„City and Eyes” — Menachem Kipnis’s photographs

Exhibition of photographs of Menachem Kipnis in JHI

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Over ninety photographs by Menachem Kipnis will be displayed at the exhibition ”City and Eyes” in the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute already from 30th January, 2014. This eminent Jewish photographer, forgotten today, took them for a New York daily The Yiddish Forward (Forwerts). The photographs are from the collection of Rafael Abramowicz, a many years’ editor of the Art Section of this magazine, and from Bund’s Archive, currently stored in YIVO in New York. 

The author of these extraordinary photographs, depicting the Jewish world of the 1920s and 30s, in the Second Polish Republic was an eminent singer, expert on Yiddish music, writer, journalist, collector of Jewish songs and folk tales, and also a social activist. However, not much was known about his passion for photography.

He was born in Uszomierz in Volyn in 1878. He came from a family of Hassidic rabbis and cantors. From early childhood, he showed talent for singing. Like his father, also his elder brother became a cantor. Kipnis used to perform with them in local synagogues. After a break, caused by a voice change, Kipnis resumed singing. He performed in synagogal choirs of, inter alia, Berl Miler, Nissan Spiwak, Zajdel Rowner. In 1901, he moved to Warsaw, where he graduated from Musical Studies. A year later, he won a contest organized by the National Opera of the Grand Theatre in Warsaw and became a first tenor of the choir. He performed on its stage for sixteen years. He resigned from his work in the choir to have more time for his passion for folklore and collecting.

He published articles on music and theatre as well as essays and humorous sketches mainly in the pages of the press published in the Hebrew and Yiddish, including Hamelic, Der Sztral and Di Roman Cajtung. He collaborated closely with daily Haynt, where he worked as a columnist. Series of interviews with ”Pan Mecenas” (Kipnis’s pseudonym), published in Friday issue of the newspaper, used to attract the biggest amount of readers. By parodying texts of anti-Semitic press of the National Democratic Party, he complained about the ubiquity and vile behaviour of the Jews.

Menachem Kipnis gave also private music lessons. One of his students was Zimra Zeligfeld, his future wife and collaborator, with whom he would perform in Poland, Germany and France. During the concerts combined with lectures he presented Jewish songs, collected and edited by him. The fruits of Kipnis’s passion for collecting were two collections of songs. The first one, published in 1918, included sixty Jewish folk songs, whereas the second one from 1925, eighty. He also published three collections of songs for children and books in the Yiddish language: Słynni muzycy żydowscy [Famous Jewish musicians], Żydowscy klezmerzy w Polsce [Jewish klezmorim in Poland], Od prymitywnej ludowej pieśni żydowskiej po muzykę symfoniczną. [From primitive Jewish folk songs to symphonic music].

Kipnis was a permanent, active member of the board of the Association of Jewish Writers and Journalists. Zusman Segałowicz mentions him in the book ”Tłomackie 13”: ”He had a great gift for storytelling. For many years he had told us funny stories about cantors and singers. He was an inexhaustible source of Jewish folk songs. Such songs that those arranging concert programs had no idea about. [...] In our circle, Kipnis was regarded as an exceptionally nice joker, but not a scoffer. Crowds wanted to sit at his table. People knew that with him they were in no danger of sadness. [...] Our association loved him, on the other hand, he brought a lot of life to it”.

During the World War Two, Kipnis was in the Warsaw Ghetto, where he died in 1942 of a stroke. Shortly after, his wife Zimra was transported to the extermination camp in Treblinka. Rich collections of Jewish music and folklore are gone along with collections of furniture, cameras, canes, tobacco boxes, manuscripts and negatives of his photographs. Only his writings published before the war and the prints sent to the United States survived.

Another big passion of Kipnis was photography. He created a magnificent collection of photographs depicting Jewish life in the Second Polish Republic. During his numerous travels around the country he took photos, which he then published mainly in the New York daily The Yiddish Forward. The collection of the photographs of residents of towns and cities, in terms of their quality equal his collection of folk songs. The majority of those photographed are captured in a dynamic manner. Many of them are looking directly into the camera. However, there is no time for posing — there is only lightness of the moment captured in the photography.

In Kipnis’s photos we can find views of Warsaw, Kraków, Łuck, Kazimierz Dolny, Otwock, Falenica, Dubno, Równe, houses, markers, yards. We can almost feel the smell and the atmosphere of these places. However, what was important for the photographer were the looks, smiles, grimaces, gestures, reactions of the people living there. Kipnis’s works are signed. However, they are no ordinary titles. They are in a form of a commentary on the captured scenes and they very often include the names of those in the photos. Not only is it an evidence of his excellent knowledge of the places and people, but also of his great empathy for the world preserved in the photographs.

Kipnis, a master of capturing the moment, as a photographer, tried to be invisible, not to interfere in the reality being recorded on the film. He captured small scenes of the streets, markets, countryside on his camera as if by accident. We could even regard him as a photographer perfectly fitting the concept of the decisive moment coined by Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of photojournalism. „The decisive moment is a moment when the photographer discovers a hidden order in the chaos of the world. In the blink of a moment, the chaos appears to be a perfect whole and the task of the photographer is to record this moment in the form of a photograph,” Cartier-Bresson believed.

We would like to invite you to a journey to the following streets of pre-war Warsaw: Nalewki, Tłomackie, Twarda, Ceglana, Grzybowska and to the Krasiński Garden and the Saxon Garden as well as to places near Warsaw: Otwock, Falenica, Żyrardów, Warka, Grójec, Grodzisk Mazowiecki, Ciechanów, Rawa Mazowiecka and further to Ryki, Kazimierz Dolny, Krynki, Ciechocinek and even to more remote places such as Dubno, Równe, Łuck and Orszyce near Żytomierz. Even for a moment, let’s look into the eyes of the residents of these towns and cities, captured in the fascinating photographs by Menachem Kipnis.

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