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Laura Katzman began studying the photographs and paintings of Ben Shahn while a graduate student in art history at Yale. By 1989, she had begun her dissertation on his life and work and, as the thesis developed, so did her interest in mounting an exhibition of his relatively unknown street photographs of New York. She received her Ph.D. in 1997. This year, she launched an exhibit of Shahn’s work at Harvard University’s Sackler Museum of Art in Cambridge, Mass.
Now at the Phillips Collection in Washington, the show was co-curated by Deborah Martin Kao, curator of photography at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, and Jenna Webster, a curatorial assistant at the Fogg, and culled from Harvard’s archive of more than 600 Shahn photos of New York City, dating from 1932 to 1935. The show (reviewed on Page 44) is accompanied by a catalogue, published by Yale University Press, that bears the same title as the exhibition: Ben Shahn’s New York: The Photography of Modern Times.
Though they share a title, the catalogue does much more than merely complement the show, however: It stands on its own as an important book about Shahn. The catalogue provides a much stronger sense of Shahn’s photographs than do the gallery rooms. Although Shahn himself wanted to be seen as a painter first, and then a photographer, the catalogue will be more satisfying than the exhibit to those who want to see his photographs entirely on their own.
Indeed, the book is more accurately titled than the show, which could just as easily be named “The Relationship Between Painting and Photography in the Works of Ben Shahn.” The show’s importance lies in its status as a pivotal transitional moment in critical perspectives on Shahn; it will no doubt usher in an era of increased interest in Shahn as a photographer, as well as painter. Shahn went to significant lengths to downplay his photography, says Katzman, and this show displays him as someone for whom photography was integral to both painting and the arc of his artistic career. In the book, the paintings—which, in some rooms, dominate the show—are reduced to the same size as the photos, becoming almost incidental.
Katzman, an assistant professor of art at Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Lynchburg, Va., and part-time Washington resident, cares passionately about Shahn, the full range of his work, and the multiple, complex dilemmas he encountered as a Lithuanian-born, Brooklyn-raised Jewish artist making art before and after World War II. She seems to feel the tensions he felt between painting and photographing, as if the two media represented a New vs.Old World dichotomy for him. It is out of this empathy for the artist and his creative processes, rather than a perspective of critical distance, that she and her co-curators conceived and actualized the exhibition.
Katzman’s residence in D.C. gives her ready access to the Library of Congress’s archive of more than 6,000 Shahn photographs. Taken for the Farm Service Administration in the ’30s, these images focus on small-town life in the South and Midwest. Reading Ben Shahn’s New York, it seems inevitable that Katzman will combine a study of the library’s more rural images with her extensive knowledge of Shahn’s New York photographs and compile a monograph focusing exclusively on Shahn the photographer. —Anna Blume