Nappelbaum considered themselves to be Russian photographers and rarely captured particularly Jewish scenes in their work. Aleksandr Grinberg (1887–1979) promoted photography’s role as an important new art form in Russia and as something more than simply a means to document the world. In the prerevolutionary period, he was one of the most important pictorial photographers, a man who saw the camera as a tool for aestheticizing life. Although Nappelbaum focused on the traditional form of portraiture, Grinberg took risks in his photography by using his camera to capture the human form, and in particular the female nude, in many of his works. This technique cost him his reputation in the Stalinist Soviet Union. In the mid-1930s, he was sentenced to five years in prison for producing pornography.

These two Jewish photographers are considered members of the first generation of Russian art photographers, who saw their work as of the same order as painting and other art forms, as opposed to the many commercial photographers who took private family photographs. The distinction between commercial and art photography became blurred after World War I and the Russian Revolution, especially in the Soviet Union, as the new field of photojournalism incorporated aspects of both.

Freda and Beba Buchhalter, Mariampol (now Marijampole, Lithuania), ca. 1908. Photo by M. Buchhalter. The family of these girls owned a photography studio, which, over the years, changed the language in which its card mounts were printed from Russian (when Mariampole was part of the Russian Empire) to German (when the region was occupied by Germany in World War I) to Lithuanian (after World War I, when the town became part of Lithuania). (YIVO)

As Grinberg’s erotic photos were being suppressed, many other Jews flocked into new fields of photography that the Bolsheviks had mobilized to support the building of the Soviet Union. Young people interested in the profession gathered around the Moscow photography studio of Mikhail Kol’tsov. Kol’tsov, born Mikhail Fridland (1898–1940), was 21 when he began working for a film studio during the Russian Civil War. In Moscow, he decided to reestablish the prerevolutionary photojournal Ogonek (Flame), and it quickly became a national success. Kol’tsov’s Ogonek served as the training ground for dozens of photographers, most of them Jews who were moving to Moscow from the former Pale of Settlement in search of work and a new life in the Communist capital.

Arkadii Shaykhet (1898–1959) started as a photo setter for Ogonek but quickly established himself as a photographer after having his work adorn the cover of the magazine in the mid-1920s. His photographs of a society in construction fused the aesthetic conventions of the avant-garde—with its cropped shots, raking angles, and views from above—with the imperative to document the building of socialism. He and his collaborator Maks Alpert (1899–1980) became two of the most influential Soviet photographers in the early 1930s. In 1928, Alpert was named photo editor of Pravda, putting him in charge of shaping the visual story of the Soviet Union for its largest and most politically connected newspaper.

Teacher and students in a heder, Lublin, Poland. Alter Kacyzne, 1920s. Gelatin silver print. YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York. (Forward Association/YIVO)

In the early decades of the twentieth century, urban acculturated Jews became important photographers throughout Eastern Europe. Soviet avant-gardists like the Jewish graphic artist El Lissitzky (1890–1941) picked up a camera to create a fresh vision of socialist society. André Kertész (1894–1985) and László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) built the field of photography in Hungary with their early street photography and in later avant-garde movements such as Bauhaus. Robert Capa (1913–1954), perhaps the most famous photojournalist of the twentieth century, was born André Friedmann in Budapest. In 1931, at age 18, he left for Berlin. With the rise of Hitler, Capa went to France in 1933, where he was acclaimed for his coverage of the Spanish Civil War.

The work of these acculturated East European photographers, who happened to be Jewish, differed substantially from that of the more well-known Jewish photographers of the first half of the twentieth century who placed Jews at the center of their photographs. Born in Vilna and a long-time resident of Warsaw, Alter-Sholem Kacyzne (1885–1941) became one of the leading photographers of East European Jewish life in the interwar period. Following the earlier ethnographic tradition, he worked for several different Yiddish publications as a photocorrespondent in Poland. Roman Vishniac (1897–1990), perhaps the most famous Jewish photographer of the interwar period, used the camera more explicitly to capture traditional Jewish life that was, in his view, passing away before the camera’s eye.

Soviet Troops Leap over Foxhole. Dmitrii Baltermants, November 1941. (© The Dmitri Baltermants Collection/Corbis)

The first generation of Soviet photographers like Shaykhet and Kol’tsov trained new Jewish photojournalists who came of age in the Stalinist 1930s. Although they worked at the same time as Alter Kacyzne and Vishniac, their work and their lives were firmly enmeshed in the politics and aesthetics of the Soviet Union. Dmitrii Baltermants (1912–1990), Evgenii Khaldei (1917–1997), and Georgii Zelma (1906–1989) all developed their careers as photojournalists during the 1930s and became nationally known as a result of their World War II photography. Born in Warsaw, Baltermants took some of the most powerful Soviet war photographs. His two most famous are “Na dorogakh voiny” (Attack), which shows Soviet soldiers charging the German army across an open trench, and his series “Gore” (Grief), which shows old women in Kerch, Crimea, combing through a field of corpses after the Nazis had executed the entire village. In the 1960s, Baltermants became the photography editor of Ogonek, a position he used to document the growth of the Soviet Union and communism during the cold war. His portraits of Communist and socialist leaders include Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev as well as Mao Tse-Tung, Ho Chi Minh, and Salvador Allende, all demonstrating the extraordinary access to power given to this Polish-born Jew.

Victory Flag over Reichstag, Berlin. Evgenii Anan’evich Khaldei, Berlin, 1945. Gelatin silver print. 17–1/4 x 23–5/8. (Gift of the Union of Journalists of the USSR, through the Embassy of the USSR, 1991.24.5, in the Collection of The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)

Evgenii Khaldei, whose mother was killed in a pogrom during the Russian Civil War, took the photograph that encapsulated the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany with “Znamia pobedy nad reikhstagom” (The Sign of Victory over the Reichstag). But he also photographed the Jewish tragedy of the war with his photographs of Budapest Jews after liberation. Unlike Baltermants, whose career continued to blossom after the war, Khaldei lost his job during the antisemitic anticosmopolitan campaign and never recaptured his reputation.

Jews in Eastern Europe built the profession of photography. In the nineteenth century, they pioneered portrait and ethnographic photography, and in the twentieth century, they served as avant-gardists, street photographers, and photojournalists. Some used their cameras as a tool of memory, documenting Jewish life that they thought was disappearing, others to document the building of new societies. But all of them used photography as a tool of power, a means of social commentary, and as an object of art.

Suggested Reading

Lucjan Dobroszycki and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Image Before My Eyes: A Photographic History of Jewish Life in Poland, 1864–1939 (New York, 1977); Evgenii Khaldei, Witness to History: The Photographs of Yevgeny Khaldei (New York, 1997); “Tsentral’nyi evreiskii resurs,” available at, a Russian Jewish Web site with biographies of more than 50 Eastern European Jewish photographers.