The Chosen People
  A Modern Renaissance


Commissioned to photograph London's orthodox Jews, Mary Maloney found that this long established community has recently experienced dramatic change.

I suppose I am just fascinated by people, their characters and lifestyles - what makes them the people they are. Last year I was approached by Mr Brandon of the London-Berlin Committee to produce, along with other photographers, a series of pictures on various aspects of London life. The London-Berlin Committee was set up in the House of Commons five years ago to promote better relations between Eastern & Western Europe, and the work is to be exhibited in East Berlin in April 1990. The area of investigation assigned to me was ethnic London.

I chose to look at the Jewish Community primarily because I am very interested in their way of life and culture, and this presented a unique opportunity to learn more. It also seemed quite appropriate that photographs of a Jewish Community living and thriving in London would be going to a land from which the Jewish people had been so brutally evicted 40 years before.

Earlier this year, the Spitalfields Heritage Centre in the East End held a day of folk singing. Led by Magen Boglanski, a 75-year-old retired tailor from Poland, the audience was generally comprised of middle-aged to elderly Jewish people who had either spent all of their lives in the East End or had emigrated from Europe shortly before the war. It was fascinating to hear them reminisce about their past lives, and sad to discover that their oncethriving community of over 100,000 is fast disappearing as the original immigrants die and the young move further afield to areas like Golders Green, Stamford Hill and Ilford.

Anna Tznelnichen leads the sole surviving yiddish theatre company in the country. Thirty or 40 years ago, the East End boasted several yiddish theatre groups. Anna and her father, Meir, were amongst the best known names associated with the famous Cranile Palais, he for his portrayals of Shylock in the Merchant of Venice, and his work in Fiddler on the Roof. She is a formidable actress in her own right, and has played in Yentl with Barbra Streisand. I also spent an afternoon at the Akivia School for Jewish children in Finchley, and the kids were wonderful - clamouring to have their pictures taken. There is always this cliche about the typical sort of Jewish face, but those features certainly are very often apparent, even in such young faces. I watched Rabbi Leberman of Kingston Upon Thames set out his dining room table as is customary for the Sabbath. He spoke of his love of learning, and had a fine collection of books. He also gave me the opportunity to go, along to the synagogue for early morning prayers. It was fascinating to Catch a glimpse of the rituals and prayer which are an integral part of the Jewish way of life, and which have sustained them through centuries of exile and persecution. The Jewish Museum, affiliated with the Sternberry Centre, is holding a small exhibition in December, and has offered to display some of my photographs, together with the work of a photographer who specialised in Jewish street scenes in the early Fifties.

The primary objective - to produce a series of pictures for the exhibition in Berlin - has been reached, but I feel I have only touched the tip of the iceberg, and would very much like to do some work among the more orthodox and also the more prosperous sections of the Jewish community. I am at present examining various ways of doing this, and looking into the possibility of obtaining sponsorship.

My main interest is in photographing people in their own environment - I am fascinated by the variations and subtleties that can result from using natural light, but I would also very much like to experiment with studio portraiture. The camera is an amazing tool for investigating, for learning more about people. It has a tremendous way of showing others how everybody else lives. Used responsibly, it can open doors and so promote understanding between people.

Because of the intuitive way in which I work, I am often-amazed at the way in which the finished photograph reflects my subconscious feelings about the event or person - be they humorous, sad, critical or otherwise. The photographs reveal things to me about my own pattern of thoughts they reveal both the photographed and the photographer, and I find that intriguing.

Mary Maloney, Photography Magazine, February 1990