“I am a social painter or photographer…I find difficulty in making distinctions between photography and painting. Both are pictures.”
A surge in radical political movements, efforts at social reform, and attempts by diverse populations to establish a national identity contributed to the upheaval that engulfed the United States during the Depression. Many artists who were radicalized by the events of the day became activists and sought work on New Deal relief programs. Among them was Ben Shahn (1898–1969), an artist whose socialist Jewish family had fled czarist Russia in 1906 and settled in Brooklyn.
In the early 1930s, Shahn abandoned his interest in European modern art, creating instead incisive realist images, depicting what he called the “social view,” that addressed the issues dominating public debate. The development of Shahn’s social-realist vision was infused by his commitment to leftist politics and his interest in the cultural force of mass media during the 1930s. Shahn first became interested in photography at a time when rotogravure reproductions of photographs in newspapers and magazines served as essential source material for his polemic paintings and satiric caricatures. News photographs inspired Shahn to imbue such works as his famous gouache series The Passion of Sacco–Vanzetti as well as The Mooney Case with a quality of reportage that was favorably noted by many of his contemporaries. Although he became widely known at this time as a painter, muralist, and graphic artist, he was also making formidable photographs.
Between 1932 and 1935, Shahn joined the vanguard of the social-documentary movement, making street photographs that defined life in New York City through the prosaic activities and expressive gestures of ordinary people. In addition to photographing activity on the sidewalks of lower and midtown Manhattan, he documented demonstrations for expanded work-relief programs and protest marches against social injustice in and around Union Square and City Hall. In preparation for one of his earliest murals, he also photographed inmates and prison officials at Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary and the New York City Reformatory. All of Shahn’s New York photographs address such topical issues as unemployment, poverty, immigration, and social reform and their connection to race and class.
Shahn used a handheld 35-millimeter Leica camera. This tiny, lightweight apparatus allowed him to move unobtrusively through the crowded immigrant neighborhoods of New York City, documenting daily life. He oriented his camera horizontally and tended to photograph at eye level and at fairly close range, thereby placing the viewer in the midst of the scene. He found that by affixing to his camera a miniature periscope-style attachment known as an angle viewfinder, he could capture passersby unaware. The artist could thus present his subjects “immersed in a private world,” as Bernarda Bryson Shahn observed. This “arresting of unconscious mood,” she affirmed, constituted “one of the distinguishing marks of all of Shahn’s photographic work.”
Compelling examples of social-realist art in their own right, Shahn’s New York photographs also inspired many of his most important paintings, murals, and drawings. Ben Shahn’s New York explores how the artist’s earliest photographs provided him with a fundamental means of interpreting urban life in modern times and shaped a highly influential documentary aesthetic that would influence and characterize his work for decades.
Greenwich Village and Environs
In 1932 Ben Shahn, his first wife, Tillie (Ziporah) Goldstein, and their young daughter, Judith, moved from Brooklyn Heights into a Greenwich Village apartment on 23 Bethune Street, two blocks east of the Hudson River. The photographer Walker Evans, the painter and photographer Lou Block, and the film critic Jay Leyda intermittently occupied the street-level workshop, and the painter Moses Soyer lived in a flat above. Although Shahn moved his family to 333 West Eleventh Street by November 1934, he continued to maintain a studio with Evans and Block at 20–22 Bethune Street.
Shahn had been drawn to the Village by its reputation for social tolerance and progressive politics; there he had easy access to the city’s radical art organizations, as well as to Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery, where his work was frequently exhibited. Shahn’s photographs palpably evoke the action of walking through the neighborhood streets, where he courted unexpected perspectives and used the area’s eclectic architecture to frame his subjects. Shahn focused his attention on residents gazing out their windows or sitting on stoops, children playing or reading comics on the sidewalks, and merchants and shoppers of Bleecker Street (the heart of Little Italy). These working-class residents interested the artist far more than the neighborhood’s historic sites or bohemian activities.
Union Square and Fourteenth Street
Shahn frequently visited the Union Square and Fourteenth Street district, commonly called the poor man’s Fifth Avenue. Said by the Federal Writers’ Project to belong to the working people of New York, this mecca of retail trade, cheap amusements, and leftist politics posed particular challenges for a photographer. Jostling crowds of shoppers from large department stores such as S. Klein overflowed onto the streets and gathered around vendors and sidewalk entertainers. The headquarters for the Socialist and Communist parties, as well as the radical New Workers’ School and the American Civil Liberties Union, were located in the area and contributed to its chaotic and robust character.
In this bustling neighborhood, Shahn claimed he first recognized the value of photography in recording fleeting details and freezing movement. Attempting to sketch the activity of a group of area musicians, he realized that the adaptable Leica enabled him to move easily and quickly through the crowd and photograph the performers from a variety of angles and perspectives. Many New York artists of the 1930s, most notably Reginald Marsh, Kenneth Hayes Miller, and Raphael Soyer, accentuated the congested nature of the Union Square and Fourteenth Street area. Shahn, however, imbued the district with an uncharacteristic visual elegance. He singled out shoppers, vendors, businessmen, office workers, demonstrators, and entertainers, discovering amidst the clamor and density unforgettable individual expressions. Shahn took particular interest in shoppers gazing into tantalizing storefront displays, and he often photographed men and women against window reflections in order to create a more expansive sense of space.
The Lower East Side
No sector of Manhattan captivated Shahn more than the Lower East Side, which he first explored as an adolescent while apprenticing at a lithography shop on Beekman Street. Immigrants of diverse nationalities inhabited this impoverished area, providing the city with a continual supply of cheap labor, as described by the Federal Writers’ Project:
Here have dwelt the people whose hands built the city’s elevateds, subways, tubes, bridges, and skyscrapers. Its two square miles of tenements and crowded streets magnify all the problems typical of New York. . . . From its dark tenements, generations of American workers of many different national origins . . . have emerged.
