Shahn's Viewfinder Captures Struggles of '30S New York

Article excerpt

New Yorkers in Ben Shahn's Depression-era photographs wait expectantly.

Four men sit on a bench in Seward Park hoping for work. The immigrant woman of "East Side Merchant" waits to sell her produce. The cocky teen-ager in "Houston St. Playground (New York City)" looks out at the viewer. He also waits.

This was life in 1930s New York as chronicled by Mr. Shahn in "Ben Shahn's New York: The Photography of Modern Times," which opens today at the Phillips Collection in Northwest.

New York, like the rest of the country, was suffering. In 1932 more than 1 million people, or one-third of the city's labor force, were out of work. Mr. Shahn photographed the unemployed and also New York's immigrants, vagrants, street children and political radicals. His photographs have the powerful sense of design, bold cutouts and croppings that also imbued his paintings, murals and prints.

Local artist Jacob Kainen was a friend of Mr. Shahn's in New York. Mr. Kainen remembers the photographer's compassion and his anger at social and racial inequities. He recalls Mr. Shahn's philosophy as echoing the saying of ancient Jewish scholar Rabbi Hillel, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?"

The Depression that Mr. Shahn photographed was not that shown by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, of Americans born in this country. His was the melting pot of New York.

Mr. Shahn (1898-1969) did not create the powerful iconic images of the times, such as Lange's "The White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933" or "Migrant Mother, Nipoma, California, 1936." Rather he caught New York's neighborhoods on the run with the then-new miniature 35 mm Leica camera. He could move through crowds with it and catch his subjects unawares. His photographs always convey a sense of the fleeting moment, of motion and sometimes of off-kilter viewpoints. The Leica revolutionized photojournalism and documentary street photography, and Mr. Shahn made the most of the new technology.

His social protest paintings, such as "The Passion of Sacco-Vanzetti" series, are his most celebrated works. Yet the lesser-known photos of the Depression are compelling documents of the 1930s and anticipated his later art.

The photographer's widow, Bernarda Bryson Shahn, gave the photos to Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum in 1970, but they did not become fully available to the public until 1994. The Fogg is circulating this selection to the Phillips and two other museums.

Exhibit curator Elizabeth Turner added a Washington twist with a wall-size photograph of Shahn's mural for the Social Security Administration building. It's a blowup of Mr. Shahn's study for the then-unfinished "Meaning of Social Security" painting and a dramatic graphic in the exhibit's introductory gallery. The old Social Security offices at 330 Independence Ave. SW are now the Wilbur J. Cohen Building.

The curator takes us on a rapid-fire tour of New York's neighborhoods, from the Bowery to Times Square. The section on Greenwich Village and its surroundings is the most intimate. Mr. Shahn had a special love for the Village and moved there with his first wife, Tillie, and their young daughter, Judith, in 1932.

He often walked around the neighborhood, and we have the strong feeling we are strolling with him. He observed youngsters, who look more like hoodlums than young children, playing on the streets. He visited Washington Square North often. It was, and still is, a popular place to sit and sun oneself.

He shot a humorous photo there of elderly people and young mothers with baby carriages. One of the women folded newspapers into a kind of a dunce cap on her head. The later, painted version, "Nearly Everybody Reads the Bulletin," hangs nearby.

Many of the faces reveal hard lives. Women gossip worriedly at a brownstone stoop. …