This essay, written by the artist in 1996, offers insights into his 50 years of photographic process and philosophy, as well as the stories behind many of his early works. See also the gallery and the essay “An Era Past.”
It was thought by many that dropping the atom bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1946 was a fitting climax that capped the end of World War II. Actually, the event signaled the beginning of a new era. What also exploded was the myth that many veterans held—that winning the greatest war the world has ever known would put an end to war as a means of solving social problems.
Many people envisioned a post-war world that would be guided by the wisdom and justice proclaimed in the tenets of the United Nations. But the Cold War was initiated in the same year the United States dropped the two bombs. Fear and hysteria were now aimed toward our former ally, the Soviet Union. Anyone who favored a more tranquil world was dismayed.
I was one of those veterans who, after three years of army duty that included six months of combat in the European theater, came home with the naïve impression that the world was going to have a more peaceful future. I was unprepared to face the sudden shift of danger now directed towards a country whose efforts to destroy our common enemy during World War II was monumental. The anti-progressive political frenzy whipped up by the leaders of the Cold War began to slowly erode the gains made earlier by union people, citizens who had a deep regard for social justice, and political leaders like Franklin Roosevelt [and] many members of his administration.
It was in the beginning of this political climate, in 1947, that I purchased my first camera. The photographs I made in the following years, although not mainly political, revealed my sympathies. They are of working people and their surroundings—people who lived ordinary, unglamorous lives. They were…a reflection of who I was. To photograph them was a way of ennobling their existence—and affirming my own. Using my camera helped me understand my roots and the times in which I lived.
Next year, in 1997, it will be 50 years since I began to photograph. To commemorate this occasion, I have chosen several early photographs (in no particular order) to describe under what conditions they were made, some techniques I used, and the thoughts I had about the images. In my commentary, I have also included several subsequent reflections after having lived with the photographs for these many years.
Woman Selling Caps (1947)
An elderly woman sits on a wooden crate, selling men’s caps out of carton in front of an entrance to an empty store in a street market. The sun floods the scene, yet the woman’s predicament belies the cheerful brightness. Her silvery hair is combed back and covered with a babushka. The woman’s brows are knit: her facial furrows indicate the toil and worry that seem endless in her life. Holding a large cap in her lap, she stares at me, probably wondering why I am taking her picture. (This was before I learned to ask permission.) She is wearing a black polka dot dress, which shows partially through a white apron, under a black, oversized winter coat that is buttoned at her waist. In back of her head looms a patterned iron gate that protects the store window, creating additional confusion and decoration to the scene. The mullions on the windowed door frame form a large cross, highlighted by the slanting sun. Everything about the entire scene spoke of her sadness and how I felt about her pitiful plight. [Note: to see photo, click on “An Era Past” in Photography.]
Downtown Brooklyn (1947)
I made Downtown Brooklyn in the late afternoon, when the sun highlighted the telephone building. An elevated station ran horizontal to it and the sides of street form a sort of a dark alleyway, given the sun-laden building a heightened perspective. The glistening wet street in the foreground, along with the shiny back of a black car, creates a time period and a mood, which makes this photograph an important one for me. It was the forerunner of the kind of work that excited me. I wanted my photographs to be simple and accessible, and yet have interesting elements in it that would keep me looking at the image and finding something new in it at every viewing. This photograph made me aware of the interplay between the sun and shadows, and how it formulates interacting dimensions on a flat plain.
This photograph was made with a folding camera called a Kodak Monitor (my initial camera). I was on my way to one of Sid Grossman’s classes, which was being held at a union hall on Astor Place. Edged alongside the building were people coming towards me, looking for the same protection from the snow as I. When I made the exposure, a man on my left was about to cross the street holding on to his hat against the wind and snow. A graceful lamppost looms alongside of him, as well as a stoplight and ghostly tall buildings in the background. Drifts of wind-driven snow are beginning to mount and the feeling of winter snow, with its icy winds, is apparent. [Note: to see photo, click on “Selected Photographs” in Photography.]
