Documenting Harlem

Slums Must Go! May Day Parade, New York, c. 1936 ©Joe Schwartz

Slums Must Go! May Day Parade, New York, c. 1936
©Joe Schwartz

During the Great Depression, Americans all over the country learned what it was like to live under the poverty line, an experience it had previously reserved for select groups. Business men became peddlers, stock brokers stood in bread lines. However, those already living in these conditions slipped even further down the totem pole, faced with the same racial and socio-economic divides they had experienced for years. In the midst of such a disastrous experience, photographers in New York City began documenting in a new and groundbreaking way the lives of the society’s lowest class. The New York Photo League, whose members included photographic icons like Dorothea Lange and Robert Frank, was dedicated to exposing the social issues that had been drowned out by the country’s economic woes. African Americans, immigrants, and other under-represented groups became their focus, under their mission to “put the camera back into the hands of honest photographers who … use it to photograph America.”

A short history of The Photo League, from The Fishko Files, a program on NPR. ©WNYC

In the midst of the League’s heyday, Harlem became the center of attention for its most notable members. In an effort to document the

Locations of Photo League photographs, Harlem. ©The Jewish Museum, Google

Locations of Photo League photographs, Harlem.
©The Jewish Museum, Google

life and plight of New York’s poorest, photographers like Joe Schwartz and Aaron Siskind criss-crossed the neighborhood, attempting to capture the best and worst of the lives its residents. In Slums Must Go!, Schwartz shows us members of an immigrants union,protesting their circumstances in an effort to survive. Schwartz aims to make public the setbacks faced by those who come from traditionally poorer neighborhoods, in a greater effort to demonstrate the need for unity among American’s. In a statement on  his photography, Schwartz says:

Racism and bigotry are not innate. Adults can retain this awareness when not poisoned with the divisiveness sown by those who think the perpetuation of prejudice and injustice serve their self-interest.

His desire to break the barriers of social divides comes through especially in Slums Must Go!, as he not so subtlety displays the real life hardships faced by his subjects, a demographic that he himself, a Jew coming from a low-income family, belongs and relates to. Born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to immigrant parents, Schwartz grew up in what could only be described as slums. In the early 20th century, hoards of Jewish immigrants settled in Williamsburg, an area that is still predominantly Jewish to this day. His work reflects his upbringing and his desire to bring to light the issue of poverty caused by racism and bigotry, and Slums is the epitome of this mission.

Cook at Father Divine Mission, Harlem, c. 1935 ©Aaron Siskind

Cook at Father Divine Mission, Harlem, c. 1935
©Aaron Siskind

In line with Schwartz was Aaron Siskind, another Jewish photographer who came from humble beginnings. Siskind’s work with the Photo League also focused on social woes, most famously in Harlem Document, in which he captures the life of African Americans during the same time period. Siskind also believed in standing up for the minority and unifying the country, which can be seen in Cook at Father Divine Mission, which depicts a African American man working at the window of the Harlem branch of the Father Divine Mission, an organization that provided low cost meals to struggling families. Siskind’s choice to photograph this scene in particular demonstrates his desire to portray the African American community in a positive light, something that few outside the Photo League were doing. Like Schwartz, Siskind too identified with the plight of the people he was photographing. Like those living in Harlem, Siskind had come from a poor family and grown up with very little. As a Jew, he faced similar circumstances to Schwartz and the rest of the League, and this carried over into his subject choices. Father Divine is an excellent representation of this, as it shows the good in people and the humanity that exists even in the most dismal situations.

Slums and Father Divine are not only visually similar, showing low-income minorities fighting for their own survival and incorporating a written message, but their messages are identical: a divided country is a weak country. Schwartz and Siskind whole heartedly believed that the rampant racism that intensified during the Depression was shameful, and that human divides were artificial. By highlighting the hardships unique to minorities, they hoped to bring to light the understanding that we are all here together, and that we must work for the future of all Americans, not just those who come from our own background. This sense of unity and peoplehood is intrinsically Jewish, as Jews are always referred to as a people, a group that is inescapable. It is this same sense of underlying unity, of inexorable togetherness that Schwartz and Siskind sought to instill in the hearts of those they could reach with their photographs.


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