I was born on Georgia Avenue in Brownsville, Brooklyn in 1921. Both my parents arrived in this country eight years before I saw the light of day. My mother was Polish and my father was Russian. He was a tailor in the Russian army. When he arrived here, he became a “cutter” in the garment industry. My parents’ conversational language was Yiddish, which I learned to speak while I was also learning street English.
When I was six years old, my parents, two brothers, and I moved to Bensonhurst, a newly-developed community in the west end of Brooklyn. Many two-family homes, made of red brick, were being built on land near the Narrows. The waterway was a short walk from our house. It was a different world from the enclosed and cluttered streets where we had lived before. My father had heard that the sea air and the barren, treeless terrain would relieve my mother from her asthmatic condition.
Unfortunately, for whatever reasons that caused her affliction, living in Bensonhurst did not alleviate her condition. After a short stay, we moved to an apartment on the quiet, narrow street of Lincoln Place, off Buffalo Avenue, which was on the eastern edge of Crown Heights. Shortly after the move, my oldest brother was fatally injured during a tragic accident in a factory where he worked. It was his first day of work. He was fifteen years old. My parents could no longer live in that apartment. We were soon on the move again. This time we moved to St. John’s Place, which was closer to Brownsville. I was experiencing a variety of neighborhoods that made up the densely populated borough of Brooklyn. As I became accustomed to one community, we pulled up stakes and were on the move again. We were nomads in a vast sea of ethnic peoples and tenement buildings.
Finally, when I was eleven years old, we made the last move as a family to a small section of Brooklyn that was tucked away between Crown Heights and Brownsville. The long street my family chose to live on was called Park Place, between Howard Avenue and Saratoga Avenue. It was in this neighborhood that I grew to maturity. That included learning to smoke, becoming aware of worldly events and its politics, art, and classical music, and the awakening of the human need for intimate relations.
When we first moved to Park Place, my mother introduced me to a lively, block-long market which was on a street just a block beyond us. It was called the Prospect Place Market, named after the thoroughfare it was on. A variety of stories lined both sides of the street. The shopkeepers were mostly middle-aged and the small businesses they ran were usually family-operated.
Along the curb, pushcarts on either side of the street were lined up from one end of the block to the other. A large selection of fresh produce was always available. The sweet smell of fruits and vegetables permeated the air. In the shops that faced each other on opposite sides of the street, hardware items, cooking pots, pans, shows, and clothing were perpetually “on sale.” On the street, in front of the stores, merchandise was heaped onto wooden makeshift tables and advertised by the vendors as tremendous bargains of the day.
The hue and cry of the marketplace created a dissonance that was both agitating, but not threatening, knowing that the vendors’ shouts were just pleas to the shopper, urging them to buy the produce from their pushcarts or their wares and dry good from the shops along the sidewalks.
Often, after returning from school, my mother sent me to the market to buy food that she sometimes overlooked during her shopping for the day. I bought sour pickles from a huge barrel filled with brine, or asked the shopkeeper for fresh sauerkraut. Using a big, wooden ladle, he would scoop up the sauerkraut and stuff it into a small, white, cardboard carton with a thin, metal handle. My mother cautioned me to make sure enough “juice” was added.
I liked going to the bakery for rye bread. The slicing machine fascinated me as it shuddered and trembled with a roar, cutting the bread into even slices. I often ate the end pieces as I walked home. My brother was upset at dinnertime when he discovered that the end pieces were missing—that was also his favorite part of the bread. I felt no remorse, since he never participated in the food shopping.
My mother would give me the approximate money for the food items before she sent me on errands to the market. Sometimes, there was extra money—pennies, nickels, or dimes—change that I would return home with and give to my mother. Occasionally, when the change consisted of pennies, I would treat myself to chocolate or a long stem of brown licorice bought from one of the sweet shops in the market. My mother never chastised me for the missing pennies. Perhaps she figured that I had earned my treat.
Years later, having taken part of the great struggle to defeat the aggressive war machine in Europe, I married, was discharged from the army, and return to civilian life. Because housing was in short supply, I designed and distributed a leaflet that announced a twenty-five dollar reward for an apartment. The leaflet looked like a post office “Wanted” poster. It included my fingerprints (but not my picture). The poster was so effective in its plea, it was reproduced in the New York Post. It gave the paper an opportunity to call for more housing for veterans.
The one response to the newspaper reproduction was an offer to rent the top floor of a two-family house on Logan Street, which was in the eastern part of Brooklyn called East New York. This rural area was on the edge of Jamaica Bay, where the Idlewild Airport was being developed. From the rear window of our new apartment, I watched goats stop traffic as they lazily ambled across Linden Boulevard. I felt like a pioneer.
Getting used to civilian life was difficult. Newly married, determining a direction for a career and a future that included a family, proved to be burdensome. I felt the need to discover my roots and reconnect with my past. Three years in the infantry—six months of which was combat—caused me to be in a quandary that only time would help undo.
My brother was six years older than I. He was an amateur photographer whose primary accomplishments were to take pictures of his friends and family. He gave the exposed black-and-white film to a photo-finishing store and returned with the customary, standard-sized, deckle-edged prints. When I showed an interest in a camera to record my imagined growing family, he recommended buying the sophisticated folding camera he owned. I did not have any photographs of my childhood and was determined that if I had children, they would have a better record of their past than I.
With my new camera, I photographed my immediate surroundings. Then I began to photograph scenes that interested me. The more exposures I made, the more I began to add interpretation and observation to my subjects. My selectivity and perception was enhanced and deepened as I continued to photograph. I decided to process my work. The control I had making finished black-and-white prints helped me gain another dimension for the kinds of images that interested me.
A few blocks from where I lived was a market similar to the one my mother sent me to years earlier. This market, which was several blocks long, was also called by the street name it was on—the Blake Avenue Market. I was attracted to this market. Using my camera with ease, I sought to communicate the atmosphere of the market.
It was only later that I realized why I felt so at home with the shoppers, the storekeepers, and the general hustle and bustle that swirled around me. It reminded me of Park Place, where I became a teenager—where I went from being an innocent kid about to face the adult world: to learn about the politics of struggle, the world of art and music, and becoming a soldier with a rifle. I was reliving the same smells, the bittersweet street humor and pathos reminding me of the time when I was beginning to taste life, when I was on the threshold of experiences that were going to shape and mold my character.
The war caused me to block out much of my past. Blake Avenue reawakened the memories of my early years. I used the camera in this community in a way that would help rediscover who I was, and where I came from.
My camera work in the Brownsville and East New York communities foretold a lifelong involvement with the photographic medium. What I tried to express in those early photographs, was an attempt to depict what I was experiencing, and how I felt abut the images I was making. It was the beginning of a continued thread in future work. They became, in a way, the fingerprints of my style. Although I have pointed my camera in different directions over the years, these images still remain close to my heart, like one’s first love.
© 1995 N. Jay Jaffee. All rights reserved.See the photographs related to this essay.