The success of this photograph was due mainly to its spontaneity. This was the print that Steichen kept “on loan” for the Museum of Modern Art for many years, until I gifted it in 1976, when John Szarkowski was the photography director, on the occasion of the publication of my book, N. Jay Jaffee, Photographs 1947–1955.
Horse and Wagon (1949)
The scene is reminiscent of the 1900s, before our complete reliance on the automobile. An old, white horse stands patiently at the curb, waiting for its driver to return from a delivery. The horse is attached to a small laundry wagon. The horse is side lit by the morning sun, setting if off from the deep shadows of the row of apartment buildings behind him. There is a blanket placed beneath the horse’s complicated harness. Its round belly indicates it is well fed, and yet, one must pity the horse and its daily labors. A Frenchman in the 1700s wrote that the horse was “the noblest conquest man has ever made.” I rather think it is one of the saddest. When I listen to Barber’s lamenting Adagio for Strings, it often reminds me of my Horse and Wagon. [Note: to see the photo, click on “An Era Past” in Photography.]
Girl Learning to Skate (1950)
One of the photographs that I had to “shoot from the hip” was the street scene, Girl Learning to Skate. I was watching the man holding the girl on skates as I walked behind them. When the girl held her arm out for balance—that was the critical moment to make an exposure. What also appealed to me was the man’s overcoat and felt hat—a reminder of the customary street wear of that period. [Note: to see the photo, click on “An Era Past” in Photography.]
The print I made of this scene was as I had imaged at the time of the exposure. This was another sense I developed as I continued working—the ability to visualize the finished print as I looked into the ground glass. It often helped me make judgments about whether or not a particular subject should be photographed. For instance, I often saw rows of old kids’ sneakers thrown over wires that stretched across a street from electric poles. I always looked at them with some humor, and about thought photographing them, but try as I could, I was unable to see the sneakers as photographic from any angle. For those of us who use a camera frequently and process our own work, “visualization” becomes second nature.
Two Men in Subway (1952)
Another image that was made under unusual conditions similar to Girl Learning to Skate is Two Men in Subway. As part of a group project, I was working on a theme of post-war New York. The photographs from this project were to be sent to a French picture magazine that was similar to Life or Look magazine. On my way to Manhattan for this project, I adjusted my camera for a possible available light exposure as the train entered the tunnel and headed for the city.
I saw opposite a well-dressed man who wore a large white handkerchief in his jacket pocket and a fedora, whose brim swooped to the side like those worn by prominent actors. Sitting in my lap was my twin-lens reflex with the finder unit closed. I studied him and wondered if he was in focus. I didn’t dare look as if I was focusing or making any move that would cause him to suspect that I intended to photograph him. A few minutes later the train pulled into a station, and a man, slightly smaller and also nattily dressed, but without a hat, got on the train and crunched into a space alongside the man I was watching. The newcomer had black hair, which was nearly combed, and a thin, trimmed moustache. His suit was a lighter color and he wore a black tie with some minimal decorations. Both men were wearing stylish suits with enormous lapels.
I recall that I began to perspire. The pair sitting across from me would make a great print. But at what moment? The man on my left folded his arms across his chest. The newcomer crossed his knees and folded his hands on his lap. Suddenly, he lifted his head slightly and looked off to his left. As if on key, the man with the hat raised his head and turned it to his right, as if to read one of the ads above and across from him. Perfect!
All day I thought about those two men. Their action was so indicative of how some New Yorkers reacted towards one another—alienation was the issue of the day. Sitting side by side, these two men could not have been more disconnected from one another! After developing the film, I was elated when I saw both men in focus and the film exposed fairly well. That single exposure was the picture I was looking for. The photograph was one of several of my pieces to be reproduced in the French periodical. [Note: to see the photo click on “Selected Photographs” in Photography.]
