Isaac Bashevis Singer Exhibition Organized by the Mead Art Museum on view at the Jewish Museum

William Meyers
The New York Sun

The Jewish Museum exhibition "Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Lower East Side: Photographs by Bruce Davidson" brings together four esteemed New York persons and places: The Belnord, one of the classic apartment buildings of the Upper West Side; the Garden Cafeteria, the sort of defunct New York City eatery whose aura hangs around long after the last bowl of its famed rice pudding was served; the Nobel Prize-winning Singer (1902–91), a former tenant of the Belnord who set many of his short stories and novels in the city, and Mr. Davidson, a major chronicler of the city for half a century now. The exhibition originated at the Mead Art Museum of Amherst College, where it was curated by the museum's director, Jill Meredith. The 40 mostly black-and-white photographs at the Jewish Museum are an abbreviated version of the Mead original, and include work from several distinct projects: pictures Mr. Davidson took on the Lower East Side in 1957; portraits of Singer taken during the 1970s; pictures of Garden Cafeteria habitués from the same period, and more pictures of the Lower East Side taken in 1990. There is also a 30-minute film, "Isaac Singer's Nightmare and Mrs. Pupko's Beard," that Mr. Davidson made in 1972.

Mr. Davidson first established himself as one of the creators of the New York School of photography with his "Brooklyn Gang" (1959). For "East 100th Street" (1970) he brought a view camera to Spanish Harlem and took intimate photographs in peoples' apartments. "Subway" (1986) recorded fear-ridden passengers on graffiti-covered trains in that awful period. "Central Park" (1995) showed the birds in the bushes as well as the lovers behind the bushes. In the early 1970s Davidson photographed Singer in his apartment on an assignment, and soon after became a neighbor of his in the Belnord: The results of their subsequent collaborations form the exhibit at the Jewish Museum.

Most of Singer's writing appeared first in Der Forverts, the Yiddish-language daily newspaper whose offices were at 175 E. Broadway. The Garden Cafeteria, at 165 E. Broadway, was a convenient and congenial place for him to eat, write, and hold court with fellow Eastern European Jewish immigrants whose stories he absorbed and used in his fiction. "Isaac Bashevis Singer eating rice pudding" (1975) shows the author in suit and tie with a pudding-laden spoon poised in mid-passage, his eyes intent on someone to the right of the photographer. Singer was a famous listener, and the image is about his straining to fully comprehend what is being said.

"Isaac Bashevis Singer reclining on a sofa" (1975) is my favorite of the 11 portraits. Singer lies on the sofa in a dark suit and white dress shirt, his head resting on a pillow propped against the armrest. The sofa and other furnishings in the room are the handsome and comfortable bourgeois items one would expect in an Upper West Side apartment house such as the Belnord. The author looks over the manuscript he is correcting to stare at the camera located beyond his feet, but his attention seems inward, his brows knit as he puzzles out what to do with his story. Although his body is at rest, his mind clearly is not. The picture also gives evidence of the easy relationship Mr. Davidson had established with his subject.

The old men and women Mr. Davidson photographed downtown at the Garden Cafeteria are far from the bourgeois comfort of the Belnord. The "Man with a package, holding a meal ticket" (1973) sits at a table with his "meal" on it, a roll with a pat of butter and a glass of water. His cheeks are drawn and covered with stubble. His eyes gaze blankly into the distance. He sits with his hat on and his coat buttoned up to the neck. Whatever is in the paper bag he clutches in his arm is probably of value only to him.

The "Three men in their own thoughts and memories" (1973) are materially better off — each wears a shirt and tie — but each has his hand to his mouth, and stares through his glasses with unfocused eyes. The "Woman in front of the Garden Cafeteria" (1973) stands in the cold holding a charity collection box in her gloved hand; her expression begs pity. "Bessie Gakaubowicz, holding a photograph of her and her husband, taken before the war" (1973) is the decayed wreck of the vital young woman in the picture she cherishes.

Writing on November 23 for Der Forverts (in Yiddish, of course), Itzik Gottesman ended his review of the Jewish Museum exhibition by noting, "In Bruce Davidson's photographs … one sees how the sorrows (tsores) and sufferings of life have left their stamp on the faces … And one also has the impression that they live in a strange, restless world, where the past — the happy years of their Jewish youth — will permit them no rest until they are in the grave. In that particular, Davidson has caught nicely one of the main themes of Bashevis' work."

Ikh ken es nit beser zugn.

Until February 3 (1109 Fifth Ave. at 92nd Street, 212-423-3200).