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Ben Shahn’s New York

The Photography of Modern Times

By Amy Lifson | HUMANITIES, September/October 1999 | Volume 20, Number 5

“Art has its roots in real life.”
Ben Shahn, The Shape of Content

The photograph’s Ben Shahn’s took in New York in the 1930s are not typical images of skyscrapers and expansive canyons of avenues. Art historian Deborah Kao sees his pictures as much more personal. “As much as some other photographers give you a window into New York, there’s a pane of glass on that window, and for me, in Shahn’s photographs that window of glass doesn’t exist. There’s a sense, that you’re actually on that sidewalk with him.”

“Ben Shahn’s New York: The Photography of Modern Times,” which opens in February at the Fogg Museum in Boston, will let the visitor see the city as Shahn saw it through his viewfinder rather than just through the carefully constructed canvases and murals that make up his better- known work. The exhibition reexamines Shahn as a photographer by showing his works of New York City taken between 1932 and 1936.

The first part of the exhibition is organized by neighborhood to recreate the world that Shahn lived in, worked in, and recorded. His home in the early thirties was Greenwich Village, and his photographs focus on three adjacent neighborhood with distinct characters—the Village, Union Square, and the Lower East Side. “His New York imagery, because it was done before he’d traveled anywhere else in the U.S., is incredibly autobiographical in a way,” says Kao. Shahn emphasized the street life in the Village; children playing handball and immigrants he gossiping in Washington Square Park. Just a little farther north, Union Square in the 1930s was home to political radicals and bargain department stores. “The poor man’s Fifth Avenue” it was called and had a carnival-like atmosphere made up of street vendors and musicians, shoppers, and soap-box speakers. People had little money during the Depression and even the cheap stores on Fourteenth Street were filled with goods too dear for the average consumer. Shahn caught this irony as he photographed men and women gazing wistfully into display windows, catching their reflections and the goods they were coveting, when they thought no one was looking.

The third neighborhood that Shahn documented is the Lower East Side. One of his most famous photographs of this neighborhood is “Three Men” depicting three figures of different races, shapes, and sizes, apparently with no connection except that they are in the same place at the same time.

A special part of the exhibition will display a recently discovered uncut roll of film that Shahn exposed in 1936. The roll shows the path of Shahn’s journey through the Lower East Side—how he saw the subjects and what he chose as worth photographing. Because most photographers then used bulk film, and Shahn tended to cut his negatives into two or three frames at a time, the sequence of the collection is fragmentary. The few rolls like this one that is intact help scholars reconstruct Shahn’s development.

“This work is largely unknown,” marvels Kao, co-curator of the exhibition and the Charles C. Cunningham, Sr., Associate Curator of Photographs at Harvard University. The collection was donated to Harvard after Shahn’s death in 1969 by his widow Bernarda Bryson Shahn. The collection has only begun to be studied seriously during the last decade, by scholars such as Susan Edwards, an adviser to the exhibition, and Laura Katzman, who is the co-curator of the project and assistant professor of art and director of museum studies at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia. “This uncut roll really let’s us see how Shahn worked. He had a restless eye,” says Katz, “he rarely stayed with a subject for more than three frames.”

Bernarda Shahn, a writer and artist in her own right, still lives in the house in Roosevelt, New Jersey, that she and Shahn had occupied since the late 1930s. She, with Shahn’s children Jonathan, Judith and Ezra, shared oral histories with the project for use in the exhibition and Bernarda Shahn will give a talk at the opening of the show. Other public programs include a symposium on Shahn’s life and work, a lecture series, gallery talks, and a film series on Shahn and the Depression. A catalog is being published by Yale University Press.

Kao says the uncut roll that Shahn took during a visit back to New York in 1936 is important for several reasons. In 1935 Shahn moved to Washington, D.C., and consequently took a job photographing the living and working conditions in the rural South and Midwest for the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration. Because of his eye-opening experiences outside the city he was able to look at New York more nostalgically than before, particularly the parts that reminded him of his Jewish upbringing. The roll is also important for the number of photographs that he thought were good enough to be made into prints, and for the number that were reused as imagery for paintings such as his 1940 work, Photographer’s Window. The source for the painting was a commercial photographer’s window in the Jewish section of town. In the painting itself, Shahn substituted what would have been more wedding and bar mitzvah pictures with those he had taken in the rural South and Midwest. “This painting has three levels of meaning,” says Katz. She sees in it Shahn merging the world he grew up in with the world he encountered west of Hoboken. In Kao’s view, it also shows the shifting of Shahn’s political beliefs away from the workers en masse and towards the plight of individual suffering. By making a painting about photography—painting being his preferred medium—Shahn makes a social statement about the “truth” value of documentary over commercial photography.

