Thesis & Background
Viewing the Life of a Town
by Morgan Rondinelli
presents an immense range of pictures of New York in his photobook Growing Up in New York. Main categories of images included are pictures of children playing games in the street, citizens riding a subway, bridges and their construction, piles of garbage, young people at a park, and many moments captured on the street. At a first glance it seems difficult to find one main theme in this vastly varied collection of photographs. However, the photobook’s title hints at a central theme. Nearly all of Leipzig’s photographs are of the people of New York. Then, the few photographs that are not of people still reflect the physical structures and layout of the city. As evident by the title of the photobook, Growing Up in New York, the focus of this photobook is supposed to be on the city itself. Leipzig’s pictures that very personally capture New York’s inhabitants can reveal a great deal of information about this city. A viewer can learn what New York’s atmosphere looked and felt like, what the people living there did as a part of daily life or for fun, and so much more. Therefore, I wanted to explore the theme of how Leipzig captured and portrayed his hometown. Moreover, I wanted to not only explore how Leipzig saw and then presented his own town but in my imitation of his photographs and point of view I hoped to try to look at my own towns in a different way. This exploration mainly included my current town of Ann Arbor.
Video by Morgan Rondinelli
By observing and photographing a town I feel the images produced act as more than documentation of some local citizens. Photographing a town also helps capture the feeling of the location and people. Attempting to capture what my own towns feel like for those there allowed me to try to see in Ann Arbor what Leipzig saw in New York. Perhaps his point of view is to capture the fun and energy and overall life of a location. Through his somewhat modernist and aesthetically pleasing style, Leipzig’s photobook reveals a great spirit of the city of New York. I hoped to capture this same spirit in Ann Arbor.
Leipzig’s photobook easily fits in to the descriptions of a photobook given by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger. In their book The Photobook: A History, Vol. 1 they include a basic definition of a photobook: “A photobook is a book-with or without text-where the work’s primary message is carried by photographers…. It has a specific character, distinct from the photographic print, be it the simply functional ‘work’ print, or the fine-art ‘exhibition’ print” (Parr and Badger).5 Leipzig’s photobook is one that contains a bit of explanatory text along with a large number of images, the clear focus of his book. Even with this text, the actual images of New York speak more to the reader about Leipzig’s portrayal of the city than the additional details written. Moreover, Growing Up In New York is an excellent example of a photobook with a “specific character.”‘ The act of combining all of these photographs together into one unit alters how the images are viewed. When separate, these photographs may just be single scenes viewed of New York. Together, they generate this overall portrayal of New York as Leipzig wanted to present it. This is a large distinction for these pictures from being merely photographic prints. Together, this large group of images becomes more of a “fine-art ‘exhibition’ print” of people and places in New York (Parr and Badger).5
In his photobook Leipzig categorizes his pictures into groups and themes based on similar content. He puts photographs next to each other that share the same subject matter or were taken at the same location. Many of these groupings are introduced with a small piece of writing by Leipzig himself.
While there are other images that do not quite fit into one of the specific explanations Leipzig gives, the categories Leipzig does helps explain include: Children’s Games, War Games, Subway, Assignment Brooklyn Bridge (exemplified to the left), Garbage, Coney Island, Strike at the Daily News, Watching Santa, D.A.R., Opening Night at the Opera, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and Louis Prima.
Some photographers in photobooks merely order their pictures to demonstrate some sort of meaning or to draw out somewhat inconspicuous similarities between adjacent images. The fact that Leipzig’s adjacent images tend to be extremely similar, rather than just relatable, helps reveal the themes Leipzig is trying to demonstrate in his images. One huge category of images Leipzig presents is children playing various games in the street. This category, the first of the photobook, is an excellent example of Leipzig presenting a theme to his viewers by providing one subject matter in a large number of images all together. To help explain what his goal is from these photographs Leipzig writes in Growing Up in New York, “In working-class neighborhoods there was little room for playing at home, so kids played out in the streets. They played games that had been handed down for generations, as well as others they made up.” This group of pictures and Leipzig’s full explanation subtly reveal a large amount of information about youth in New York of the 1940s and 1950s. A viewer learns children play very old games, they play in the street due to lack of space in their homes, and children are very resourceful and creative in creating props for their games. All of this information, told to the reader and then demonstrated in the following images, helps demonstrate the spirit of young, New York children. By revealing how they spent their days and by helping a viewer understand their lives, in this one category of young children at play, Leipzig establishes one piece of the entire spirit of New York City.
The inclusion of many different categories and settings of images throughout New York allow Leipzig to draw together one full capturing of life in New York City during the 1940s and 1950s. All of the groupings generate a slightly different element by showing a people of different ages, people of varying classes, people doing a variety of activities, etc. Together in one book just about all of Leipzig’s New York is represented.
