Harvard University Art Museums

Cambridge, MA




Ben Shahn's New York: The Photography of Modern Times

February 5, 2000 - April 30, 2000


Ben Shahn's New York: The Photography of Modern Times, drawn from the Harvard University Art Museums' extensive collection of Ben Shahn's photographs, showcases the artist's experimentation with and contributions to the social documentary tradition in an exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum.

Including over 150 photographs, ink drawings, easel paintings, mural studies, and relevant ephemera, this landmark exhibition focuses on Shahn's personal use of photography as a primary research tool for subsequent works in diverse media and offers a unique perspective for examining other aspects of Shahn's oeuvre. Ben Shahn 's New York will give visitors the opportunity to view an important and little-examined body of Shahn's work, which was formative for the artist's photographic aesthetic and his working process. (left: Ben Shahn (1898-1969), Three Men, 1939. Tempera on paper, mounted to Masonite, 45 x 76.8 cm. Louis Agassiz Shaw Bequest and the Richard Norton Memorial Fund.)

By the early 1930s, Ben Shahn propelled himself into the vanguard of social documentary practice when he began to make his own photographs. Using a handheld 35 mm Leica camera, Shahn captured scenes of ordinary life, poverty, and protest on the Lower East Side and in other neighborhoods throughout mid- and lower Manhattan. Powerful works of social-realist art in their own right, Shahn used these photographs as inspiration for his socially conscious drawings, paintings, prints, and posters, as well as his public mural projects that promoted social reform programs of the day. (right: Ben Shahn (1898-1969), For All These Rights We've Just Begun to Fight/Register/Vote, 1946. Lithograph. 73.6 s 98.4 cm. Gift of Ben Shahn.)

"Students and scholars have benefited from the unique teaching and research opportunities presented by our longstanding relationship with Ben Shahn and our exceptional holdings of Shahn's photography," said James Cuno, Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director, Harvard University Art Museums. "We are delighted to now share such an important aspect of Shahn's oeuvre with the public." (left: Ben Shahn (1898-1969). Seward Park, 1936. Lithograph, 30 x 45.1 cm. Gift of Bernarda Bryson Shahn.)

Drawing upon the most comprehensive repository of Ben Shahn's photographs worldwide and the scholarship generated by scholars working with the Shahn archive, the Harvard University Art Museums is uniquely positioned to examine the significance of Shahn's photographic production within the larger Depression-era culture. In addition to the Art Museums' holdings, Shahn's longstanding ties to Harvard and the Art Museums provide an important foundation for the presentation of Ben Shahn's New York, allowing visitors an intimate look at the remarkably rich documentary images Shahn made between circa 1931 and 1936. (left: Ben Shahn (1898-1969), Untitled (Lower East Side, New York City), 1933-1934. Gelatin silver print, 17.2 x 23 cm. Gift of Bernarda Bryson Shahn.)

Ben Shahn's New York is organized by Deborah Martin Kao, Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums; Laura Katzman, assistant professor of art and director of the museum studies program, Randolph-Macon Woman's College; and Jenna Webster, curatorial assistant, department of photographs, Fogg Art Museum. "Shahn's New York photographs chronicle a pivotal time in the artist's career when he emerged as a leading social documentary photographer," said Kao. "in addition to experiencing an artistic reconstruction of depression-era New York, visitors will view photographs that played an invaluable role as primary research tools for Shahn's work." (left: Ben Shahn (1898-1969), Untitled (May Day, Artists' Union Demonstration, New York City), May 1, 1935. Gelatin silver print, 15.2 x 22.7 cm. Gift of Bernarda Bryson Shahn.)


Exhibition Overview

Divided into two major interrelated sections,Ben Shahn's New York features 150 works, both finished and preparatory, and includes photographs, related paintings, drawings, prints, and ephemera. The first section features photographs presented by neighborhood. Visitors will be brought to the streets of Shahn's Manhattan, experiencing the infamous speakeasies of Greenwich Village, street orators from Union Square and produce merchants from the East Side. This section of the exhibition also reveals urban life and landscape in the Depression and the social history of the ethnic immigrants who peopled the blocks of mid- and lower Manhattan that captivated Shahn. (left: Ben Shahn (1898-1969), Greenwich Village (New York City), 1935. Gelatin silver print, 15.9 x 24.1 cm. Gift of Bernarda Bryson Shahn.)

The second section features photographic material and other ephemera related to Shahn's work on public projects and the artist's use of photography as preparatory research for other important pieces. Artists' Union photographs by Shahn and his closest colleagues document demonstrators marching in May Day parades from Union Square to City Hall and to uptown locations where they protested cutbacks in government support and denounced international fascism at the Spanish Embassy. Many photographs in this section were intended for publication in Art Front, a leftist organ edited by Shahn for the Artists' Union. Revealing Shahn and his comrades working to improve their own lives and the lives of those documented with their cameras, this section showcases Shahn's protest photography as a foundation for his later political work. The second section also includes Shahn's preparatory photographs for the Rikers Island Penitentiary mural, Shahn's most ambitious public mural design during the early 1930s. A history of prison reform, the mural design represents Shahn's first use of photography as a primary research tool for a large-scale mural. Two rare panels from the completed mural study will be presented with the photographs used by Shahn and his collaborator Lou Block. Information on prison reform and the federally sponsored mural movement of the 1930s will provide context for these important works.

