“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose -- by any other name would smell as sweet.” Shakespeare wrote these lines for Juliet to speak in the play “Romeo and Juliet” and the question they pose is sometimes relevant to the cataloguing of a photograph.
Images such as “Migrant Mother,” “Powerhouse Mechanic,” and “Afghan Refugee Girl” are familiar to us by these acquired names, sometimes merely descriptive, sometimes alliterative and even poetic ones.
But it is also human nature to want to look behind the curtain, to know the narrative behind the iconic image, “just the facts, Ma’am” (as Sgt. Friday on the TV show Dragnet would say), the who, what, when and where of that image.
In the past year or so, new information about the identity of a solemn, bearded man in a brimmed hat in a Lewis Hine photograph has brought both clarity and resolution as well as prompting some consideration about the significance of a title and of inscriptions and the overall meaning and impact of certain historical photographs.
The portrait, now titled by Eastman House “A Yemenite Jew from Palestine” and dated 1926 in the exhibition Lewis Hine-from the Collections of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film was the springboard of these discussions. The image is a powerful one and like the familiar saying it “speaks a thousand words.”
In the case of this man’s portrait however, this road led to conflicting pieces of information for the cataloguer, creating, for a time, more confusion than clarity.
In 1901, Hine was one of several mid-westerners that progressive educator Frank Manny brought with him when he took over the position as supervisor of the Ethical Culture School in New York City. Hine began to photograph at Ellis Island in 1905 and wanted his pupils “[to] have the same regard for contemporary immigrants as they have for the Pilgrim who landed at Plymouth.”
As former Eastman House curator Alison Nordstrom tells us, “he was not on assignment in those years and he did not expect to make a living at it. His photographs were not “mug shots,” he strove to enoble-and not to accuse. He established a connection with his subjects and wanted the resulting images to tell their stories.”
We also know that in response to the new US government imposition of immigrant quotas, he returned to Ellis Island to make the same kind of portraits of new-arrivals in 1926.
The Eastman House’s Lewis Hine archive contains over 7000 photographs and 4000 negatives, along with manuscript and other materials and is generally acknowledged to be the most comprehensive collection of his work in the world. However, one should not be surprised that his work is widely represented in other museum collections and at historical sites, including the New York Public Library, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the University of Maryland and other places. Photography is, after all, a reproductive and a disseminating medium, and one negative can yield up many prints. What gives significance and value to most photographs is not that it is the only one, but that it is a vintage one, made by the photographer himself or under his close supervision, around the time the negative was exposed. And, not incidentally, a good print in fine condition will be valued over a poor one.
There are 2 small negatives of the bearded man at Ellis Island in the Eastman House Collection, each taken from a slightly different angle, probably moments apart. There are also 2 vintage photographs that correspond to each of these negatives.
This particular image is generally known through past exhibitions and their catalogues by the title “Armenian Jew, Ellis Island” and is sometimes dated 1905 and sometimes as 1926. An enlarged image in the second floor Great Hall at the Ellis Island National Monument bears the evocative caption, “Armenian Jew, Ellis Island” 1926, followed by: “This Armenian Jew probably left his native land to escape the Turkish persecution of the post-war period.”
Eastman House cataloguers were contacted in April 2010 by a visitor to Ellis Island, a man with an interest in Turkish history, who questioned this caption information on multiple fronts and argued dispassionately and persuasively that all of these facts could not be right at the same instance: nationality, religious affiliation, date, and historical events in the sequence and timing of last years of the Ottoman Empire.
The information written on the 4 portraits of this man by Hine in the Eastman House did little to resolve the issue and his concerns, since the information Hine had written on the prints was indeed “Armenian Jew Emigrant at Ellis Island 1926” but in contrast, he had written on the envelopes containing the negatives “Syrian Jewish Immigrant, Photograph by Lewis W. Hine, Ellis Island, 1905” With 2 nationalities and 2 dates, one is left with 4 distinct possibilities for the title. We knew from experience with Hine’s conflicting notations on the material at Eastman House that this was not unusual: The same portrait of an elderly woman could be identified as “Slovakian Grandmother”, “Jewish Grandmother” or “Polish Grandmother for instance and all could be variously dated from his two forays into Ellis Island. Hine did not recorded the identity of the subjects he photographed, although in some cases (as with children working in factories), he noted their height or other physical attributes.
