Julia Van Haaften is Curator of Photographs, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints & Photographs, New York Public Library
Jay Jaffee’s photography first came to my attention in 1991 via a gallery exhibition announcement bearing his famous image of Bryant Park loungers. Taken around 1950, the photograph captures several men in business suits enjoying the afternoon sun while perched on the memorial to William Cullen Bryant, American’s nineteenth-century classical poet, behind the public library. The composition of the figures and the graffiti-scarred location caught my attention doubly—first, the tightly structured inter-positioning of the idle men is absolutely arresting, and second, I am always on the lookout for great images relating to the Library. I called the gallery immediately to inquire about an acquisition. Even after I learned the price, which made this print the department’s first four-figure single photograph acquisition; there was really no choice about having it come to the Library’s collection.
Within a year the photograph was featured in a “new acquisitions” exhibition and informally I met Jay and Paula Hackeling, who wanted to see the place that had so eagerly acquired one of Jay’s vintage prints. In this honest and sympathetic way began the respectful and generous relationship that blossomed in 1998 with rich gifts to the Library of photographs from both Paula and Jay. As I became increasingly familiar with the fifty-year span of Jay Jaffee’s achievement, the qualities of his work that originally spoke to me in that first Bryant Park image was expanded upon and amplified. They were evident on the exhibition walls of the Heckscher Museum, where the memorial was held in September 1999 and endure in my memory. Jay alluded to these qualities in his writing about photography and his words appear below, in italics.
POISE. In the Byrant Park image, the “actors,” all male, wait for their cue like dancers, alert, even while appearing to doze. They turn to each other, as if following a director’s cues to look away until all seem to occupy separate metaphysical spheres, a choreography of urban psychic coordination between public and private space. This image also stands as a valid social document, with its midday suited men amid the vandalizing graffiti. Jay’s 1949 of lunch hour male shoppers on Canal Street presents a similar quality of poise as the figures step up, browse, and turn away from the bins and boxes of electrical supplies on display. (Sid Grossman) never came back to it, but the words remained with me. To me it meant that wherever I looked, a picture was possible. THE WORLD IS A PICTURE was seared into my consciousness like a cattleman’s mark.
JUSTICE. Water seeps from an upper floor and freezes in a vertical glacier on the stoop of a tenement building in “The Landlord is a Devil.” The subject is surreally secured in a frontal image of frozen silver that fills the frame. It also insistently recalls the anxious and insecure economics inherent in the landlord-tenant relationship and signals Jay’s photographic roots in the social documental motives of the Photo League. In another photograph, two men have a conversation during a shoe shine (1951). Their postures result from their roles in this action and illustrate, literally and metaphorically, their relative social and economic positions. Yet the light on their faces and the anchoring formal elements of their brimmed hats are breathtakingly beautiful in the silver print and underscore the image’s narrative impact. The power of any moving documentary image lies truly in its expression, the product of the photographer’s observations and successful rendering of the formal elements within the meaningful content. This tension between feeling and visual significance charges the image for all viewers. (The figures of workers) were, in a sense a reflection of who I was. To photograph them was a way of ennobling their existence—and affirming my own.
GENEROSITY. There is a playfulness and a breadth of spirit to some of Jay Jaffee’s work that includes felicity and, at times, outright whimsy. Like all art, these photographs—for example, his view of benches lined up in a Montreal park, the chair with the “Do You Believe in Credit?” sign, and the self-portrait on the Battery Park landfill—remind us that an artist’s work, his shared insight and vision, is a gift to the rest of us. When I meet with young people today who are interested in photography, or other creative endeavors, I try to offer them the kind of encouragement Steichen gave me when I was young.
GRACE. This quality suffuses the later landscapes as well as many of the documentary photographs from the late 1940s and early 1950s. It’s a combination of nearly all the pictorial elements that distinguish photography from other artist media. It is particularly strong in the image of the well-dressed woman striding through circular rain puddles on a side street in Coney Island. The puddles reflect the upper-story lunettes of the amusement arcade in the background. The lone woman is specific—we can read her clothing, her style of shoe—but what is she doing here, striding past the nearly derelict Skooter parlor? The shadow of a railing follows her across the arcade wall, offering her a hand-hold in the real world if she will but grasp it. In another later Coney Island image from 1974, an older couple walk along the boardwalk together. Their long shadows meld into one another, perhaps symbolizing their longevity and their larger-than-life hopes. Desire, loss, longing, acceptance—all the elements are in balance and resolution is possible. As if metaphorically, Jay Jaffee tackled the core technical problem in photography, getting details in the highlights and shadows in the same negative, and made it a personal philosophy. When that technical problem is understood and solved in the exposure and film developing, it is not difficult to print the shadows and sunlight with the utmost sense of reality.
Jay Jaffee’s work lets his viewers hold time in their hearts. The photographs do this not only as documents of their era or records of specific places and events, but as conveyers of the unmistakable feeling surrounding and evoked by their specific details and serendipitously-observed harmonies, a quality photographer Berenice Abbott called a “tenderness” for the subject, expressed through the photographer’s intellectual and emotional perception. Jay’s photographs are a sensibility on display that invites us to look and understand as he did.