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“Ben Shahn’s New York: The Photography of Modern Times”

At the Phillips Collection to Aug. 27

Although his style of social realism might seem quaint compared with the works of notorious contemporary artists like Damien Hirst, Chris Olifi, and Tracey Emin, in his day, Brooklynite Ben Shahn (1898-1969) was an acclaimed painter with a flair for the controversial. Shahn’s works lionized such causes celebres as that of anarchist martyrs Sacco and Vanzetti, and he apprenticed with Diego Rivera as the Mexican artist was painting his soon-to-be demolished anti-capitalist mural at the Rockefeller Center. Later, Shahn had his own mural commissioned—and then rejected—by the city officials responsible for building the Riker’s Island Correctional Facility in New York City.

Shahn’s admirers may also recall that he was a photographer for the Depression-era Farm Security Administration, shooting images of poverty among rural sharecroppers. But were it not for a trio of intrepid curators, most of us would know nothing about the New York City photographs that

Shahn took in the early ’30s—mainly because the bulk of them have spent the past three decades buried in the archives of Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum.

After years of preparation, the exhibit that Deborah Martin Kao, Laura Katzman, and Jenna Webster put together—”Ben Shahn’s New York: The Photography of Modern Times”—is now on display at the Phillips Collection. (See Page 48 for more on Katzman.) By mounting Shahn’s photography side by side with his paintings, the three co-curators have laid bare Shahn’s artistic process. Yet rather than helping clarify Shahn’s intentions, the exhibit’s pairings raise more questions than they answer.

Shahn typically shot his photographs in public locations and in natural light, using an easily portable 35mm camera (equipment that, at the time, was looked down upon by most serious photographers). Even more atypically, Shahn snapped his photographs using a viewfinder that was attached at a 90-degree angle to the lens, allowing him to snap scenes that were off to his left rather than directly in front of him. This deception was designed to catch his subjects unawares and thus more “natural” than conventional portraiture or action photography could make them appear.

Judged on its own, Shahn’s New York photography—mostly taken in the period before FSA higher-ups mandated greater attention to rural areas—is a triumph. His images of congregating workmen, who are often standing in unemployment lines, are masterpieces of street photography and beautifully encapsulate Depression-era urban America. Images of stoop-sitters, luncheon menus (“PIGS SNOUTS…PORK BUTTS”), a kid slumping on the sidewalk reading a tattered copy of the Sunday comics, and immigrant-filled streets capture the despair, the ordinariness, and, occasionally, the fleeting joy of Shahn’s time.

Shahn skillfully portrayed the men of the period, but he possessed a special talent for photographing youngsters, especially when they were at play. The whitewashed wall of a handball court, for instance, provided Shahn with a striking geometrical backdrop for rows of long-limbed kids in a series of near-abstract photographs. Moreover, because of the intimacy of Shahn’s small Leica, the viewer feels closer to the action than with the work of most of his urban contemporaries.

As powerful as some of these photographs are, Shahn himself regarded many of them mostly as sketching devices. Although he often submitted his photographs to magazines at the beginning of his career, he increasingly focused on his paintings as time went on. Shahn would squirrel away his photographs for use as elements in paintings he made later—often years after the images were shot.

The curators of “Ben Shahn’s New York” serve art history well by displaying Shahn’s preparatory photographs and sketches alongside his resulting paintings. Their detective work was remarkably thorough; the curators tracked down secondary images, newspaper clippings, and even entire rolls of film to illustrate how Shahn went about the task of assembling his paintings. Still, seeing both source and finished product at the same time is often jarring.

Consider Blind Accordion Player, a 1945 painting based on an early-’30s photograph. The photograph captures the accordionist during a 14th Street sidewalk concert; the subsequent painting places him in an abandoned rural wasteland. I liked the photograph as soon as I saw it; it’s spontaneous and intense, and the crowd surrounding the musician adds drama. Had I seen the painting but not the photograph, I probably would have liked it as well. But when I saw both pieces side by side, I had to ask why Shahn took a perfectly good image, kept the figure, and completely junked the context. Everything I admired in the photograph disappears in the painting.

Of course, that was Shahn’s privilege as an artist; if he liked the figure but not its context, so be it. I get more skeptical, however, when the transformations are polemical. And with Shahn—who worked as part of a resolutely leftist art world—there’s a lot of polemicism floating in the background. I don’t doubt that Shahn’s passions were real; many of his photographs and his paintings exude an unmistakable empathy for the dispossessed. But frequently I find that Shahn’s method undercuts his ideals, rather than affirming them.

Take Girl Skipping Rope, a 1943 painting composed with the help of a 1937 newspaper image of a girl and a 1935 Shahn photograph of an abandoned house. In the clipping, the girl appears to be a normal, well-adjusted, happy tyke (and the newspaper’s caption seems to concur). But in the painting, Shahn drew her face with a frown and a ghostly pallor. He also added the abandoned house as a backdrop, with sheets of floral wallpaper suddenly visible. Two shrubs stand on a hill in the distance, looking almost like exploding bombshells.

Viewed on its own, Girl Skipping Rope makes an eloquent statement against poverty, war, or both. But am I the only viewer who is put off by the stark transformation of a happy little kid into a symbol of destruction and waste? By uncovering the painting’s sources, the show’s curators have tarnished its power. Making such changes was Shahn’s prerogative, but there’s another prerogative as well—the viewer’s, to be skeptical about trusting a politically charged painting that’s abstracted almost entirely from apolitical sources.

Even in the photographs considered alone, Shahn’s politics threaten to undercut his documentary skills. For instance, many of Shahn’s images from inside the New York City penal system are excellent—similar to, and often as good as, his dynamic street photographs. But the prisons seem positively idyllic compared with his depictions of the Depression-wracked outside world. And Shahn’s inmates look almost unanimously heroic; many of these photographs even show them performing productive activities, from farming to construction to painting.

What accounts for this rosy representation? One hint comes from the curators’ wall comments, which explain that Shahn, predictably enough, had to cooperate with the prison authorities to win access to their facilities. But the jailers and Shahn seemed to have wanted the same sorts of images for different reasons: The jailers needed to show that their stewardship was beneficent, while Shahn wished to demonstrate to city policymakers that rehabilitative services could help inmates. Shahn’s politics again seem to have colored his portrayal of reality.

As forceful documents of their time, Shahn’s photographs are good enough to stand on their own. But the exhibit indicates over and over that Shahn considered his photography subsidiary to his political agenda and his desire to paint canvases. Ultimately, Shahn’s photographs—as technically sound and emotionally powerful as they are—are cheapened by their seemingly primary role as fodder for his grander designs. I don’t think I’m the only one to feel unease upon seeing the photographs and the paintings together; when I was touring the exhibit, a visitor in the gallery summed up his opinion of the show this way: “The paintings are magnificent. The photographs depress me.”

For that disjuncture, we can blame the curators. By taking an archetypal late-20th-century approach to mounting the exhibit—displaying Shahn’s sources and final products in tandem—the curators force viewers to consider both sides of the equation at once rather than each side separately. And in this case, one plus one amounts to less than two. CP