Sy Kattelson. Photo: Jason Butscher.

Sy Kattelson (1923–2018)

Photographer Sy Kattelson, who documented the lives of working-class New Yorkers, died on November 24 at the age of ninety-five. In 1947, he joined the left-leaning Photo League cooperative, where he studied with Sid Grossman and Paul Strand and taught photo-technique courses until the association was forced to disband in 1951, after landing on communist blacklists amid the Cold War and McCarthyism.

Born in 1923 in the Bronx, New York, Kattelson attended Stuyvesant High School before dropping out to work as a delivery boy for the Aremac Camera store to help support his family during the Great Depression. He served as an aerial cartographer in the Army Air Corps during World War II, using film taken from aircrafts to assess the efficacy of bombings, and as an army publicity photographer in France after the war.

After the Photo League dissolved, Kattelson met Hans Hoffman and studied painting with him from 1951 to 1953. Kattelson’s work was exhibited in the “This Is the Photo League” (1948–49) and “New Workers” (1949) exhibitions, and his photography is included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Jewish Museum, New York; the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

“I remember people arguing about whether photography was a serious art form,” Kattelson once said. “The Photo League talked about it the way I thought about it, as a serious art form showing ordinary people’s lives.”