“Ben Shahn’s New York”

In 1946, Clement Greenberg endorsed the work of Walker Evans with the slogan “let photography be ‘literary.’” The next year, in a review of Ben Shahn’s retrospective at moma, he declared that Shahn was “more naturally a photographer than painter.” That show included very few photographs; Shahn wished to represent himself as a painter. The recent Harvard survey, which focuses on Shahn’s New York output of the ’30s, when Shahn hobnobbed with Evans and learned photography from him, remedies that situation by emphasizing his work with the camera and by reuniting the photographs and the paintings. And it displays all the ways in which Shahn’s photographs are at least as “literary” as Evans’s more coolly iconic work of the same period.

Shahn’s photographic work has neither the literary nor the artistic pedigree of Evans’s, which Lincoln Kirstein placed in an eminent line of American literature running from Walt Whitman to T.S. Eliot. Produced as studies and documents, it makes no claims to belong to a canon. Yet it rightfully takes its place in the lineage of twentieth-century “literary” photography that runs from Henri Cartier-Bresson to the streetwise, off-the-cuff work of the new-document photographers of the ’50s and ’60s. The fund of photographs given to Harvard by Shahn’s widow, Bernarda, includes images of children playing that bring to mind Cartier-Bresson’s decisive randomness, photos of out-of-work people on benches and women in conversation that suggest a riff running from Cartier-Bresson’s balletic line of prostitutes and transvestites in Alicante to Garry Winogrand’s daisy chain of New York girls outside the 1964 World’s Fair, and off-kilter snaps caught on the run that predict Robert Frank’s outsider pictures of The Americans.

But what does the claim meanthat photographs be literary? It is a surprising one for Greenberg to have made so positively, given his antipathy to the literary in painting. But it is consistent with his sense of medium specificity, for it locates photography’s difference from painting in the former’s irrevocable ties to the referent, its reportorial possibilities, its rich reliance on incident. Years after Greenberg’s assertion, with regard to the “literary” lineage mentioned above, John Szarkowski laid out the ingredients of a poetics of the modern photograph: It is “based on the specific, the fragmentary, the elliptical, the ephemeral, and the provisional.” That list applies especially well to Shahn’s early ’30s New York photographs, which showed a continuing preference for the ad hoc over the formal mode that Evans came to favor. (Shahn sometimes wove the two manners together, or set them side by side in tight, dialogic relation to each other.) To the list could be added: the collage effect produced by the scattering of multiple incidents; conflicting directions of glance and vectors of movement across the space of the photograph; and the dialectics of distance and immersion that constitute Shahn’s subjective stancehis point of view, or poetic voicein relation to his subjects.

That stance is emblematized in the 1939 painting Myself Among the Churchgoers, in which Shahn depicts himself photographing at the left edge of the image, as if walking away from the center of action, but training his camera with its sly viewfinder on the looming clump of dour citizens at the right, implicating the viewer just this side of the frame. A Greenwich Village photograph from 1932–35 says much the same: A gang of boys, facing left with backs turned, is immersed in a game while one boy dangles from a post; another turns and gazes stage-right; and yet another, facing forward, is stranded alone at the far-right edge. Its carefully framed street choreography contrasts the loner with the group, being in the thick of it with hovering at the edge. Shahn often prepared himself to photograph other things by photographing his own childrenso the play of kids on the street was the hinge between the private family snap and an outward-directed, social practice in photography. It was also the means by which Shahn stated his photographic position: Splitting himself between inside and outside, “I” and “they,” onlooking and in-the-action, he located photography itself in that very divide.

Other photographs are just as clear on the subjective cleavage that is structural to the medium as Shahn saw it. Some emphasize immersion and engagement, others detachment and exteriority. On the one hand, there are photographs like the woman and girl at the window on a downtown street, formally frozen in place so that open window and closed door, brick wall and steps with no egress, adult gaze off to the left and impassive child glance right out at us, are played off against one another with elegant aloofness. On the other hand, there are those like the less formal Greenwich Village shot of women chatting on a shop stoop, which insinuates the photographer into the conversation as an eavesdropper peering over the women’s shoulders to encounter the sour glance of an Italian matriarch, and at the edges, the unaccountable grief or is it the happenstance of a momentary grimace of an adolescent girl, who looks straight out at us. And then there are photographs like the impeccably biased 1936 Bowery image of a slumped man, head in hands, next to a beheaded “Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times”: Skewing Evans’s signage, Shahn expressly slants his comment on the intimate relation between waste and advertisement, depression and entertainment, reject and respite.

These works all demonstrate the integrally divided subjectivity and anecdotal complexity of Shahn’s photographs, and as such they indicate why Greenberg may have been right about him. It was not that Shahn was such a bad painter—through his photographs I’ve grown to rather like his paintings too. It was just that he was a born photographer of the Leica age, quietly incisive in his understanding of its specific poetry. It was that he understood so well how to let photography be literary.