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"Ben Shahn's New York: The Photography of Modern Times"
2000-06-10 until 2000-08-27
Phillips Collection
Washington, DC, USA

Ben Shahn's New York will present a pivotal, but little examined body of photographic work from the 1930s by Ben Shahn (1898_1969), a celebrated American social realist of the twentieth century. Featuring 122 photographs, 12 easel paintings, as well as ink drawings, mural studies, and related archival material, the exhibition showcases Ben Shahn's rich documentation of the complexities of life in New York in the 1930s. The exhibition will consider the function and meaning of his photographic production within the larger social and political climate of the Depression era. Drawn primarily from the collection of the Harvard University Art Museums, the photographs demonstrate the artist's contributions to the social documentary tradition and his experimental use of photography as a primary research tool for subsequent work in diverse media.

Ben Shahn's New York photographs represent his first foray into the medium, laying the foundation for the more public photography he made later for the Resettlement Administration/Farm Security Administration (RA/FSA). These photographs also inspired many of his most important paintings, and established a photographic aesthetic and working process that would characterize his work for decades.

At the time that photography became an essential part of his artistic process, Shahn was a struggling, reform-minded artist involved in the leftist publication Art Front and the activities of the Artist's Union, working on socially conscious paintings and murals. Committed to employing art as a tool for progressive political action, Ben Shahn emphasized the social message of his work over its media: I am a social painter or photographer . . . I find difficulty in making distinctions between photography and painting. Both are pictures. Early in his career, Shahn used newspaper photographs as source material for murals, graphics, and paintings, including the Sacco and Vanzetti series (1931_32), a series that brought Shahn controversial attention in the New York art world.

By the early 1930s, Shahn propelled himself into the vanguard of social documentary practice when he began to make his own photographs. Using a handheld 35 mm Leica camera, Shahn captured scenes of ordinary life, poverty, and protest on the Lower East Side and in other neighborhoods throughout mid- and lower Manhattan. Shahn embraced the new miniature 35 mm Leica camera for its ability to capture movement, detail, and odd angles beyond the grasp of human vision. Photography provided him with a way of seeing that was highly influential to the development of documentary photography at a critical stage in Depression-era America.

He shared a studio in Greenwich Village with Walker Evans, whom Shahn accompanied at times while photographing. Like Evans, Shahn frequently used a right-angle viewfinder, a type of periscope attachment to his camera's viewfinder, which allowed him to look straight ahead while actually photographing the perpendicular scene. As Evans would later recall, Shahn and I both discovered a gadget that fitted on a Leica camera . . . with this thing [we could] . . . photograph people unobserved . . . we stole their picture which was a thing we felt perfectly guiltless about doing because in the amplitude of youth we thought we were working in the great tradition of [Honoré] Daumier and The Third-Class Carriage.

In Ben Shahn's New York, Shahn's photographic eye leads us through the neighborhoods and streets of Manhattan in the 1930s—from the infamous speakeasies and exotic cafes of Greenwich Village, to the street orators of Union Square and produce merchants from the East Side. These vivid portrayals reveal urban life and landscape in the Depression and the social history of the ethnic immigrants who peopled the blocks of mid- and lower Manhattan.

The exhibition also features photographic material related to Shahn's work on public projects, including his most ambitious mural design of the 30s, the Rikers Island Penitentiary mural. Shahn's preparatory photographs for the Rikers Island Penitentiary mural represent his first use of photography as a primary research tool for a large-scale mural. A leader of progressive artists' movements, Shahn, like his fellow Film and Photo League photographers, addressed the larger meaning of protest in his work. In a series of Artists' Union photographs, Shahn and his colleagues document demonstrators marching in May Day parades from Union Square to City Hall and to uptown locations, protesting cutbacks in government support, and denouncing international fascism. These images and the Depression-era conditions they chronicle reveal Shahn and his comrades working to improve their own lives and the lives of those they document with their cameras.

The exhibition concludes with an extraordinary group of photographs and related works about the Lower East Side that summarize Shahn's attitudes towards photography and offer insight into Shahn's immigrant past and Jewish heritage. Photographs produced from a recently discovered intact roll of film that the artist exposed in 1936 are presented in their original sequence, giving visitors the rare opportunity to see how Shahn photographed as he walked along the streets of Manhattan.

Shahn's New York photographs are compelling works of social realist art. They provide a rich vehicle for exploring other aspects of Shahn's oeuvre and the larger milieu of American visual culture during the Great Depression.


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