The Lower East Side dominated Shahn’s photographic repertoire during the early to mid-1930s. Continually drawn to the human dimension of this blighted district, he created intimate portraits of residents in Little Italy, resolute middle-age women, Jewish children, Orchard Street merchants, Bowery down-and-outers, and men gathered in Seward Park and on the South Street piers. His compelling photographs of the indigence plaguing the region contrasted with the dramatic vistas of the city’s downtown skyscrapers. Indeed, Shahn’s representations of the Lower East Side’s living theater number among the most discerning of the era.
Middle West Side/Middle East Side
While assisting Diego Rivera with his ill-fated Man at the Crossroads (1933) mural at the newly built Rockefeller Center, Shahn became familiar with midtown Manhattan, an area known for its large shopping, garment, and theater districts. The Depression notwithstanding, the midtown region had been undergoing intense building activity, including some of Manhattan’s greatest skyscrapers: Radio City Music Hall, the Chrysler Building, and the Empire State Building. When Shahn photographed in the vicinity, however, he ignored such monumental structures, just as he relegated to the background the restaurants, theaters, hotels, and flashing lights synonymous with the Times Square district. He focused instead on crowds underneath the Sixth Avenue Elevated or individuals standing before empty storefronts. Through Shahn’s camera, midtown Manhattan consisted of ordinary New Yorkers: panhandlers, street performers, and men seeking work.
During the Depression, protest marches and picket lines filled the streets and squares of lower Manhattan. Large crowds regularly assembled in City Hall Plaza and in Union Square, the epicenter of the radical labor movement in America, to demonstrate for government relief programs, better working conditions, and social justice. Shahn joined in these events as part of a cadre of leftist artists who considered themselves “workers” creating art for the masses. He also became active in the Artists’ Union and the Artists’ Committee of Action, progressive cultural organizations modeled on trade unions.
Shahn often photographed his comrades and other agitators at May Day parades, demonstrations for expanded government art projects, and protests against censorship and international fascism. To emphasize the cadence of the marchers, Shahn moved in and out of the crowds, creating images that evoke the dynamism of these public spectacles. He also made animated street portraits of his compatriots, including Bernarda Bryson, Stuart Davis, Stephen Dimitroff, Boris Gorelick, Moses Soyer, Max Spivak, and Roselle Springer. A number of these photographs appeared as illustrations in Art Front, the leftist organ of the Artists’ Union and the Artists’ Committee of Action, edited by Shahn and his peers. He focused his camera on bystanders as well, recording the supportive gestures and bemused expressions of those watching the spirited marchers carry their elaborate banners and placards. Shahn’s vivid protest photographs illustrate the artist’s activist response to the Depression-era conditions he chronicled in New York’s poorer neighborhoods.
Rikers Island Penitentiary Mural Project
From the spring of 1934 through the winter of 1935, Shahn worked on an ambitious public art project: a mural design for the newly constructed penitentiary on Rikers Island, a 400-acre plot of land situated in the East River, between Queens and the Bronx. He collaborated with the painter and photographer Lou Block, and the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration provided funding. Choosing a long corridor in the main building for his site, Shahn developed a didactic scheme on the hotly debated issue of prison reform. He designed one wall to show the “unenlightened” penal system while on the opposing wall he envisioned a “reformed” American penal code. Block, meanwhile, designed a series of panels about religious charity for the penitentiary chapels.
In preparation, the two artists studied law and penology and drew on the expertise of local sociologists and prison officials. They also visited correctional facilities in and around New York City. Shahn was granted the unusual privilege to photograph inmates at the model New York City Reformatory in New Hampton and at the antiquated and overcrowded Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary on Welfare Island (renamed Roosevelt Island in 1973), just south of Rikers Island. From Shahn’s perspective, the American prison population included martyrs and heroes of the radical labor movement, as well as political agitators, the unemployed, and victims of racial and class discrimination. Although Shahn had used photographs in the previous year to help prepare for his Prohibition mural studies, this was the first instance of his making photographs to be used as primary research tools for a mural. Through this project, Shahn developed a manner of using his own camerawork that would affect his art making for years to come.
Contemporary American Photography
In late September 1935, Shahn left New York City to work for the Resettlement Administration in Washington, D.C. This position gave the artist the opportunity to travel throughout the southern United States for a month, photographing scenes of rural poverty that exposed him to a world far different from the one he had known in New York. The following spring Shahn began preparing for a government-funded mural, his first since the rejection of the Rikers Island Penitentiary project. The mural was commissioned for a public building at Jersey Homesteads (later Roosevelt), New Jersey, a New Deal settlement for Jewish immigrant garment workers who were being relocated from Lower East Side tenements. In April 1936 Shahn returned to New York to do research for this project at the public library, the headquarters for the Associated Press, and the offices of the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper.
While in New York, Shahn visited the Lower East Side and made what proved to be one of his most consequential rolls of film. Although the majority of the artist’s New York negatives were posthumously cut apart into individual frames, this intact roll is one of the few early examples of his working process as a street photographer. Shahn began the roll with an array of affectionate portraits of his first two children, Judith and Ezra, whom he visited on occasion following the dissolution of his marriage in 1935. Subsequent images indicate how, as the artist moved through the streets of the Lower East Side, he made numerous exposures of merchants and storefronts that captured his interest. He particularly delighted in the hand-painted signs on store windows, and he celebrated the distinctive lettering as a type of authentic folk art. Once in the darkroom, Shahn made prints from nearly all the frames on this roll, experimenting with cropping, dodging, and burning the images to create finished prints. The focused body of work deriving from the negatives on this roll of film constitutes some of the artist’s most iconic imagery on Depression-era New York.