I began to think about photographic ethics after this incident. It did not occur to me that there were people who did not wish to be photographed. I eventually stopped intruding on people’s privacy. There was something about using the camera surreptitiously that did not appeal to me.
I have tried to maintain this same scene with celebrities. I often tell the story about how, years later, I saw Bob Dylan, his new wife, and manager coming out of the tenth-floor elevator in Lord & Taylor’s on Fifth Avenue. I had my trusty Leica with me. My daughters would have appreciated a photograph of Dylan, aside from the fact that any rock magazine would have paid a handsome fee for such a print at that time. I approached him and asked if I could photograph him. He said, “I’d rather you not.” I simply walked away. When I saw him again, ten minutes later, in the men’s department and asked the same question, he again politely told me that he would rather that I not photograph him.
Yes, I missed an opportunity (or perhaps he did), but in the long run it was more satisfying to know that I had developed some ethical standards for myself.
Two Women (1950)
I had once sent an entry to a photography magazine for a photo contest. The picture depicted two women as they were walking towards me. One of the women was rather large and the other woman, obviously smaller, was trying to light a cigarette behind her. I captioned the print Windbreaker. I was awarded a war bond, and Windbreaker was reproduced as a full page in the magazine.
Several years later, as I was reading a book called Photography and the Law, I came across a story about a woman who had sued a photography magazine because she was slandered when a photograph it printed referred to her as a windbreaker! (The case, it seems, had been settled out of court.) That contest was the last time I participated in that sort of competitive activity. And never again did I try to be cute with captions. The print is now called Two Women. (The negative was sent to the magazine for proof of ownership when I entered the contest. Perhaps the loss of that negative is my punishment.)
I noticed a group of ovens stored and lined up side by side in an empty lot while walking on a street in East New York in Brooklyn. They were behind a wire fence that was topped by barbed wire. The sharp angles of the apartment buildings in the rear and the rounded, saddened figures of the ovens with open, gaping mouths became a metaphor for the senseless horror and death imposed on innocent people during the war. [Note: to see the photo, click on “An Era Past” in Photography.]
The Fight for Peace (1948)
Among the marchers during a May Day parade were a contingent of trade union members who were carrying peace signs. A distinguished-looking man wearing wire glasses and a rose in his lapel carried a tall, wood staff with a placard tacked to it, which read “the fight for peace.” The men who are marching close to him wear felt hats, but the man with the rose is hatless. The group looks grim and ready to do battle in the cause for peace. Over the years I’ve looked at this print and wondered about the contradictions of fighting for peace—an oxymoron if there ever was one! Yet the hatless man has so much dignity and character that you sympathize with his fight for peace, and the men surrounding him also seem determined to defend the cause.
Cleveland Street (1949)
Many of my photographs contain less tumult, capturing scenes that are contemplative and calmer. Cleveland Street is such an image. I passed this street almost every morning on my way to El, which took me to the city. I stopped to look at the street many times, but was unable to put the elements together for a photograph. Then one spring day it just happened. Everything worked—the sunlight, the bend of the trees, the angle of the street and buildings, and even the car in the street. When I made the exposure, the street looked peaceful and tranquil. I still fantasize that is a happy street where no one had problems, where no one was ill or poor, and where people lived for generations. It is still one of my favorite street landscapes. [Note: to see the photo, click on “An Era Past” in Photography.]
Furrier Workers (1950)
I was in lower Manhattan (now called Soho) one early Saturday morning. Across the street I noticed three men talking with one another in front of a furrier’s shop. The bright morning sun highlighted the men, the sidewalk, a hydrant, the store window, and a row of some two dozen slippers, which were hand painted and put out to dry on a ledge a floor above the store. The rest of the scene, including the iron fire escape above the men, was in deep shadow. The lighting was so vibrant, it was as though the subjects were stage lit for a Broadway production. I kept the dark shadow in the foreground just before the bright sidewalk so that the light is layered, moving the eye from the bottom of the print to the men, and then to the painted slippers. The dark foreground also gives the print dimension and depth. One wonders what the men were talking about. The warm, peaceful-like setting is offset by he dark ominous mass of iron bars of the fire escapes above the men’s heads.
