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 structure.

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 them.

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


All photographs copyright © 2007 Walter Rosenblum