The Harvard University Art Museums are bringing New York to Cambridge this month, with an exhibit at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of the artistic and social documentary photographs of Ben Shahn.
The exhibit, “Ben Shahns New York: The Photography of Modern Times,” focuses on Shahns use of photographs as a research tool for his subsequent work in other media. The exhibit, which contains more than 150 photographs, ink drawings, paintings and mural studies, is open through April 30. The exhibit then begins a national tour.
By the 1930s, Shahn was in the vanguard of social documentary photography, using a handheld 35 mm Leica camera to shoot pictures of ordinary life, poverty, and protest on the Lower East Side and throughout lower and mid-Manhattan.
Shahn used these photographs as inspiration for socially-conscious drawings, paintings, prints, and posters, as well as for his public mural projects that promoted social reform programs.
“Students and scholars have benefited from the unique teaching and research opportunities presented by our longstanding relationship with Ben Shahn and our exceptional holdings of Shahns photography,” said James Cuno, Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director, Harvard University Art Museums. “We are delighted to now share such an important aspect of Shahns oeuvre with the public.”
The exhibit draws on the Harvard University Art Museums Ben Shahn collection, which is the most comprehensive repository of his photographs worldwide, and on the work of scholars in the Ben Shahn archive. Together, those elements make the Art Museums uniquely positioned to examine the significance of Shahns photographic production within the larger Depression-era culture.
The Art Museums hold more than 6,000 art objects in different media by Shahn, which were donated by his widow after his death. Shahn played various roles at Harvard during his career. His work was exhibited here when he was first gaining acclaim for his artistic definition of social issues. He also contributed to the Harvard community as a scholar, and in 1956 was awarded the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry. The professorship generated a series of lectures published by the Harvard University Press as The Shape of Content in 1957.