October 17, 2003

PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW; Seeking Out Jewish Faces Wherever They Might Be

By GRACE GLUECK

''Jews are like everyone else, only more so,'' Mark Twain or somebody supposedly said. Whoever did, the remark is confirmed by the thousands of photographs of Jews all over the world taken by the French photographer Frédéric Brenner.

Ethiopian Jews, Indian Jews, French Jews, Israeli Jews, Yemenite Jews, English Jews, American Jews, Brazilian Jews, Italian Jews, Greek Jews, Jews from Morocco, Gibraltar and the Netherlands Antilles have passed and posed before his camera, dispelling Jewish stereotypes and serving as multicultural models.

Following the tangled trails of the Jewish diaspora over 25 years in more than 40 countries on 5 continents, Mr. Brenner has photographed leather-clad Jewish bikers in Miami Beach (the title of his tableau is ''Jews With Hogs''); Jewish sellers of Christian souvenirs in St. Peter's Square in Rome; gay families at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden; cancer survivors baring their single breasts in Los Angeles; inmates attending a Seder at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for women in New York.

The list goes on: Perry Green, a fur trader and poker champion in Alaska; Moses Elias, a wealthy merchant in Calcutta; factory workers in Birobidzhan, Russia; an upper-crust Jewish family of Portuguese descent whose ancestors escaped to Bordeaux, France, during the Inquisition; a kosher butcher and his son in Rome; a policeman in Gibraltar; Jewish barbers with Muslim clients in Tajikistan; and village women fetching river water in the mountains of Ethiopia.

Mr. Brenner's peregrinations bring to mind an old joke: In China an American Jew visits a colony of Chinese Jews. When he informs them that he and they share a religion, one of his Chinese hosts tells him, ''Funny, you don't look Jewish.''

More than 140 choice examples of the 80,000 images Mr. Brenner recorded over a 25-year stretch -- ending in 2002 -- are on view in ''The Jewish Journey: Frédéric Brenner's Photographic Odyssey'' at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. They also appear in ''Diaspora: homelands in exile,'' a book just published by HarperCollins. The show's guest curator is Dara Meyers-Kingsley.

''My work was driven by a sense of imminent loss,'' Mr. Brenner writes in the book. ''Two thousand years of history were about to vanish, were vanishing. I felt a desire and a responsibility to document these permutations of survival in exile before they disappeared; photography was simply a means to that end. As I began my journey, I realized how much loss had already taken place.''

What he found inevitably poses the questions, what is a Jew and who, really, are ''the Jews''? Assimilated, wrapped in layers of crosscultural identity, often secular in their outlook, many Jews cannot really be pegged as such but for their own acknowledgment of ancestral history.

Such are the members of the upper-crust Benchimol family photographed by Mr. Brenner at an opera house in Manaus, Brazil. Their Sephardic forebears settled a small part of the Brazilian jungle in the late 19th century, bringing to it the trappings of European culture by importing Italian opera, Champagne and caviar, fine linens and silk.

On the other hand, there are those Jews of deep religious commitment who have elected to preserve their rituals despite centuries of enforced denial. A moving group of photographs and a short film of Marranos, or Sephardic Jews who converted to Christianity during the Inquisition to escape persecution, shows them still celebrating Jewish rites in secret as late as the 1980's in the Portuguese town of Belmonte.

Mr. Brenner doesn't hesitate to reveal Jewish embarrassments, either, like the bemedaled Col. Gen. David Abramovich Dragunsky, photographed in his luxurious home in Moscow. One of the pillars of the Brezhnev era and a former leader of the Anti-Zionist Committee, he was sent on propaganda tours to give an idealized version of Soviet Jewish life, equating Zionism with Nazism. His work helped the Soviet leadership justify its hostility toward a Jewish exodus and its crackdown on every kind of Jewish activity unsanctioned by the government.

A perhaps more subtle criticism is implicit in ''Brenda's Jewish Cooking Class'' in Johannesburg, showing a white woman patronizingly teaching a group of black maids and housekeepers how to ''cook Jewish'' for their employers.

Of this photograph, with its subtle hints of a passive Jewish complicity in apartheid, the black Jewish historian Julius Lester, professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst (one of many commentators whose notes are displayed with the photographs) writes restrainedly, ''Neither the Blacks nor the Jews of this image come close to exemplifying my ideal image of Blacks and Jews.''

In a recent project, Mr. Brenner traveled to Argentina to photograph grieving Jewish mothers whose sons and daughters were among the 30,000 ''disappeared'' by the military dictatorship in the 1970's because of their supposed leftist sympathies.

And he also traveled recently to Poland to photograph the commemoration of another disappearance, this one by Nazi massacre, of the Jewish residents of the town of Tykocin during World War II. Their disappearance is remembered by the town's now all-Christian inhabitants, who dress up each year to stage a Purim re-enactment honoring a Jewish community whose members they are too young to have known.

Mr. Brenner's photographs can be playful, too. The one of Jewish barbers with their Tajik clients is supplemented by another of some of the barbers, now in Israel with Israeli clients, taken as the participants pose in the Dead Sea. And just for lagniappe, I suppose, is ''Marxists,'' a group photograph of unidentified men in New York City, each of whom is mustached, tonsured and wielding a cigar à la Groucho Marx.

What makes this show an aesthetic event, of course, is the superb quality of Mr. Brenner's photographs, not only in their conception and composition but in their technical finish. Generally, the best of them are the early ones, in which participants are more candidly caught. But as time goes on, his photographs turn into set-up shots, elaborately posed and staged.

The shot of Brenda's cooking school, for instance, was posed in a taxidermist's studio rife with deer heads on the wall. For the photographs of the souvenir sellers in St. Peter's Square, Mr. Brenner engineered the removal of thousands of tourists so that the peddlers could be lined up in ranks before the basilica.

One of his most elaborate stunts is a ''group'' portrait on Ellis Island of celebrities like Ed Koch, Milton Berle, Norman Mailer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Itzhak Perlman, Lauren Bacall and so on. At first look, the participants appear to have posed behind frames held up by assistants. But as it turns out, it is only their already framed portraits (taken for another project) that appear, fitted together in an elaborate construct that presents them as ''live'' subjects.

These diversions should not be held against Mr. Brenner. They are supportable in the context of a spectacular show, one that calls for -- no, demands -- a visit. A small sampling of photographs from the Brooklyn show, incidentally, is on view at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan (334 Amsterdam Avenue, at 76th Street).

''The Jewish Journey: Frédéric Brenner's Photographic Odyssey'' remains at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, (718) 638-5000, through Jan. 11.