Wall Street (1951)
This exposure was made at noon when the sun was high. Because of the tall buildings, the photograph has more shadows than light. In the shadowed foreground, three men create a triangular pattern. The street, with its circular iron manhole covers, leads to the point of the triangle—a man crossing the street. Also in the deep shadow, towards the left center of the print, looming to the top of the picture, is the dominant right side of the Stock Exchange building. A lamppost can be made out on the street corner with a tiny street sign reading “Wall Street,” as though a spotlight was trained on it. Actually, it is the light coming from the glass reflections from the opposite building.
On the right side of the print, sunlit facades from the deflections of the commercial buildings across the street curve towards the Treasury Building as though they were about to be engulfed by it. Shiny automobiles are parked along the curved street as people walk about in their overcoats and hats. The architecture of the commercial buildings is impressive in its solidity and dominance, which identify the Wall Street enclave. The dark silhouette figures moving about the shadowy streets reflect the mystery of the myriad stock and money manipulations that are transacted daily. The print still fascinates me for the mood it sets, for the complications of forms created by shadows, and for the open foreground, which leads all the way back into a small area of a sunlit street.
This photograph was originally an attempt to make a social statement about money and greed. Instead, the mass of light and shadow on the buildings created a more dynamic abstract that obscured my original intention. [Note: to see the photo, click on “Selected Photographs” in Photography.]
Bryant Park (c1950)
This image, with a sunnier disposition, has become popular through promotion, shows, and publication. A group of men are sitting on a stone edifice honoring William Cullen Bryant in the rear of the New York Public Library, sunning themselves during lunch hour. As though posed by a director of a play, each person has chosen just enough space around them for a few moments of privacy and isolation. The men, sitting in the bright sun, with their loose coats and jackets, meld with the stone blocks and pillars and appear, on first sight, as though they are part of the monument. I am often asked if I placed these men in their positions. My answer is always that they were “found art.” [Note: to see the photo, click on “Selected Photographs” in Photography.]
I have always been fond of capturing sunlight in my prints. That’s not to say that I don’t photograph on dull days or in the shaded areas. Since I use available light, I prefer muted or flat light when I make a portrait. But for scenes where the sun flood the important area but also creates strong shadows to give the foreground or background dimension, or adds outlines to the main subject—ah, that’s the challenge. One of the most difficult problems in black and white photography is getting details in the highlights and shadows on the same negative. 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.
Chair with Sign (1950)
To make a print with overall dark tones and yet hold the detail in the important areas is difficult, but rewarding. Below the dark shadows of an elevated train, I photographed an empty chair. Behind it was half of a dark, tall wooden door leaning slightly to the left. Hanging two-thirds up on the door was a tattered waistcoat, obviously owned by the man who sat in the chair. Above the jacket, tacked to the right of the door, was a hand-lettered white sign, which read, “if you believe in credit, please loan me $5.00.”
The finished print emphasized the elegant curved back chair of the chair, which was highlighted by a sliver of light that came from the narrow opening between the tracks and the building. The meager light allowed some description of the tattered jacket, the lettering on the sign and details of the wooden door and frame, including two very old license plates nailed to the top of the door. A third of the right side of the print is black, and helps balance the other side of the print. It is the entrance to what seems to have been an old commercial garage.
Even though the print is somber, the light on the chair and jacket is somehow cheerful. Like a half circle, the chair is noticed first, then the jacket, and then the sign. There is a feeling that this is home for someone who sits in that chair. Obviously, whoever it is has a sense of humor. Sitting in this chair is the position from which (one is sure) this grizzly, cigar-smoking, wisecracking jokester will overcome all adversity.
I have long considered this print, because of its impressive deep tones, design, and overall strength of the subject, to be a good example of my early approach to the use of photography as an art form. [Note: to see the photo, click on “Selected Photographs” in Photography.]
