Mel Rosenthal

Mel Rosenthal (1940–2017)

Mel Rosenthal, a documentary photographer who traveled all over the world to places such as Cuba, Nicaragua, and Tanzania—but became well known for capturing gritty images of life in the South Bronx, his childhood home—passed away on October 30, writes Neil Genzlinger of the New York Times. He died from complications of dementia.

Rosenthal graduated from City College in 1961 and received a Ph.D. in 1967 from the University of Connecticut in English literature and American studies. Though he became enamored of photography when he was an exchange student in Rome, it was Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film, Blow-Up, about a fashion photographer in Swinging London, that really alerted him to his true calling.

After teaching for a number of years at Vassar College, the artist went to work as a medical photographer at a Tanzanian hospital. He then came back to New York in 1975 for a job at Empire State College in the Bronx, where he ended up working for thirty-six years. It was his return to the borough of his youth—and seeing how dramatically it had changed—that pushed Rosenthal to create In the South Bronx of America, a book of photos published in 2000.

Rosenthal had been in numerous exhibitions during his lifetime. Among them: “A Community of Many Worlds: Arab Americans in New York,” which opened at the Museum of the City of New York in 2002, not too long after the September 11 attacks, and “Refugee: The Newest New Yorkers,” a traveling exhibition that Times critic Holland Cotter reviewed when it was at the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies in Philadelphia in 2001. Said Cotter of the show: “The American dream is still alive here; so are the conflicts it entails as contrasting cultures and values abruptly meet, and people struggle to adapt to a new present while maintaining a hold on what’s treasurable in the past. The dynamic is endlessly fascinating, and Mr. Rosenthal is an alert, patient, receptive artist and observer.”