Ben Shahn's New York: The Art of Social Conscience

By Lifson, Amy | Humanities, September/October 1999 | Go to article overview

Ben Shahn's New York: The Art of Social Conscience


Lifson, Amy, Humanities


The photographs Ben Shahn took in New York in the 1930s are not typical images of skyscrapers and 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 Art of Social Conscience," which opens in February at the Fogg Museum of Art in Boston, will let the visitor see the city through Shahn's 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.

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 neighborhoods with distinct charactersthe 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 gossiping in Washington Square Park. 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 soapbox 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, depicts three men of different races, shapes, and sizes, apparently with no connection except that they are in the same place at the same time.

The exhibition displays 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 worthy of 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 are intact help scholars reconstruct Shahn's development.

"This work is largely unknown,' marvels Kao, co-curator 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 began 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 cocurator 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 lets us see how Shahn worked. He had a restless eye," says Katzman," he rarely stayed with a subject for more than three frames."

Bernarda Shahn, a writer and artist, still lives in the house in Roosevelt, New Jersey, that she and Shahn occupied since the late 1930s. With Shahn's children Jonathan, Judith, and Ezra, she provided oral histories. She 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. …

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