The exhibition concludes with an extraordinary group of photographs and related works about the Lower East Side that summarize Shahn's attitudes towards photography. Including photographs of the working class, the indigent poor, storefronts, and immigrant communities, this section features a recently discovered intact roll of film Shahn exposed in 1936. Photographs produced from this continuous roll of film are presented in their original sequence, giving visitors the rare opportunity to see how Shahn photographed as he walked along the streets of Manhattan. Other works in this section include an enlarged contact sheet made from the intact roll of film and a 1936 issue of the Jewish Daily Forward culled from the artist's personal archive. This material, combined with the vivid photographs of the concluding section, offers insight on Shahn`s relationship to his immigrant past and his Jewish heritage. (left: Ben Shahn (1898-1969), Bowery (New York City), April 1936. Gelatin silver print, 16 x 24 cm. Gift of Bernarda Bryson Shahn.)

"Shahn's New York photographs offer a journey into the lives of ordinary people confronted by the complexities of Depression-era society," said Katzman. "Likewise, the photographs developed from the continuous roll of film present visitors with an intimate look at the artist's working process and reveal Shahn's exploration of his Jewish heritage and his experience growing up in New York City."


Shahn at Harvard

The exhibition is drawn primarily from the museum's holdings of over 6,000 art objects in different media by Ben Shahn. Following the artist's death in 1969, his widow donated to the Fogg Art Museum her husband's personal collection of his own photographs. A groundbreaking artist who had great impact on the field of social documentary practice, Shahn's work was exhibited at Harvard when he was first gaining acclaim for his artistic definition of social issues. In 1932, the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art exhibited Shahn's controversial series of gouaches, The Passion of Sacco-Vanzetti (1931-32). This exhibition was presented in spite of the fact that Abbott Lawrence Lowell, then president of Harvard University, was caricatured by Shahn as one of the central villains of the case who served on the "Lowell Commission" that investigated charges of bias in the infamous trial. Shahn also contributed to the Harvard community as a scholar. In 1956 he was awarded the distinguished Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry at Harvard, which generated his famous lectures published by Harvard University Press as The Shape of Content (1957), one of the most influential art treatises of mid-century American art. (left: Ben Shahn (1898-1969), Untitled (New York City), 1932-1935. Gelatin silver print, 16.4 x 24.4 cm. Gift of Bernarda Bryson Shahn.)

"Harvard University Art Museums' extensive holdings of Ben Shahn's work have long afforded scholars the opportunity to explore Shahn's aesthetic process and his contributions to the social documentary tradition" added Webster. "Ben Shahn 's New York presents visitors with a multi-layered examination of the contributions of this exceptional artist." (left: Ben Shahn (1898-1969), 14th Street (New York City), 1932-1934. Gelatin silver print, 16 x 24.3 cm. Gift of Bernarda Bryson Shahn.)


Scholarly Publications and Programming

In conjunction with the exhibition and reflecting the Art Museums' dedication to scholarship, Yale University Press is producing a 350-page catalogue with critical essays and full-color illustrations. Through contextual and interdisciplinary analysis of Shahn's documentation of race, social class, and urban street life during the Great Depression, the catalogue, entitled Ben Shahn's New York , will contribute to the larger field of American cultural and social history between the wars. The catalogue contains the following essays. Ben Shahn's New York: Scenes from the Living Theatre by Laura Katzman; Ben Shahn and the Public Use of Art by Deborah Martin Kao; Ben Shahn and the Master Medium by Jenna Webster; and The Politics of Media: Painting and Photography in the Art of Ben Shahn by Laura Katzman. (left: Ben Shahn (1898-1969), Untitled (Sig Klein 's. 52 Third Avenue, New York City), 1935-1936. Gelatin silver print, 19 x 24.5 cm. Gift of Bernarda Bryson Shahn.)

Those interested further in Shahn's art can consult Ben Shahn at Harvard, a searchable database of digitized images and textual information relating to the over 5,000 photographs (including negatives); as well as prints, drawings, and paintings in the Art Museums, collections Users will be able to search and access a large number of images and information on a range of topics discussed by Shahn scholars and researchers. (left: Ben Shahn (1898-1969), Seward Park (or Hester Park New York City), 1932-1935. Gelatin silver print, 17.3 x 22.5 cm.Gift of Bernarda Bryson Shahn.)

The exhibition is made possible in part by two generous donations from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Portions of text and all images courtesy of Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, © Copyright 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College (Harvard University Art Museums)


Text and images courtesy of Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, © Copyright 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College

Also see our companion article: The Shape of Content: The Stephen Lee Taller Ben Shahn Archive at Harvard (12/29/99)

Read more about the Harvard University Art Museums in Resource Library Magazine

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