Descendants of Light: American Photographers of Jewish Ancestry

Penny Wolin, is a compelling American Photographer who has been documenting Jewish civilization in America for many years. Now, she  is preparing her latest project entitled  ‘Descendants of Light: American Photographers of Jewish Ancestry.’ She has traveled back and forth across America photographing influential Jewish American photographers. Her Kickstarter funding campaign, started 24 days ago has only 3 days remaining to help her carry forward this body of work to publication and exhibition. She has photographed and interviewed over 70 photographers over a 6-year period, making for a fascinating body of work. Photographers included are, Lauren Greenfield, Joel Meyerowitz, Lillian Bassman, Arthur Tress, Annie Leibovitz, Robert Frank and many more.

Penny Diane Wolin’s first professional photography assignment was in her viewfinder at age 16, covering the world’s largest rodeo, Cheyenne Frontier Days. When the dust settled and the man-against-beast contest of the West was properly portrayed, a visual arts career was born. Wolin then moved to Los Angeles to create wry and insightful portraiture in the fields of entertainment, editorial, advertising and documentary photography. As the recipient of multiple grants for documentary photography from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, Wolin has used a camera and tape recorder to document varying cultures in the American West.’

We were able to interview Wolin, where she kindly shared her thoughts on the meaning behind the project, as well as sharing the opinions of the photographers reactions to it:

Film’s not Dead: You started photography at the very young age of 10, can you tell us how you discovered this medium at such a young age?

Penny Wolin: My oldest brother had a Bar Mitzvah, in the early 60’s and was given many cameras. At age 13, the boys made out like bandits as they got lots of watches and cameras as presents. I thought one of these cameras, a Brownie Hawkeye, was very neat. You looked down into it and the image was reversed and it could do double exposures.  I wanted it, and as my brother was a capitalist, I traded him the Brooklyn Bridge. This is an American joke. I started to take pictures, not having any sense of what I was doing. One of the images in the beginning of the video is of me in the mirror taking my own picture. That was the beginning, I did it off and on and I then started with a vengeance when I was fifteen. I was in high school and my mother had died so I needed something and the camera gave me that something. 

Film’s not Dead: What made you want to do this project and why now?

Penny Wolin: I started the project a very long time ago. I have been fascinated with Jewish culture since childhood.  My father survived the pogroms in Russia and came to Wyoming when he was a little boy. He gave us a deep appreciation for what we have here. As Jews, we are free to do what we want to do. America has presented us with another golden age of Jewish history. One of my earlier projects was a book and exhibition entitled ‘ The Jews of Wyoming: Fringe of the Diaspora’.  Some people would laugh at this because Wyoming is a cowboy state and is the least populated state in America, yet that is where my father came after he moved from Russia. That project started out as something to do for a few months. When you have a good project, you find out that the more you ask questions, the more and more you learn and it just keeps coming. You can’t stop, because you haven’t gotten to the bottom of it. So, that one took several years to do. After that I continued to document Jewish culture in America.

When I went to photography school at Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, my colleagues–other 20 something year old kids– were studying the works of Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Philippe Halsman and Arnold Newman. I was aware that they were all Jewish. It was an idea that ruminated for a long time. In 2002, there was an important exhibition at the New York Jewish Museum of the best photographs made of New York. It was obvious that most of these images were made by Jews. This engendered quite a bit of interest in the topic.

Alan Trachtenberg, a brilliant scholar who uses photography in his telling of American History, wrote a wonderful essay about Jewish involvement in photography. He suggested, ‘someone should get out there and ask these people if their identity as Jews mattered to their photographic work.’ In an instant, as if I had raised my hand, I thought, ‘I am the one; I can do this.’ I am both the window and the mirror into the questions and answers. I am a photographer, I am of Jewish ancestry and I understand the territory. So, I began. I had to learn how to do it. It is not easy to photograph photographers. We’re a maverick bunch, we’re artists and we rather like our anonymity!

During a six-year period, I photographed and interviewed 70 of the leading practitioners in the field. I interview, make a portrait of each photographer and gather historic photographs of their ancestors. If we look like our ancestors might we not act like them, too? The resulting work casts a very interesting light on how Jews maintain their identity in a non-religious way. For instance, I have a photograph of my great-great grandfather sitting next to my great grandfather, made in the mid 1800’s in Russia. Using this as a starting point and going forward to the photograph of me, as well as my originally made photographs, nearly covers the entire timeline of photography, and that of the major migration of Jews to America.

What makes a good photograph? How can a photographer keep making good photographs time and time again working with un-staged reality? Film is alchemy or the closest to alchemy that we’ve gotten. It’s just a layer of horse hoofs and a little sprinkling of silver particles, yet a photograph on a piece of film can change the view of an entire nation. Roman Vishniac showed this by photographing the shtetls of Eastern Europe. He did it with a hidden camera, processing the film and hiding the pieces of film in the linings of jackets, then getting them out with friends and relatives who got out of Europe. Once printed and distributed, people could see what was going on over there.  That’s alchemy in my mind. 