Before the rise of supermarkets, people in communities like Brownsville and East New York shopped for their food and other minor conveniences in street markets that retained the ethnic flavor of the “old world.” On one or two blocks, pushcarts filled with produce would line both sides of the streets where cars would ordinarily be parked. The buildings on either side all contained ground floor stores. Among the variety of stores along the street were fresh fish stores, dress shops, “appetizing” stores with barrels of pickles and sauerkraut, men’s new and used clothing, children’s apparel, hardware and shoe stores. These markets had a colorful and festive atmosphere. The air was always filled with the din of men and women hawking their wares, pleading with passersby to look at their nice, fresh tomatoes, announcing a sale of newly arrived potatoes, or urging people to enter the clothing store for superb bargains.
In the afternoon, after school, when I was a youngster, my mother would send me to such a market, called Prospect Place, which was around the corner from where we lived, on Park Place in Brooklyn. She would ask me to buy incidentals that she may have overlooked during her earlier morning shopping. Several blocks from where I now [after returning from World War II] lived, on Logan Street in East New York, such a street was still alive with the ethnic traditions I was familiar with some fifteen years earlier. This market was simply referred to as Blake Avenue.
The Jewish street markets as I knew them are of an era past. (See also my essay, “An Era Past.”) I was fortunate to photograph some aspects of Blake Avenue while it was still flourishing. A few years later, either because the Jews died off or relocated, other ethnic groups replaced them. The street markets with the pushcarts and the hubbub of the street vendors have vanished.
The following two images characterize some of the makeup of Blake Avenue’s “petite entrepreneurs.” (Already noted earlier is Woman Selling Caps, also photographed on Blake Avenue.)
Who Has Three or Four Rooms….(1949)
This sign in the window is a typical piece of local advertising, usually placed by a store owner who has just married off a daughter or son. The demand to “speak now” indicates the urgency, conjuring up inevitable problems that develop from the dilemma of newlywed couples who live with their parents or in-laws. It is a humorous sign read from outside of the store, yet there is a feeling that there is unhappiness inside. The scattered advertising of make-up products that clutter the window and the large broom above the placard lend a comic air. [Note: to see the photo, click on “An Era Past” in Photography.]
Doll in the Window (1951)
A dry goods store selling children’s wear caught my eye one late afternoon. In the store window was a large head of a smiling doll, armless, with adult shoulders and dressed to display the store’s merchandise. The blouse and the skirt seemed spring-like, but on the head of the round, chubby face of the doll was a large, white woolen winter hat that was incongruous with the rest of her attire. The hat had a small cotton ball on the top. Not leaving well enough alone, a black, tiny hat with a neck strap was applied to it, with two black buttons for eyes and one for a nose! Dressed in this manner, the doll looked ludicrous. Surrounding the doll are various gift boxes and hanging apparel for children. The slanting sun helped to detail the ribbing of the large hat on the doll and the silly little face on the cotton ball. However innocent or naïve the doll’s dresser was, the photograph has maintained its sense of charm and amusement. [Note: to see the photo, click on “An Era Past” in Photography.]
Kishke King (1953)
I cannot understand why this building was not the most photographed building in Brooklyn. Its announcements and artwork are hysterical—and hilarious. One can examine all the figures and illustrations along the side of the building and yet still be unable to totally absorb all the information. Every time I view the print, I find bits of detail that I have overlooked. It is a popular print and one that can tolerate constant viewing. Like a jewel when printed small (as I originally did), it can also be as exciting when enlarged to 11 x 14 or larger.
The man walking along a portion of the corner of the building adds depth to the strong, flat surface of the building. The effective sunlight creates highlights and deep shadows, which gives the print power along with an unusual degree of realism. Any attempt to absorb the image at a glance is futile. The wit and humor of the building’s artwork can only be enjoyed and appreciated as one repeatedly returns to the photograph. [Note: to see the photo, click on “An Era Past” in Photography.]
