For those of you who don’t know Ryan Nabulsi, he is many things. He is the assistant gallery director and all-around super star. He is a terrific photographer and Polariod enthusiast. He is a former Mellow Mushroom employee, and a former student president of Bates College. He can look like a terrorist but cleans up quite nicely. He is a cat-person, but he likes dogs too. He is an enigma and is most likely pissed at me for writing all of this.
Among his many talents (they unfold daily! who is this masked man!?!), he knows quite a scary bit about the history of photography. For the New York in the 1940s show (co-presented by the Howard Greenberg Gallery, on display at Jennifer Schwartz Gallery until the end of November), I asked him to write up a few notes for us about that period of photographic history.
The write-up was fantastic, so I am sharing.
New York City in the 1940s
The United States of America in the 1940s underwent a transformation from fledgling country to world super power. However, this was not a peaceful transition; it was one marred by war and economic hardship. The country had almost recovered from the devastating collapse of the stock market in 1929 which had led to the Great Depression of the 1930s. However, during the 1940s America would be thrust into another war in Europe, World War II. The first half of the decade would see Americans sacrificing for their country in order to make the world a safer more peaceful place void of tyrants. To this end, after World War II, America emerged as a superpower, one that represented the ideals of democracy; on the other hand, the USSR would also emerge as a world superpower, but representing the ideals of communism. Because of this duality of power in world politics, the end of the 1940s marked the beginning of the Cold War, which would last until the fall of Soviet Russia in 1991.
New York City during the 1940s represented and saw many changes in America. The burgeoning city would add many skyscrapers to the landscape while also experiencing a population boom. During the war, children populated the streets freely while their mothers filled the manufacturing jobs left behind by the drafted men. But as the war effort ramped up and more workers were needed, every able bodied worker was used to help fight the Axis powers regardless of race, creed, or gender. This marked the first time in American history since the advent of the Jim Crow laws that all citizens enjoyed most of the same rights. This small taste of full citizenship would spark the driving force behind the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s.
New York City became an epicenter for these events and as America began its rise to superpower status, so too would New York rise to mega-city, capital of the world. Art, politics, finance, fashion; anything that was new, cutting edge, or just plain “cool” could be found in New York City. Abstract Expressionism would be born in the bars and hangouts of New York and photographers would take the streets documenting the landscape and people in the same way that early 20th century photographers had capture Paris in transition. The collection at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery on loan from the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York City gives a glimpse into the city during a period of great hardship and yet great progress.
Berenice Abbott: Berenice Abbott began her career as a sculptor but a chance encounter with Man Ray in Paris led her into the world of photography. She began assisting Man Ray in 1923 in Paris where she also met Eugene Atget, a prominent documentary photographer of Paris. However, until Abbott came along, Atget’s work was relatively unknown. After Atget’s death in 1927, Abbott purchased his archives and published one of the first books on Atget, Atget: Photographe de Paris, in 1930. By this time, Abbott’s career as a photographer had been established by photographing business men for Fortune Magazine and other projects such as photographing the Eastern seaboard for Henry Russell Hitchcock. These projects caught the attention of the Work Progress Administration and in 1935 she supervised the Changing New York documentary project for the United States Federal Government. The time Abbott spent with the WPA would solidify her as a prominent voice in documentary photography. On display in the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery is one of her most recognizable works, “Triple Bridge,” which captured all three major New York City bridges in one spectacular shot.
Esther Bubley: Esther Bubley started her photographic career at a young age attending the Minneapolis School of Art and Design in 1939. Shortly after, Bubley moved to New York where she freelanced for Vogue Magazine, but her first stay in New York would only last a brief time. Bubley moved to Washington D.C. where she became Roy Stryker’s darkroom assistant at the Office of War Information from 1942-1944. From there she would be hired by Stryker again in 1944, this time for Standard Oil where she photographed how oil impacted American life. Bubley’s focus remained, throughout most of her photography, on the people and circumstances that Americans encountered on an every day basis. Whether children, as seen in “Children Playing Games on the Sidewalk” or adults, depicted in “NYC, Johnny Ray Fans, Midtown,” Bubley displayed a sensitivity to capturing the perfect moment where expression, gesture and photographic possibilities aligned (both on display at the Jennifer Schwart Gallery).
Rebecca Lepkoff: Rebecca Lepkoff has been photographing New York City since the late 1930’s. Associated with the Photo League, she captured the ethnic richness of life on the Lower East Side and set to document the changes which occurred to New York during the most of the 20th century. Rebecca continued to shoot the Lower East Side throughout the fifties, the seventies, and the eighties. Now an octogenarian, Rebecca Lepkoff continues to lead an active life between New York and her place in Vermont. Her work was recently included in Naomi Rosenblum’s influential publication “A History of Women Photographers” and corresponding traveling exhibition. Rebecca Lepkoff’s work is included in such prestigious collections as the National Museum of Art (Washington D.C.) the National Gallery of Canada, the Museum of the City of New York, the Bank of America and the Consolidated Freightways, Inc. Collection.
Ruth Orkin: Ruth Orkin was a prolific photographer receiving her first camera when she was only 10 years old. The daughter of a silent film star, Mary Ruby, and a toy manufacturer, Samuel Orkin, Ruth Orkin would find her home in New York City in 1943 where she at first supported herself as a night life and baby photographer. Her personal interests would lead her to extensively photograph different aspects of the city from the newly built skyscrapers to the local culture, which garnered her jobs with all the major magazines of the day. Though her photography would take her all over the world, whether photographing for Life in Israel or for her own books (An American Girl in Italy) in Italy and other places, Orkin always found herself returning to the place of her inspiration, New York City. The selection of Orkin photographs exhibited at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery shows the range of her talent and keen observational eye. In her six photograph series, “Jimmy the Storyteller,” the viewer is treated to the wit and wonder of three boys sharing a story on the street side. In another Orkin photograph, “White Stoops, NYC,” she captured the contrast and beauty between the light airiness of first snowfall and the rigidity and solidity of the modern automobile.
Sy Kattelson: Sy Kattelson, born in 1923 in New York City, became a member of the influential group called the Photo League in the early 1940s. Kattelson first exhibited his work in 1948 for the Photo League’s exhibit “This is the Photo League” in New York City. Kattelson would enjoy a healthy career as a photo-journalist photographing and exhibiting worldwide. His most famous works center on his hometown, New York City, where he captured the intricacies of city life. For example, exhibited at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery, “Woman with Children in Subway” depicts the common occurrence of subway travel in New York while at the same time showing us a deeper and more conflicted state of affairs between the woman and the children.
Harold Roth: Harold Roth photographed the changing architecture of New York City. From the beginning of the 20th century, New York City began the transition from Victorian mega-city to a modern metropolis. Roth, much like Eugene Atget in Paris, documented the structural change by focusing on the buildings and archetypal characters that populated the city. For the NY in the 1940s exhibit at the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery, a small collection of Roth photographs shows his sensitivity to the changing environment in such photographs like “Flat Iron Building” and “Empire State Building” while “Water Street” and “Boys on East River Pier” capture a sense of the people of that time period.