New York

Sid Grossman, Union Square, NYC, ca. 1938, gelatin silver print, 7 3/4 × 13 1/4".

Sid Grossman, Union Square, NYC, ca. 1938, gelatin silver print, 7 3/4 × 13 1/4".

Sid Grossman

Sid Grossman, Union Square, NYC, ca. 1938, gelatin silver print, 7 3/4 × 13 1/4".

This exhibition of forty photographs by the left-leaning, Depression-era photographer Sid Grossman—a cofounder of the influential Photo League cooperative and school—felt oddly timely. Grossman, who died in 1955 at the age of forty-two, was a pioneer of street photography in the United States, creating all-too-human images that focused on ostensibly anonymous individuals—the nameless folks we might encounter in the course of everyday life. In Grossman’s hands, each of these people is a hauntingly specific presence, each unique, each radiant with character. Consider, for example, the laughing bathers peering at us in Coney Island, 1947, or the more serious woman in Oklahoma, 1940, her legs seeming to cross as she steps out of a store surrounded by garish cola advertisements. Some of his subjects are suffering—many live in wretched conditions—but they often have their joy, as do the children in New York Recent, ca. 1947, the Veteran’s Day Parade marchers in Untitled, 1947, or the dancing couple in Untitled, 1939.

A selection of Grossman’s photos from the late 1940s portray famous musicians—the people’s advocates. Tom Glazer, Woodie Guthrie, and Pete Seeger, all ca. 1948, are shot from a medium distance; two pictures of blues musicians, Big Bill Broonzy, 1946–48, and Sonny Terry, ca. 1948, are more tightly cropped. New York was Grossman’s city—his images of the Feast of San Gennaro on Mulberry Street in Little Italy from 1948 have a certain poignancy, especially for people like myself who remember the festivals when they were sacred events rather than secular entertainment—but he also shot photos in Panama and Guatemala while serving there in the US Army. A highlight among works from this era is Aguadulce, Panama, ca. 1945–46, which shows a number of smiling children, all engaged with the camera.

Grossman, it seems, felt that photography could hold its own against more traditional mediums of artmaking, and maybe replace them, or at least overshadow and even outclass them. And though his pictures are resolutely matter-of-fact, exactingly true to observed reality, Grossman also brilliantly sets up an intriguing tension between light and shadow, implying that a photograph, however “scenic,” realistic, or banal, can also be richly expressive.

Of the works in the exhibition, my favorite is Union Square, NYC, ca. 1938. In this image, a group of men sit on steps before a Neoclassical frieze, staring blankly into space or directly at the camera. They completely ignore the artwork behind them, with its idealized Greco-Roman figures, shutting it down as irrelevant to their real lives. High art is no more than an incidental backdrop to low life, to the human condition; photography, by implication, is the very tool for capturing the demotic world.

Donald Kuspit