Man with Reflector (1952)
I was startled when I saw this man sunning himself with a metal reflector. This was the first I saw this contraption being used. Also, it was not often that I came across a person whom I wanted to photograph that just happened to be in a perfect design pattern. His head was at the base of the L-shaped window corner, with the Venetian blind creating a horizontal pattern. The building’s bricks on the left formed another strong pattern.
The man’s hat, his large black overcoat, and gray woolen gloves complimented the patterns of the building behind him. The man’s bold figure, cuddled in the somewhat oversized coat and large, warm-looking gloves, gives one the impression of a solid mass of contentment, which is enhanced by the relaxed look on the man’s face. He may even be sleeping. The weird metal reflector jutting away from his face almost appears to be part of his costume, reminding one of a nun’s habit. The reflector helps give the print dimension. I made this exposure in a matter of seconds and quickly walked away, hoping that I did not interfere with his dreams. [Note: to see the photo, click on “An Era Past” in Photography.]
Man in the Frame (1950)
This sad, framed portrait was hanging in a junkyard at a time before such places became refined and insisted on being called antique shops. This moment I saw the man in the frame, I developed an empathy for him. This distinguished, well-dressed man with a stickpin in his tie was respected enough to have been photographed, retouched, and placed behind a large, oval glass frame, which was sensitively decorated. Was he a wealthy uncle, someone’s grandfather, husband, or family patriarch? Whatever were his great deeds for his family or humanity, in the end, his immortality hung from a nail in a junkyard!
I was again fascinated with the tonal range of the negative and printing paper that was used to make this print because I was trying to achieve a degree of interpretation. Initially, a flatter print was made, with the man and the frame as the dominant subject. On subsequent prints, I reduced the size of the frame and included more of the wall on which the picture hung. I printed the image deeper, separating the frame and picture from the wall, which also delineated the frame’s fragile fin de siècle decoration. The print then had the same subtle highlights and deep blacks similar to The Chair with Sign.
(This image was reproduced on the cover of a French photography magazine called Le Nouvel Observateur. The entire issue was devoted to photographs within photographs.)
Tire Store (c1953)
The tire store facade, with the white wall tires hung erratically across the top half of the building, along with the various announcements attached to the storefront, was a scene waiting to be photographed. Although subtle, it has the humor of the Kishke King, with a similar need for repeated viewing, because of one’s inability to initially comprehend the confusion, and all the information about sales and prices that is strewn about the building.
One can almost visualize the interior of such a store, with all the equipment needed to put the new tires on the tire rims, the water basin to detect tube leaks, and the workers, whose hands and clothing were invariably blackened from the handling of the tires. The second floor obviously warehoused the tires [that] were most popular in size and make.
It is possible to even imagine the owner—most likely a short, heavy-set, balding man with graying hair and an unshaven, grizzled face. His grey-blue baggy pants that had seen better days would be held up by nondescript suspenders. He is wise to have learned out to dress and fit into his surroundings. Otherwise, how would people believe his prices? [Note: to see the photo, click on “Selected Photographs” in Photography.]
When I began processing my work, shortly after I bought my first camera, I made contact prints from my negatives. My desire, along with vital subjects, was to make the most exquisite-looking prints, no matter how long it took me or how tired I was. What I wanted was the ability to produce a photograph, with all of its dimensions, onto a one-dimensional frame—a flat piece of chemically-treated paper—to make it look so real, that in holding it on one’s hands, one could actually experience the image. (My notion was somewhat like the idea of Japanese bonsai culture, where one grows a miniature tree indoors so that the image of a tree is constantly appreciated without going outdoors.)
Since then, over the years, my film has changed, the printing paper is different, I have added a toning process to my work, the cameras I have used are more sophisticated, and my photographic subjects have broadened. However, my quest for making a fine photograph has remained constant, treating every new print in the darkroom as thought it was my first effort.
September 17, 1996, Lloyd Harbor, NY
© 1996 N. Jay Jaffee. All rights reserved.