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Photographer Godfrey Frankel had rare luck for an artist: He saw his work appreciated, forgotten, then rediscovered decades later. In 1985, his photographs of 1940s-era Southwest D.C. and New York’s Lower East Side came to the attention of George Hemphill, an employee of Adams Morgan’s now-defunct Middendorf Gallery. Individual and group shows of Frankel’s photos followed, and in December 1992, the Washington Post Magazine published a photo-essay of Frankel’s D.C. images. Soon thereafter, the Smithsonian Institution Press suggested that Frankel create a photo book about historic Southwest’s squalid neighborhoods, which had been razed and redeveloped during the 1950s. The book, In the Alleys: Kids in the Shadow of the Capitol, was published this summer. For a man born in 1912, the attention had been a long time coming.
Frankel’s path to semi-fame began in 1943, during his tenure as the Washington Daily News‘ nightclub editor. One day, Frankel had gone for a leisurely bicycle ride through downtown D.C. He pedaled aimlessly and arrived in Southwest, where he ventured into a segregated neighborhood. Frankel brought his camera with him on subsequent bike rides, and took photographs of Southwest’s alleys, which were lined with two-story brick homes. He established a particular rapport with the children who played along the treeless cobblestone routes. A year later, thanks to a reference from Alfred Stieglitz, some of his work was included in a group show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Near the end of World War II, Frankel spent time taking photos at a Japanese-American relocation camp in Heart Mountain, Wyo. Afterward, Frankel and his new wife, Lillian, moved to New York City, where Frankel joined the Photo League and snapped shots of the burgeoning Lower East Side. But his time at Heart Mountain had led him into social work, and his art took second place to his day job. In the 1960s, he and Lillian settled in Silver Spring, Md. Two more decades would pass before Godfrey Frankel’s photo renaissance.
“George [Hemphill] was the first person who really saw the material and encouraged Godfrey to show it around [in 1985],” says journalist Laura Goldstein, who collaborated with Frankel on the Post Magazine photo-essay and In the Alleys. “George’s first reaction was that in terms of subject matter and style and mood, [Frankel’s work] was a lot like Dorothea Lange’s work….He thought it had a lot of commercial possibilities as art.”
Of course—Dorothea Lange. The WPA photographer’s name inevitably crops up in discussions of Frankel, though her most famous documentary work predates his images of Southwest D.C. Washingtonians who viewed the recent Lange exhibit at the Phillips Collection will recognize similarities in the photographers’ styles: Frankel does for striving District residents what Lange did for the migrant worker.
Hemphill, who now operates the George Hemphill Fine Arts Gallery in Georgetown, wanted to grab some of Frankel’s Lange-esque potential. “He gets in close to people, and if you look at his photographs you realize he’s in the social whirl,” Hemphill says. “He’s also in the tradition of typical East Coast liberal Jewish thinking, which…had social concerns. He applied these [concerns] to photography.” Hemphill offered to represent the photographer’s work, Frankel accepted, and an exhibition was scheduled to open this Sept. 7, coinciding with In the Alleys‘ publication.
“You want to open with a gangbuster show in the fall,” says Hemphill. “By July we knew that all the parts were pretty much done: The book was supposed to be delivered August 31, the portfolio was all printed….we were already committed to the show.” Sadly, Godfrey Frankel—who had been in and out of the hospital with heart trouble—died July 11.
“It’s disappointing because this was a real high point in his career,” Hemphill says. “Actually, I’ve been pretty pissed off in the months since he died because a lot of the joy of doing these kinds of things is…that it’s a completely invigorating experience for the artist.”
“I like the recognition but I’m terribly sorry Godfrey couldn’t live long enough to see it,” says Lillian Frankel. “He never thought anything would happen with these photographs.” She speaks fondly of Frankel’s continued dedication to his hobby; in his later years, he brought his camera on trips to Portugal and Mexico. (Hemphill notes that Frankel “always had a more penetrating and ambitious eye” than an ordinary vacationer.)
Frankel’s death also affected journalist Goldstein, who had interviewed former Southwest residents, researched 1940s and ’50s D.C., and profiled Frankel for In the Alleys. “What should have been a celebration of his work and his life is unfortunately going to be bittersweet,” she says. “He had been looking forward to [the book and the exhibition]—I know that the art director was bringing him page proofs in the hospital so he could stay involved.”
Working with Frankel introduced Goldstein to an obscure part of Washington’s history. After the Post story, she says, “Godfrey got a number of phone calls and letters from people….and he had the presence of mind to hang onto all those phone numbers.” Goldstein spoke with these readers, who put her in touch with others who had lived in Southwest’s alleys. She culled additional information from Dolores Smith’s documentary Southwest Remembered; the Martin Luther King Memorial Library’s Washingtoniana Collection; and photographer Joseph Owen Curtis’ block-by-block photo record of Southwest, housed in the D.C. library system’s Southwest branch.
Completing In the Alleys was a rewarding experience for the young writer. “I was hoping that Godfrey and I might have a chance to do [a volume] with his New York material,” Goldstein recalls. “We didn’t have all that much in common…but he had an extremely youthful outlook. In terms of his sensibilities, he was very open and, for lack of a better word, he was just a really hip guy. It came out of that whole New York bohemian-artist thing of the ’40s, and out of his training as a social worker.”
Those who remember Frankel often mention that he chose a steady paycheck over his art. But, in a sense, he managed to be both a bureaucrat and an artist—even if he didn’t stick around to see the coffee-table book.