For an hour on Wednesday night, the Visual Art Center’s Beam Classroom became home to the spirit of Helmut Gernsheim and his revolutionary approach to photography as an art. 

Over 20 students, faculty and Brunswick residents attended “The Warburg Institute Presents ‘British Art in the Mediterranean’,” a talk given by Michael Berkowitz, professor of modern Jewish history at University College London. Berkowitz is an expert on Jewish photographers from the 1860s to the present.

Although Berkowitz has lived in London for the past 18 years, he hails from Rochester, New York. He is in the U.S. to attend a conference on Holocaust restitution at Boston University on Sunday. He also did research at Harvard University last weekend and will be speaking at Brown University next week.

Because of his proximity, “it was a golden opportunity to have him visit Bowdoin,” said Associate Professor of History Susan Tananbaum in an email to the Orient.

Berkowitz has an impressive resumé, including many grants from institutions around the world, four (soon to be five) books, five edited or co-edited books, and over 40 articles. He is one of the only scholars in the world who has committed his academic scholarship to documenting Jewish photography and investigating Gernsheim as a photographer.

“There is almost no memory of the fact that Jews were the photographers of Europe before the Holocaust,” said Berkowitz.

According to Berkowitz, the majority of photographers in Europe before World War II were Jewish.

“Photography wasn’t a very respectable trade in the beginning, and generally speaking, people wanted somebody else to do it for them,” said Berkowitz. “I think this is really the reason Jews started as photographers.”

While much of his talk focused on Gernsheim, who eventually settled in London after his escape from Germany, Berkowitz also engaged the audience on the subject of a photography exhibition that was staged during Gernsheim’s early years in London. That show, “British Art and the Mediterranean” (eventually a book), was organized to create a positive relationship with Italy in the early 1940s.

“What people considered British culture and the seeds of Englishness in large part developed from Mediterranean civilizations,” said Berkowitz.
Some of the photographs in this collection came from Gernsheim.

Gernsheim, along with his older brother Walter, is most famous for his work as an art historian and art collector. The brothers became wealthy photographing Old Master drawings and selling them on a subscription basis in London.

Berkowitz, however, stressed that Gernsheim was also an amazing photographer, something for which he is not usually recognized.

“What he was doing was creating a new kind of art that the photograph of the architecture or of the work of art was a work of art itself,” said Berkowitz.

Gernsheim, when commissioned to take photos of St. Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey, would instead photograph specific architectural details of the buildings. When photographing sculptures, he made it quite the operation, bringing in lighting crews and cleaning statues with water and a pail.

“Nobody had ever taken pictures of sculpture like this,” said Berkowitz.

Despite his interest in photography, Berkowitz has never considered himself a photographer. However, he does have it in his blood. In the late 1970s, he worked in the Eastman Kodak Factory in his hometown of Rochester, where he learned about film and cameras. Though Berkowitz had been using photographs as research material for years, a call in 2006 from a long-lost cousin led him to his more recent research.

“[I found out] my father’s grandfather was one of about 20 photographers to the [Russian] czar,” said Berkowitz.

Although Berkowitz is no longer on campus, his work is widely available, and his new book will be published at the end of the fall.