Film’s not Dead: When you have questioned the photographers about if their Jewish ancestry matters to them as photographers, what have the answers been back to you?

Penny Wolin:There is a subtext. Often times the answer has been ‘being Jewish doesn’t have anything to do with anything, and I am not religious.’ Then something would shift, they would start to talk about their ancestors, or maybe they were going to observe the anniversary of that death, called a yahrtzeit. It went from ‘it doesn’t mean anything’ to ‘I have to observe a ritual for my grandmother.’  I started to realise that there were very light, thin but strong threads that connect us to our roots. Then I started to wonder about survival. In America we are a highly selected group of survivors. We all have ancestors that were murdered, if not in the Holocaust, it was in the pogroms of the late 1800’s or it was in the pogroms of the early 1800’s. These things create ancestral memory. 

Film’s not Dead: Photographing those many people must of difficult but photographing people who are normally behind the camera, well that must of been 10 times more difficult, What has that experience been like? 

Penny Wolin: It was a wonderful odyssey. Yes, it had its trials and tribulations and sometimes photographers would say ‘I am going to give you two frames and that’s it.’ I have worked a lot in Hollywood and with celebrities or others that figured they would give two frames and they would be done.  You just have to be on, you have to know what you want, get in and get out. It was a blessing, a gift to witness so many of these bright and talented artists and to listen and to try to understand them.  I just want to do justice to them, to their work and to what they are trying to say. There were periods when I would photograph every day for a couple months at a time. Every morning when I would awake, I would think ‘Okay, what sort of incredible person am I going to encounter today?’

Film’s not Dead: For this project have you kept with the same camera and film, if so what camera and film and why this choice?

Penny Wolin: I used the Hasselblad 500cm with film but I have added to it. I started re-photographing historic ancestral images when I did the Jews of Wyoming on 4×5 film. You can do a beautiful job with 4×5 film re-photographing black & white photographs because you can manipulate the process. 120 film is not geared to do that as well. However, I did this project on 120 roll film, as I knew I would be chasing photographers all over the place and I just couldn’t be working with the 4×5. I knew I had to be on it, no fumbling. So, to re-photograph the historic photographs with medium format, I added a digital back to the Hasselblad. I continued to make the portraits on film, as I am very good with film. I feel like I have film and chemicals in my veins and wanted to have this project be my contribution to that medium. I’ve processed and printed my own photographs since I had a darkroom in high school. That is kind of crazy and now rare for most artists to do, but I think it is an important part of the process.

Film’s not Dead: What do you hope to achieve from this project?

Penny Wolin: I hope to cast light on the question of, ‘why have Jews excelled at the visual medium of photography?’ I hope to cast light on this period of Jewish history.  I feel a great responsibility as a witness and a storyteller. Also, because the photographer is always behind the camera and often gets a tiny photo credit in six point type, people don’t realise that these iconic photographs of Pablo Picasso by Arnold Newman, Einstein by Philippe Halsman, Elvis Presley by Alfred Wertheimer and on and on these are all made by photographers of Jewish ancestry. I’m hopeful to cast light on the creators of such great work.

Film’s not Dead:  What has been the most memorable experience from this project?

Penny Wolin: The most recent one, of course! Doing this Kickstarter campaign has been a total odyssey into human nature, the nature of contributions and the nature of the use of the internet. The response from people has really touched a cord.  I am getting the most beautiful comments from people that want this project to succeed. Sometimes it makes me cry. Yesterday, women gave a donation and then called me. She said, ‘If you get stuck at the end I’ve got an inheritance. It is supposed to last until the end of my life but this is an important project to keep alive. I will die but this project will be here long after I am gone. I don’t want to let this die –call me if you need more.’  

Film’s not Dead: What do you want your viewers to feel or understand about these photographs?

Penny Wolin: I hope that when this is exhibited and published that one understands a sense of creativity, humour and joy.  I hope that it conveys all of the emotional, visual and observational aspects of Jewish life in America. As photographers, as front-line witnesses to the events that surround us, what can we do? We can create greater understanding that we all are human, and just like one another. 

Film’s not Dead: Is there anything else you would like to share with the Film’s not Dead readers? 

Penny Wolin: I was looking at the name of your website and I was thinking well film is not dead. It’s only dead when we stop using it. It is a miracle, think what it is, like I said it is from horse hoofs and silver, look what it has done, the movies, x-ray. I now have a Hasselblad 50 megapixel back, I have no money but I have this back, it is pretty good but still for black & white, film. Theres nothing like it and I think the reason why there has been a decline is it’s hard to keep managing it. I run a three 1/2 gallon line, it is really hard to keep that constant. To keep your exposure constant, your processing constant and the replenishment constant. But there is a wonderful pay off. There is nothing more satisfying than a beautiful negative where you go into the darkroom and it just prints itself. Then there is nothing more humbling than when you have a great shoot and you find out you don’t have a good negative, but you darn well better get a good print. It always keeps you on your toes. I love it and I am delighted to see your website and to be part of what your doing, thank you.

To support Penny please click HERE to make a pledge to her fantastic project or to see more of her work please click

Updated:July 29, 2019