Visu­al Arts

Walk­ers in the City: Jew­ish Street Pho­tog­ra­phers of Mid­cen­tu­ry New York

By – October 17, 2023

At a time when much of New York City life was lived out­doors, a group of young, most­ly Jew­ish pho­tog­ra­phers set out to cap­ture the vital­i­ty of the city across neigh­bor­hoods, ages, eth­nic­i­ties, and social class­es. In reac­tion to the art pho­tog­ra­phy of Ansel Adams and Edward West­on, and the dra­mat­ic cityscapes of Alfred Stieglitz and Berenice Abbott, they worked at street lev­el, record­ing the every­day rou­tines of city life. Just as the writer and crit­ic Alfred Kazin brought to life the sights and smells of work­ing-class New York in his mem­oir, A Walk­er in the City, so too did these pho­tog­ra­phers walk the streets, cre­at­ing a com­plex and puls­ing por­trait of the people’s city.

Deb­o­rah Dash Moore, a pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry and Juda­ic stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, pro­vides a thought­ful and infor­ma­tive overview of the every­day New York of the 1930s through the 1950s, as doc­u­ment­ed by these young Jew­ish pho­tog­ra­phers. Many of them got their start with the New York Pho­to League, a coop­er­a­tive found­ed in the 1930s. It offered inex­pen­sive class­es and dark­room facil­i­ties and attract­ed a broad range of young men and women. They were drawn to the excite­ment and pos­si­bil­i­ties of the new field of pho­tog­ra­phy, as well as fel­low­ship and intel­lec­tu­al dis­cus­sion. Pro­gres­sive and left-lean­ing, the League’s mem­bers saw social­ly con­scious pho­tog­ra­phy as a way to push for change. 

The city offered a vast can­vas on which to work. With no air-con­di­tion­ing and few pri­vate phones, peo­ple gath­ered on stoops and street cor­ners. They con­duct­ed their social and busi­ness lives in pub­lic, open to the pho­tog­ra­phers who roamed their neigh­bor­hoods freely. At the same time, dur­ing the mid-thir­ties, the city saw an expan­sion of major pub­lic and pri­vate works — parks, swim­ming pools, Rock­e­feller Cen­ter, new sub­way lines, hous­ing, the Tri­bor­ough Bridge and Mid­town Tun­nel — chal­leng­ing some of the objec­tives of the Pho­to League, which stressed inti­mate pho­tog­ra­phy over large-scale cityscapes. World War II fur­ther chal­lenged the League pho­tog­ra­phers. Many served in the armed forces, some as pho­tog­ra­phers. The city to which they returned was thriv­ing and offered com­mer­cial pho­tog­ra­phy oppor­tu­ni­ties in jour­nal­ism, fash­ion, busi­ness, adver­tis­ing, and sports. Social activism was no longer at the fore as pho­tog­ra­phy became a pro­fes­sion. Street pho­tog­ra­phy per­sist­ed, but it shift­ed from a social to an ethno­graph­ic sensibility.

Moore orga­nizes the pho­tographs into six sec­tions — Look­ing,” Let­ting Go,” Going Out,” Wait­ing,” Talk­ing,” and Sell­ing” — which allows for com­par­i­son and coher­ence. She com­ments exten­sive­ly on both the pho­tos and the pho­tog­ra­phers them­selves. As with many books of pho­tog­ra­phy, giv­en the stric­tures of lay­out, the com­ments on the pho­tos often do not appear on the same spread as the pho­tos, lead­ing to a lit­tle dig­i­tal gymnastics. 

Moore also exam­ines what drew these sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Jews to pho­tog­ra­phy. The sons and daugh­ters of East Euro­pean immi­grants, many from poor and dif­fi­cult back­grounds, these young pho­tog­ra­phers expe­ri­enced the life they pho­tographed — play­ing in the streets, liv­ing in diverse neigh­bor­hoods, rely­ing on their street smarts and their going to pub­lic school — and used their cam­eras to expand their bound­aries and bet­ter under­stand their city and their place in it.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions

Deb­o­rah Dash Moore’s Walk­ers in the City: Jew­ish Street Pho­tog­ra­phers of Mid­cen­tu­ry New York is a unique and ele­gant win­dow into Jew­ish life in Gotham dur­ing the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. With the help of the archives of the New York Pho­to League, Moore stud­ies a cir­cle of Jew­ish pho­tog­ra­phers who used, quite lit­er­al­ly, their unique lens­es to cap­ture the moments and scenes most impor­tant to them. The street pho­tog­ra­phers set their sights on cityscapes, gen­der and race dynam­ics, and, per­haps most impor­tant­ly, class and labor, to con­vey the com­plex­i­ties of city liv­ing and working.

Moore’s book is won­der­ful­ly illus­trat­ed, and her nar­ra­tive and analy­sis com­ple­ment the many images select­ed for the vol­ume. Moore tells the sto­ries with­in the sto­ries, explor­ing the inten­tions of the Jew­ish pho­tog­ra­phers and the thou­sand words” their pic­tures wished to con­vey. We are the for­tu­nate ben­e­fi­cia­ries of Moore’s cre­ative schol­ar­ship, bet­ter pre­pared to under­stand the roles Jews played in trans­form­ing New York and to derive mean­ing from the seem­ing­ly mun­dane streets of Manhattan.