Ira Nowinski: The Photographer As Witness


Ira Nowinski

What does it take for an independent photographer to succeed at his or her craft?  By definition, the working life of the freelancer in almost any field is intensely competitive. For a photographer, the possession of raw talent, a good eye, proper training, and technical skills alone do not guarantee either fame or fortune. Flexibility, entrepreneurial drive, wide-ranging interests, and the ability (or sheer good luck) to make the right contacts at the right time—these are all critical ingredients contributing toward both artistic and personal fulfillment. They are qualities that the independent photographer Ira Nowinski possesses in abundance.

Nowinski has been a fixture on San Francisco’s artistic and cultural scene for more than three decades. The diverse commissions that have come his way reveal his acute eye and versatility as a photographer. Among the abiding themes that Nowinski’s photographs reflect are his passion for social justice, his fascination with the urban scene, and his longstanding involvement with the literary, performing, and visual arts.

Seymour Fromer, the founding director (now director-emeritus) of the Judah L. Magnes Museum (Berkeley), played a pivotal role in the three major projects that are represented in this online exhibition. The images that are reproduced here are among those exhibited from August to November 2004 in the Peterson Gallery at Green Library, as part of the exhibition Ira Nowinski: The Photographer As Witness.

In 2001, the Stanford University Libraries acquired 15,000 negatives, 1,200 study prints, and 600 archival prints from three separate series by Nowinski: In Fitting Memory: The Art and Politics of Holocaust Memorials; Karaite Jews in Egypt, Israel, and the San Francisco Bay Area; and Soviet Jews in San Francisco.

Why do the Stanford University Libraries acquire photograph collections such as this one? Their esthetic and documentary qualities speak for themselves. Above and beyond that, Ira Nowinski’s photographs constitute an extensive archive that serves the purposes of research and scholarship. Taken as a whole, this collection also opens a window to the creative process —“the artist at work”— in this case, the photographer himself.

Zachary Baker
Reinhard Family Curator of Judaica and Hebraica Collections
Stanford University Libraries