The uncut film will be displayed in three ways. Those that Shahn made prints of will be seen as he intended, many mounted and some titled. The contact sheet itself will be blown up so visitors can see the sequencing of his work. And the actual uncut film itself will be displayed.

Born in Kovno, Lithuania, in 1898, Shahn was part of the mass of eastern European immigrants to arrive on American shores at the beginning of the century. He grew up in a poor Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, with family memories of the oppression Jews had experienced in the old country. His family life was politically Left, and although he was never a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, his work is often aligned with the social realist art that intended to reflect the struggle of the workers. “Social realism has been applied to a group of artists who came of age in the thirties and repudiated ideas of abstract modernism,” explains Kao. “It is a very considered rejection of what they would have viewed as the hermetic making of art by abstract artists and an embrace of art that could speak to the proletariat, to use that thirties term.”

The photographs in this exhibition show Shahn’s alignment with the everyman—especially those facing the desperation of the Depression. A 1936 photograph titled “Bowery” juxtaposes a poster advertising Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times with a forlorn urban figure. Shahn’s photographs, paintings, and politics from this time were all connected. Shahn came on the public scene in 1932 with his controversial work, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, a sympathetic portrait series of the two Italian anarchists who were tried and executed for murder. At the same time, he was becoming involved with the artists union and beginning to take photographs of lower-class New York neighborhood that would influence his work for decades.

“There’s an aesthetic in his paintings that feels like photography to his peers. They comment on it,” says Kao. Kao believes Shahn’s attraction to photography developed naturally out of his painting style. “Jean Charlot talks about how Shahn delights in what is accidental and ungentlemanly about camera work. But he’s not talking about Shahn’s photographs, he’s talking about his paintings. This is before Shahn even picks up a camera!” What Shahn’s fellow artists noticed was a quality in his paintings that took startling political topics and made them as straightforward as newspaper.

His work’s resemblance to newspapers and photographs is no accident. Kao says that Shahn obsessively collected clippings and magazine articles to refer to whenever he started an ink drawing, painting, or mural project. The photographs Shahn took in the early thirties were incorporated into the visual references that would appear over and over again throughout his work. But Kao wants the exhibition to make clear that although their reuse is interesting, that should not take away from the importance of the photographs in their own right.

“Photography was never off-hand to Shahn,” says Edwards, curator at the Katona Museum in New York. “Sometimes he would look at his photographs later for subjects of paintings. But most of the time, when he was taking photographs he was taking photographs, not just getting materials for his painting.” In many self portraits, such as Myself among the Church Goers, Shahn depicts himself as a photographer instead of a painter. He also frequently mounted, signed, and titled these early images—something he almost never did with his later photographs from the South and Midwest. By comparing the prints with the negatives, scholars can determine the choices that Shahn made to burn or crop, subvert or accentuate a detail.

He used a small hand-held 35 mm Leica with a right-angle viewfinder that let him photograph a subject without directly pointing the camera at it. He and photographer Walker Evans, who shared a studio in Greenwich Village, both used these cameras. Controversy arose about taking people’s photographs without their knowledge or consent. Evans said years later: “Shahn and I both discovered a gadget that fitted on a Leica camera….We could with this thing . . . photograph people unobserved . . . we stole their picture, which was a thing we felt entirely guiltless about doing because in the amplitude of youth we thought we were working in the great tradition of Daumier and The Third Class Carriage.” Although Evans and Shahn influenced once another, one difference between their photographs, says Edwards, is that Evans’s work fits more neatly into a modernist paradigm—he was interested in the line and form of the print and would set up for hours to take just the right moment—while Shahn was interested in the people more than the form. “Whether in people or in art,” Shahn wrote, “it was the individual peculiarities that were interesting.”

