Monday, July 9, 2012

The Jewish Journey: Frédéric Brenner’s Photographic Odyssey

Contemporary French photographer Frédéric Brenner spent twenty-five years traveling the world documenting the lives of Jews in over forty countries on five continents. More than 140 of his most compelling photographs drawn from approximately 80,000 negatives was presented in The Jewish Journey: Frédéric Brenner’s Photographic Odyssey at the Brooklyn Museum of Art from October 3, 2003 through January 11, 2004.

Born in Paris in 1959 and trained in social anthropology, Brenner also draws upon history and philosophy for his project to capture images of the Jewish Diaspora in such places as India, Italy, China, Ethiopia, Yemen, Mexico, Russia, Canada, America, and Israel.

By establishing visual histories of Jewish communities in flux, Brenner records the evolution of Jewish civilization, debunking stereotypes and illuminating the concept of cultural diversity while exploring the myriad reinventions of the Jewish people.

Brenner made his first photograph—a child dressed as an angel running down a back alley in the Mea Shearim quarter of Jerusalem—when he was 18 years old. Since then, tens of thousands of Brenner’s contrasting and contradictory photographs have challenged society’s stereotypical images of what it means to be Jewish.


Marranos in Portugal

By photographing Jewish subjects such as a village woman in Ethiopia, a man of Iraqi origin in Calcutta,

leather-clad bikers in Florida ("Hogs")

and barbers with Muslim customers in Tajikistan, he has created a new vision of Jewish life in far-flung corners of the world.

Frédéric Brenner. Citizens Protesting Anti-Semitic Acts Billings, Montana, 1994. Panoramic photograph, gelatin silver print. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. © Frédéric Brenner, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York (141A)

On December 2, 1993, someone in Billings, Montana, tossed a brick through the window of a Jewish home. On December 11, the Billings Gazette wrote: "Today, members of religious faiths throughout Billings are joining together to ask residents to display the menorah as a symbol of something else: our determination to live together in harmony, and our dedication to the principle of religious liberty embodied in the First Amendment." A year later, photographer Frédéric Brenner staged this photograph of residents of Billings--from all walks of life, ethnicities, and religions--holding menorahs to mark the city's singular response to an act of religious intolerance

His visually stunning, exquisitely crafted black-and-white photographs—many of which were taken with wide-angle lenses—act as a metaphor for the scope and dynamism of one of the world’s oldest, most diverse cultures. Unlike more conventional photographic depictions of Jewish life, which tend to focus on specific moments or high points, Brenner’s portraits capture both ordinary and extraordinary individuals and groups set up for the camera.

Additional Resources

Lots of excellent commentary and images I

Lots of excellent commentary and images II

Lots of excellent commentary and images III

The Jewish Journey: Frédéric Brenner’s Photographic Odyssey at the Brooklyn Museum of Art was organized by guest curator Dara Meyers-Kingsley. It was made possible by the Righteous Persons Foundation and other generous friends of the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Coinciding with the exhibition’s opening was the two-volume book Diaspora: Homelands in Exile, published by Harper Collins.