The question of the identity of the portrait of the bearded man was raised again from a different source in late 2013. A family from New York City who had long believed that the Ellis Island enlargement was a relative (and even posed under it for snapshots), decided to come forward after seeing the image used in a review of the Eastman House exhibit on Lewis Hine at the International Center of Photography, published in the Wall Street Journal. The Goldzweig family contacted the newspaper and one of the staff writers, Angela Chen recognized a good story and took on the project.
Cataloguing staff were naturally cautious. An identification made on a resemblance alone is often a subjective judgment and people often disagree, perhaps especially when the stakes are high (think... a portrait that “looks like” Abraham Lincoln). But in the end, all of the information provided by the family lined up nicely, and the “mug shot” (in this case) on a May 6, 1926 “Document of Identity to an Applicant who cannot obtain a National Passport" was compelling.
So, much was gained through this communication. The bearded man was Rabbi Shalom Haim Nadoff. He was the son of Rabbi Meir Elnadaf of Jerusalem and his wife Bedur who had immigrated to Palestine from Yemen around the time of his birth in 1901. His family had produced generations of Torah scholars, some of whom had worked to preserve Yemenite Torah and religious works and heritage during the early waves of immigration to Palestine.
He was trained in the customary Yemenite order of Torah study before pursuing advanced studies at Yeshivat Etz Chayim in Jerusalem, with its emphasis on the analytical methods of the Eastern European yeshivot. He was ordained there in 1922.
He was also a graduate of Bezalel Art Institute in Jerusalem where he trained as a silversmith. He was an accomplished designer and craftsman of jewelry and religious articles, who exhibited at the British Empire Exhibition in Wembly, England in 1925.
Hine had noticed and photographed an educated young married man, an ordained Rabbi and a graduate of a prestigious school for craftsman. One might add that Rabbi Nadoff exhibited his works in silver at the Sesqui-Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1926. He became a naturalized United States citizen in 1933. He and his wife Mazal Sofer Nadoff and their five children initially resided in Brooklyn, New York before moving to Chicago, Illinois where in 1933, he displayed his work at the Century of Progress Exhibition. In Chicago, he established himself as the senior rabbi of the Sephardic Congregation of the Portuguese Israelite Fraternity, where he served for the next forty years. During this period, the congregation grew to include Sephardim of Middle Eastern and Northern African extraction, in addition to the original Spanish-Portuguese constituency. Although of Yemenite heritage, he was familiar with Sephardic and Ashkenazic culture and practice. He did not favor Yiddish and conversed only in Hebrew, English and Arabic. He was also able to use some Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) with his congregation.
He was a dedicated proponent of the establishment of a Jewish State and in 1974, he and his wife became residents of Bayit VeGan in Jerusalem, where they lived for the rest of their lives. He died there in 1986, four months after the death of his wife.
All of this information is now in the catalogue record of the Eastman House Data Management System.
However, as noted above, the title of the photograph is “A Yemenite Jew from Palestine” rather than the name of this man. The cataloguer’s reasoning was that this was also Lewis Hine’s photograph and the photographer was taking these images not as “mug shots” as stated above, not even as individual portraits (though he surely sought out an evocative face), but really to “ give a face” to the experience of an Immigrant to America in 1926.
The conflicting captions needed to be resolved, of course, as well as the misleading narrative used in the Ellis Island Caption. Both of the correspondents, the man with interest in Turkish history and the family of Rabbi Nadoff expressed satisfaction over these decisions. This information was shared with both the New York Public Library and the Ellis Island site. The Wall Street Journal published Angela Chen’s article, illustrated with photos of the Goldzweig family and using quotes from Eastman House on December 15, 2013 under the heading ”Rightly Identified – At Last.”
As a final note, the world was intrigued by the National Geographic documentary when photographer Steve McCurry returned to Afgahnistan after the removal of the Taliban government by American troops and local allies in 2001. He eventually located the subject of his compelling photograph, Sharbat Gula, then around the age of 30. Nevertheless, the photograph itself will probably never be known as “Sharbat Gula.” Like other iconic images, it stands for our collective, human identity, which in the best cases, transcends the identity of an individual.
The exhibition Lewis Hine is on view though September 7, 2014 George Eastman House. This major retrospective of the celebrated documentary photographer, reformer, and educator features more than 150 original prints dating from 1905 to 1937, including “A Yemenite Jew from Palestine."