With his discreet viewfinder, Shahn could have a certain anonymity on the streets of New York that gave his photographs a casual quality. He lost this when he started taking pictures for the Rikers Island Penitentiary Mural Project. It was the first time he deliberately set out to make photographs as sources for a design. He was allowed to take photographs inside the prison, but only with the permission of the warden and the prisoners themselves. The result was that the photographs of the prisoners are either posed or capture the men hamming it up for the camera, giving a very different quality from the rest of the exhibition.

Shahn had worked earlier as an assistant for Diego Rivera’s ill-fated mural at Rockefeller Center, finding Rivera source material and sometimes live models from the streets. He and another assistant on the project, Lou Block, heard that Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary was closing and a new reformed prison was to be built on Rikers Island. The idea of a public mural celebrating penal reform had been discussed earlier between Shahn and Block, possibly for Sing Sing prison. Then they got the go ahead and financial support from TERA, the Temporary Emergency Relief Association, to design for Rikers.

“Shahn’s photography in 1934 corresponds with the high water mark of his involvement with the artists union and also his creation of the Rikers Island mural,” says Kao. “His work is tied up with the politics of the period.” Although the mural was never made—it was eventually rejected by the conservatively run municipal art commission—its intended design clearly reflects Shahn’s views of penal reform and what he saw as the inevitable cycle between poverty and crime.

Shahn worked on the design for the two opposite long walls that led to the chapel and Block took the murals for the chapel itself. On one of Shahn’s walls was a depiction of good penal reform—men learning literacy and manual skills that eventually turned them out into a productive life outside the prison. This is where the photographs of the contemporary prisoners were used as models. Along the other wall was a study of the vicious cycle of traditional penitentiary life. Shahn actually turned to his photographs in Manhattan to show despair and vagrancy. The mural design shows unemployment lines, vagrancy, and imprisonment as a vicious cycle where prisoners are turned out only to end up where they started: unemployed and on the street. “He’s making a connection between the human dimension of the economic crisis with this idea of what has to change in how crime is handled because the crime is motivated, in his mind, by the economic conditions of the disenfranchised and unemployed workers,” says Kao.

Because the murals were never made it is amazing the studies still exist. Frustrated by having to defend the project to the commission, Shahn left New York in 1935 and moved to Washington, D.C., abandoning his mural studies to TERA or some other agency. Like a lot of government work at the time, it was probably bought up by junk dealers and dispersed. For a long time, no one knew how the recollected panels fit together, until a box was found in Shahn’s old studio, which contained original 1930s copy photography of the mural with his typed captions attached indicating what he meant each scene to imply.

The reconstructed panels will be hung at the Fogg in a three-dimensional space similar to the space it was intended for. A website in conjunction with the exhibition will have a quick-time virtual walkthrough of the Rikers murals. In addition, the project has been digitizing and cataloging the entire Shahn collection for availability on the Internet, giving distant users the ability to search and portfolio the collection, and maybe even experiment in a virtual darkroom. They’ll be able to compare early images with later known pieces, giving Shahn’s work an intellectual reference that he probably would have approved.

“There’s a sense of specificity in his Rikers Island panels,” says Kao. “One of the women depicted visiting the prisoners is actually a woman who came from the press photograph during the Sacco and Vanzetti trial. He had also used her in that series. The Alabama courthouse behind the chain gang in the mural of the abusive system is the one where the Scottsboro Nine were tried. This would have been recognizable to people then. It’s not a subtle mural.”

But Shahn never intended his art to be subtle—he wanted his art, whatever the medium, to make individuals think. He believed that art and artists should be engaged in society. In The Shape of Content he writes “I believe it is … moments of enlightenment that are formulated and perhaps preserved in art. I believe that artists are always in pursuit of the ultimate according to their lights—the perfect religious emotion, the very fundamentals of form, or the underlying character of man.”

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Funding Information

“Ben Shahn’s New York: The Photography of Modern Times” has received $166,200 in grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The exhibition opens at the Fogg Museum of Art on February 4 and will travel to the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., the Smart Gallery of the University of Chicago, the Wichita Art Museum, and the Grey Art Gallery of New York University.