Campus & Community

Ben Shahn’s New York

7 min read

The moment I stepped into the Ben Shahn exhibition currently at the Sackler Museum, I had the feeling that I was in the presence of something uncannily familiar, a world I knew through legend rather than experience.

These street scenes that Shahn had captured on film in New York City in the early 1930s were far from my own post-World War II childhood in suburban Queens, but they were the visual embodiment of stories I had heard all my life from my father.

He grew up on East 100th Street, further uptown than Shahn’s photographic forays generally took him, but the same ethos was there – the immigrant women selling vegetables, boys playing on street corners in baggy knickers and hand-me-down shirts, Sig Klein’s Fat Men’s Shop with its figure of a rotund gentleman in longjohns (“If everybody was fat,” the sign reads, “there would be no war”), men in suits and hats sleeping on the sidewalks, restaurant window menus with their preposterously low prices.

“Ben Shahn’s New York: The Photography of Modern Times,” brings together 150 photographs, ink drawings, easel paintings, mural studies, and ephemera that demonstrate the artist’s efforts to document life in New York City during the 1930s.

Better known as a painter and muralist than a photographer, Shahn (1898-1969) is one of those artists whose work is familiar even to people who may not know his name. For many, he is the quintessential political artist, a classic social realist who first gained recognition for the series of paintings he did in the early 1930s, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (shown at Harvard in 1932).

But, as the current exhibition at the Sackler Museum makes clear, Shahn was more than a maker of protest images, although his commitment to social and economic reform was very real. He was also, along with his contemporaries Lewis Hine, Paul Strand, and Walker Evans (with whom he shared a studio on Bethune Street), one of the pioneers of 20th-century documentary photography.

The exhibition was created by Deborah Martin Kao, the Fogg Art Museum’s Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography; Laura Katzman, assistant professor of art and director of the museum studies program at Randolph-Macon Women’s College, Lynchburg, Va.; and Jenna Webster, curatorial assistant in the Fogg Museum’s department of photographs. The exhibition was funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Arranged according to the neighborhoods Shahn photographed – Greenwich Village, Union Square, Midtown, the Lower East Side – the exhibition is almost a virtual walking tour of New York. Shahn typically focused on people, moving in close with his 35 mm Leica, a camera that had been introduced only a few years before. By using a right-angle viewfinder, an attachment that functioned like a periscope, Shahn was able to lull his subjects into thinking the camera was aimed elsewhere.

Like his fellow Leica-user Henri Cartier-Bresson, an artist whose work he knew and admired, Shahn employed the small, unobtrusive camera to capture “the decisive moment,” although Shahn’s moments tend to be more intimate and less formally composed than those of his French counterpart.

By placing these candid street photos alongside Shahn’s paintings and drawings, the curators demonstrate how the artist used these images snatched from real life as a source for works in other media.

“We wanted people to have fun looking for the sources of the paintings, but we didn’t want the paintings to be the grand finale. That’s why we structured these sections around a common subject matter, like children playing or men sitting on benches,” said Kao.

Yet it is startling to see the photographs and paintings side by side and to see the way Shahn transformed and combined these photographic images. A photo of a man sitting outside a funky waterfront restaurant becomes the painting “Seurat’s Lunch,” done five years later. Many of the details are the same, but Shahn characteristically distorts the man’s figure, making the head and hands disproportionately large.

In another painting, “Girl Skipping Rope” (1943), the girl is from a newspaper clipping but subtly elongated with a blue-gray face; the ruin she skips in front of is from a photo Shahn took in 1935 in Pennsylvania, while the boy on the left is excerpted from a group he shot on the streets of New York.

“Shahn had a tendency to acquire images and to keep them over a long period of time, using them again and again in different contexts,” said Kao.

He tended to be fiercely protective over this source material. When Shahn’s friend Lou Block wrote from Louisville and asked to borrow some of his 8-by-10s, Shahn demurred, telling Block that he couldn’t bear to part with his “precious prints.”

Also in the exhibition are studies Shahn did for two ambitious mural projects, neither of which was executed. Shahn learned fresco painting from the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, working as his assistant on the controversial mural Rivera was commissioned to paint in Rockefeller Center (the mural, considered too radical by the Rockefeller family, was later destroyed).

One of Shahn’s unfinished murals was on the subject of Prohibition, which had recently been rescinded. It was to have been painted in the Central Park Casino (now Tavern on the Green), but the project was scrapped when its funding agent, the federal Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), disbanded in 1934.

Another, even more ambitious mural was to have been painted in the newly constructed penitentiary on Rikers Island. Filling a 100-foot-long hallway, one side of the mural was to have shown the cruelty and injustice of past prison systems, while the other celebrated the modern concept of rehabilitation.

Shahn toured prisons in the New York area in preparation for the project, and many of the photos he took are on display, along with his plans and sketches. At the last minute, the Municipal Art Commission nixed the project, touching off a storm of protest among liberal artists and their supporters. The curators of the Sackler show have collected copies of Shahn’s sketches and arranged them in a scale model of the prison corridor. It is the first time the concept of the mural has been presented in its entirety.

In 1935 Shahn left his mural troubles behind and began working for a federal agency called the Resettlement Administration, (later renamed the Farm Security Administration), taking pictures of farmers in the South and Midwest, miners in Appalachia, and other representatives of rural America. Because they have been widely published, these have become Shahn’s best-known photographs. The RA/FSA photos are represented in the current exhibition, but the curators chose to focus on the New York photographs because they are a virtually unknown body of work that immensely influenced Shahn’s art both in the 1930s and throughout his career.

“Because New York figured so prominently in his own autobiography, the photographs he took there had a special resonance for him,” Kao said. “He came to think of this early work as formative, and he always returned to these New York images.”

“Ben Shahn’s New York: The Photography of Modern Times” will remain at the Sackler until April 30, after which it will travel to museums in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Chicago.

Art Museums To Hold Photography Workshop in Conjunction with Shan ExhibitIn conjunction with the exhibition Ben Shahn’s New York: The Photography of Modern Times, the Harvard University Art Museums is sponsoring a workshop led by photographer Walter Crump. During the workshop, participants will look at the exhibition Ben Shahn’s New York: The Photography of Modern Times, use cameras to make their own photographs, and engage in a range of studio activities using their photographic images.

The workshop will take place on Sat., April 8 and Sun., April 9 from 2-4 p.m. at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art, 485 Broadway. Space is limited. To register, or to find out more about this program, please call the Department of Public Education at (617) 495-4402

This program is free. All materials will be provided.