Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 25, 2001
Deborah Martin Kao, Laura Katzman, and Jenna Webster Ben Shahn’s New York: The Photography of Modern Times Yale University Press in association with Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Museums, 2000. 340 pp.; 24 color ills.; 246 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0300083157)
Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, February 5-April 30, 2000; The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, June 10-August 27, 2000; The Grey Art Gallery, New York University, October 14, 2000-January 27, 2001; David and Alfred Smart Museum, University of Chicago, April 19-June 17, 2001.

“To me, images are images…They’re images, and they can be moving or not. That’s all there is to it.” So stated the painter and photographer Ben Shahn in a 1965 interview, cited in an appendix of this excellent catalogue that was published to accompany an exhibition of Shahn’s early photographs of street life in New York. Shahn’s statement summarizes succinctly the main theme that the contributors to this volume wish to address: the relationship between Shahn’s paintings and his photographic work, and more specifically, the place of his New York photographs in the development of his humanistic iconography.

Now that art historians in a postmodern world can dismiss the old hierarchies of aesthetic value—according to which Shahn’s paintings had to be given a higher aesthetic status than his photographs—the exhibition organizers can look at all of his works afresh. The authors range in their discussions across Shahn’s artistic, political and social activities, merging rather than distinguishing between his creative efforts in the same way that the artist himself merged these spheres in his own life. The results are richly satisfying, and the considered attention paid to this socially-committed artist in this studious catalogue is long overdue.

Of particular interest here is the decision by the exhibition organizers to focus on Shahn’s photographs taken in the 1930s on the streets of Manhattan, when he was just learning to use a Leica minicam equipped with a right-angle viewfinder. He felt that the photographs would be useful aids for his paintings, and at first was unconcerned about the artistic value of the photographs themselves. Many of these street studies have never been exhibited before, and very few have been reproduced widely. Shahn’s more well-known photographs, done in the rural South while on assignment for Roy Stryker’s F.S.A. in the 1930s, are powerful images; but one often senses in those shots that the artist appeared in West Virginia mining towns and Louisiana swamps as a kind of sympathetic yet foreign sociologist; he was struck by the newness of this kind of poverty, by an “other” America that differed so completely from the culture that he knew. He always remained an immigrant New Yorker, a product of the Jewish neighborhoods of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn, and, most significantly, of European-led leftist politics and city-bred unionism. The spontaneity of these street images—which include no interior shots at all—makes Shahn’s New York photos particularly affecting and immediate in their power.

The essays in this volume provide a vivid picture of Depression-era New York, in which Shahn’s images serve as the conduit by which the aesthetics as well as the social circumstances of this time and place are illuminated. Laura Katzman appropriately titles the first chapter “Scenes from the Living Theater,” borrowing the phrase from Shahn’s own caption for a narrative spread of his photos in a 1934 journal. Katzman’s strength lies in her solid stylistic analysis of Shahn’s imagery, acknowledging his debt to the Soviet photographer Ilya Ehrenburg’s documentary photo-book Moi Parizh (My Paris) (1933). Katzman emphasizes Shahn’s images as representations of social categories—race, unemployment, ethnicity, and, most affectionately, urban kids at play. In every case, Shahn focuses on individuals within groups, and despite his socialist politics, is always more interested in a human story than in any polemic. His delight in vernacular architecture and handmade shop signs led him, around Union Square, to shoot some of his only images without people. Even here, Shahn is more interested in the narrative inherent in such signs, conveying none of the spare compositional concentration that his friend Walker Evans emphasized in his famous views of vernacular American artifacts. Katzman’s last section on “Memory as Identity,” through a close reference to the images themselves, hones in on the personal meanings that these images must have had for Shahn, depicting the life of the streets he knew so well.

“Ben Shahn and the Public Use of Art,” by Deborah Martin Kao, considers Shahn’s ambitious efforts, both in painting and photography, in relation to radical artistic activities of the time. Kao demonstrates that Shahn was deeply committed to the idea of public art, the era’s so-called “reportage aesthetic.” Kao’s greatest contribution is her careful delineation of the politicized atmosphere that informed so much of Shahn’s and other artists’ activities during the 1930s, with an exemplary description of his cinematic-style photo-strips of May Day demonstrations published in the revolutionary journal Art Front. She also does a meticulous job of reconstructing Shahn’s efforts to produce a series of murals to be placed in the new prison at Rikers Island. Filled with reformist fervor—in terms of a subject matter and style bound to offend conservative forces both aesthetic and political—the mural project was doomed to be scrapped before the panels could be executed. But Kao’s computer-aided reconstruction of Shahn’s mural designs, along with reproduction of the photographs he made of prisoners, provide compelling evidence of the artist’s interactive methods. Photography and painting became for Shahn complementary mediums: photography allowed him to “get the details right,” but became powerful images on their own; equally, his paintings were always more inventive than mere copies of photographs.

The use of the term “cinematic” to describe Shahn’s approach to photography underlines Jenna Webster’s chapter, “Ben Shahn and the Master Medium,” which deals with Shahn’s relationship to film making. In terms of his photographic imagery, Webster points out Shahn’s frequent depiction of movie posters in ironic and metaphorical contexts; many of his F.S.A. shots, for instance, juxtapose the incongruous glamour presented in film posters with the grim surroundings of a derelict town. Movie signs also seemed to offer him a grounding in a shared vernacular culture amid unfamiliar rural settings. Despite a few, in most cases abortive, attempts to create documentary films along with Walker Evans, Shahn never made the break into the medium that he considered the greatest modern art form.

In the final chapter of the catalogue’s essays, Katzman specifically examines the relationship between Shahn’s paintings and photographs and considers the reasons for the previous neglect of this important comparative exercise. Here the topic ventures a bit far from the specific focus of the exhibition—the New York photographs—but the issues raised are so central to an understanding of Shahn’s working methods and aesthetic attitudes that they could not be ignored in a volume so comprehensive in its revisionist aims. As Katzman reveals, the reason for the usual separation of discussion of Shahn’s paintings and photographs by critics is a predictable one: even modernist reviewers were still ambivalent about photography’s status as an art form, a situation exacerbated by the rise of an abstractionist dogma that had equal trouble dealing with Shahn’s figurative, narrative, content-loaded paintings. Contemporary studies can thankfully get past such limiting constructs and can finally analyze the true nature of Shahn’s use of both painterly and photographic modes. A delightful example of the complexities of these interactions appears in the catalogue’s juxtaposition of the photograph with the painting it informed, Seurat’s Lunch (1939; cat. nos. 21 and 22). The irony of the title is apparent in the painting, in which a man is seated in front of a shop that is covered in white painted dots, reminding the viewer of a pointillist image. The droll humor of the painting is only enhanced when one compares it to the photograph upon which the image is based: the store was actually covered with those painterly dots! The “factual details” of the photograph only heighten the sense of invention that Shahn brought to the painted image: truth is sometimes more fanciful than fiction.

These scholarly essays fill only half of the volume. The editors also include historical descriptions of the areas of Manhattan in which Shahn made his photographs, followed by a complete catalogue of the images in the exhibition, extensive appendices of contemporary documents relating to Shahn’s work, and transcripts of some great interviews with the artist. The only quibble with the organization of the volume is that the contributors set up two systems of images, in the essays and in the catalogue section, which are at times hard to locate within the text itself. One must finally congratulate the proof-readers; I found only one typographical error and one omitted footnote within the appendices. Such a serious production about the neglected Ben Shahn, filled with enthusiastic observations and analytical skill, is a very welcome addition to the scholarship of photography and modernism.

Erika Esau
The Austrailian National University