It is hard to know what propelled
Walter Rosenblum into photography at age sixteen, but it may well
have been the untimely loss of his mother – as if the camera,
a reliable and constant friend, would somewhat make up for her absence
and help re-establish the links to the community that had been severed
by her death.
When working at the Boys’ Club to subsidize his high-school
studies, Rosenblum registered for a course in photography, soon followed
by evening classes at City College. A friend brought him to the Photo
League, a community of photographers founded in 1937. Closely allied
to Paul Strand’s organization, Frontier Films, and
inspired by the German worker-photographer movement organized by Will
Müzenberg, the Photo League’s objective was to make photographs
that stood for the rights of the working class.
The League had a gallery and classroom, an office and several darkrooms.
There was an exhibition program that featured internationally known
photographers, from Berenice Abbott to Henri Cartier-Bresson, W.Eugene
Smith and Manuel Alvarez-Bravo, as well as classes and lectures. Among
its strongest supporters were Lewis Hine and Paul Strand. They both
became major influences on Rosenblum, the former for his dedication
to social causes, and the latter for his preoccupation with form and
At a time when there were no photography schools, the League offered
Rosenblum an education in the arts that his background was lacking.
While attending Sid Grossman’s workshop on documentary photography,
Rosenblum started in 1938 his first major project, Pitt Street, an
exploration of the neighborhood where he grew up in a tightly-knit
community, and where he laid out his social and formal concerns for
his subsequent work.
After working as an assistant to LIFE photographer Eliot Elisofon
and freelancing for several publications, Rosenblum was drafted to
serve in World War II and sent to Europe as a still photographer to
produce picture stories on army life. His pictures of the Normandy
landing on June 6, 1944, and his film on the Dachau concentration
camp were highlights of his army career.
After the war, Rosenblum became a photographer for the Unitarian Service
Committee and traveled widely in the United States and abroad. One
of his main stories of the period was on homes in Southern France
that sheltered exiles from the Spanish Civil War (1946). Later on,
however, apart from a series on the island of Gaspé (1949),
influenced by Paul Strand’s “Time in New England”
series, and a project on Haiti done during his 1958-59 sabbatical
year (Rosenblum was teaching at Brooklyn College), he kept New York
as his main area of interest. It offered him the possibility of in-depth
knowledge built over the years and of travel to another culture just
by changing neighborhoods. He focused on Spanish Harlem near East
105th street in Manhattan, Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx, as
well as Long Island City and the South Bronx, highlighting children
and the elderly in many of these situations.
Rosenblum never assumed the role of a tourist but always involved
himself in the lives of those he photographed, coming back to give
them prints of their portraits. While his ideas may have been progressive,
his work never was a dry illustration of social concerns: people in
his photographs are not defined by their circumstances but transcend
His projects were not intellectually scripted but done intuitively,
as a personal record of people, their relationships as they are acted
out on the street, and, in the case of his Haiti project, their life
at large including landscapes and the religious objects of the voodoo
ceremonies. The photographs reflect formal concerns such as his attention
to groupings and to the accidents of light, but mostly a tenderness
and immense empathy for the people he photographed.
Rosenblum’s exploration of human interactions as well as his
constant focus on his hometown seem to bridge the worlds of Europe
and the United States: While his images bring to mind the work of
the generation of humanist photographers from France such as Edouard
Boubat, Robert Doisneau and Willy Ronis, they also foreshadow Bruce
Davidson’s project East 100th Street where, like Rosenblum,
he was the “neighborhood photographer.”
Walter Rosenblum died last year at age 87: we miss him, still.
-- Carole Naggar
Walter Rosenblum’s photographs are currently featured in
Where Do We Go From Here? : The Photo League and Its Legacy,
at the New York Public Library, Humanities and Social Science Library
Branch, third floor.
Until February 18, 2007