Some of the types of photographs I aimed to imitate included children playing, locals on public transportation, and people attending events of high society, such as Leipzig’s photos at the opera, among others. I believe these images full of local citizens and fun aspects of daily life greatly help reveal a city’s spirit. Thus, I feel if I was able to capture some of these pieces in Ann Arbor I captured similar elements of life as Leipzig captured in New York. Then, these similar categories, but in different cities, could be compared.
For me, Leipzig’s photographs catch my eye because they seem to somehow transport the viewer into the scene themselves. When I see Leipzig’s photos of people at Coney Island or his photos of piles of garbage I almost feel like I am actually there as well, hearing the riders scream or smelling the transported waste. This livelihood of Leipzig’s photos seems to make them somewhat iconic. He somehow captured movement and life even though a photograph is a stopped moment. This feeling of movement in his images is created in part through the very clear, expressive facial expressions of the photographed subjects. Moreover, the naturalness of the subjects’ movements and expressions, as opposed to being very posed, add to this feeling of actually being there to witness the event in the photo.
Leipzig’s commentary on the “War Games” photographs:
“They boys in these photographs were hard at play the afternoon I approached their vacant lot on Dean Street in Brooklyn. They were completely engaged in their war games…I wanted to photograph them but before I could begin the kids saw my camera and the war stopped. They all lined up for a group photo. When I told them I would take their picture only if they were playing, they returned to their game, and within moments were immersed in the war. It was their absorption and their lack of self-consciousness that made these photographs possible” (Growing Up in New York).
This liveliness and the non-posed aspect of Leipzig’s photographs are truly stunning. I hope to similarly be able to capture the natural lives of Ann Arbor.
Understanding Arthur Leipzig’s background is essential to fully understanding his point of view. “Arthur Leipzig was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1918” and spent most of his life in this city. “After studying photography at the Photo League in 1942, he became a staff photographer for the Newspaper PM, where he worked for the next four years” (About Arthur Leipzig)1. I believe the amount of time Leipzig spent in the town he photographed, especially as an actual native and resident to the area, influenced his photographs. He knew New York and the feeling of the New York atmosphere very well. Thus, perhaps this allowed Leipzig to better capture this very natural perspective of New York, as opposed to capturing New York from the perspective from an outsider. These are two very different potential views a photographer may have on their subjects and which position a photographer fits into drastically alters the themes they are able to present through their work. (For a full biography on Arthur Leipzig visit: http://www.arthurleipzig.com/bio.html1).
Furthermore, Leipzig did not just grow up and live in New York. He did all of this while also having a Jewish background. The early 1900s was a time of huge amounts of Jewish immigration to America, especially to New York City.
“The twentieth century witnessed the emergence of American Jewry on the world Jewish scene. As the century opened, the United States, with about one million Jews, was the third largest Jewish population center in the world, following Russia and Austria-Hungary. About half of the country’s Jews lived in New York City alone, making it the world’s most populous Jewish community by far, more than twice as large as its nearest rival, Warsaw, Poland” (Sarna and Golden)6.
Nonetheless, despite their expansive numbers, life for American Jews was far from perfect. One problem was the “three-part religious division among Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews… [which] gave expression to longstanding intracommunal conflicts over rituals, beliefs, and attitudes toward tradition and change” (Sarna and Golden)6. Moreover, American Jews still faced antisemitism in the time leading up to and during World War II. Then, during World War II, Jewish communities of Europe were vastly reduced. This made “America in 1945…unrivaled as the largest, richest, and politically most important Jewish community in the world.” Furthermore, the state of Israel was created in 1948 and antisemitism decreased in the postwar time period (Sarna and Golden)6. Overall, as Leipzig grew up in New York, the American Jews underwent a great deal of changes. It is reasonable to assume these changes helped influence Leipzig’s photography. He did not really come to photography until the early 1940s (About Arthur Leipzig)1. Then, as he claims, “two weeks later I knew that Photography would be my life’s work” (Growing Up in New York). Clearly, Leipzig fell in love with and decided to pursue photography very quickly. Perhaps it is reasonable to speculate that photography for Leipzig, as it was for so many other photographers, was a way to understand the world around him. Even though he knew New York very well as a native, this was a rapidly changing New York. Maybe photographing the changing New York helped Leipzig better understand the cultural and political situations around him. (For more information on what life was like for American Jews in the 1900s: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/twenty/tkeyinfo/jewishexp.htm5)
“My days were spent shooting with my 9x12cm Zeiss Ikon camera; my nights in the darkroom and in discussion with other students and photographers. I was obsessed. It was in New York that I honed my skills and began to learn about the world and about myself.” -Arthur Leipzig (Growing Up in New York)
The following video shows the evolving East New York. It should be noted that the first photograph shown (of the Brooklyn Bridge) was taken by Leipzig. Viewers should also note the Jewish elements shown in the video.
Many of the other images in the video are quite different from Leipzig’s style of photography. This shows the abundance of New York photographers and the wide range of photographic techniques being used or experimented with in the 1900s.