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Jews and Social Conscience Through Photography


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Playing Football (1939) Gelatin silver print by Harold Corsini. Courtesy The Jewish Museum

Harold Corsini utilizes a similar perspective to create a haunting image of street sports in Playing Football (1939), part of the Harlem Document. Here the raking sunlight creates fantastically abstract shapes of cast shadows on the street. The man caught in mid-run appears suspended, as if the mere act of playing a sport allows him to levitate from the mundane reality of street life.

The photographers who were part of the Photo League were dedicated to every possible aspect of urban life that was going through enormous change in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Waves of new immigrants arrived to constantly shift the mix of race and ethnicity, creating a vibrant and shifting social scene. Sol Libsohn’s Hester Street(1945) documents this kind of flux so typical of many New York neighborhoods. Once the heart of the Jewish Lower East Side, by the 1940’s the street had yielded to many other immigrants. The diversity is further reflected in that the image captures almost every person in the crowd looking in different directions, framed by dual eyes of the eyeglass shops on the right and left edges. Libsohn’s photo seems to summarize the underlying alienation amid the urban bustle.

Hester Street (1945) Gelatin silver print by Sol Libsohn. Courtesy The Jewish Museum

And yet amid all of the difficulties, struggles and stresses of city life, there are persistent images of hope and joy that make life ultimately worthwhile. Walter Rosenblum’s Girl on a Swing, Pitt Street, New York (1938) returns us to the unblemished joy of a summer day, to what it means to grow up in the city in the shadow of its great bridges, as Rosenblum himself did. We know the playground still exists on Cherry Street at Market Slip, thanks to the Jewish Museum’s interactive website (www.thejewishmuseum.org) that not only locates all the images on maps of Harlem, Midtown, Downtown and Coney Island, but also adds rich historical and critical material to further contextualize the exhibition’s images.

The Jewish Museum’s “Radical Camera” is a thrilling, beautiful exhibition that documents the development of socially conscious photography, primarily in New York City. It was a time of great challenges and great change, uptown, downtown and all around. These intensely creative, sensitive and insightful photographers all had a hand in capturing a time when New York and its people were entering the turbulent heart of the 20th century. Isn’t it interesting that the vast majority of them happened to be Jews?

Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com.

About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


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