Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Walter Rosenblum: Committed Optimist
Walter Rosenblum (1919-2006) was one of the most renowned and respected social-documentary photographers in the medium’s history. Born and raised on New York City’s Lower East Side, he took up photography at 16, and several years later became a member of the famous Photo League (1936-1951), the socially progressive collective devoted to documenting the lives of everyday working people. League members Lewis Hine and Paul Strand mentored Rosenblum and helped instill in him the visual and moral concerns that illuminated his work over the course of his career. He produced seminal, self-directed projects for the League; freelanced for various magazines; took pictures of the Normandy landing and filmed the Dachau concentration camp while serving in the Army; and photographed for the Unitarian Service Committee after the war. He also taught for decades at Brooklyn College, Yale and other institutions. His images are timeless and affirmative, grounded in a profound respect for his subjects and focused on values and behavior that transcend differences in race, politics and religion. [Note: This interview was conducted in 1991 for Camera & Darkroom magazine, and contains references to events occurring at that time but which remain relevant to today.]

Walter and Naomi Rosenblum

Your work has always evoked a strong sense of people’s surroundings. How did your own environment affect your creative development?
I feel the environment in which one lives is basic to how one develops as a photographer. Most of my photo projects have been self-motivated, and what’s moved me to choose a project is my relationship to my environment. The Pitt Street, South Bronx, Gaspe and Haitian projects — everything I’ve done is because environmentally something excites my interest. Paul Strand, who was my teacher and friend for more than 40 years, and probably the most important influence in my life, said the photographer is an explorer. And what he brings back is the result of that exploration. And that’s how I worked; one project led to another.

You were one of the prominent members of the Photo League. In 1947 the League was labeled subversive and un-American by the Attorney General, which eventually led to its dissolution. Can you describe this period?
We were called the “ashcan” school of photography by the Pictorialists, because we pointed our cameras at the life around us. We had a feature group led by Aaron Siskind, who did the Harlem Document. Sid Grossman and Sol Libshon photographed in Chelsea, I worked the Lower East Side, and another group did Park Avenue North and South. We tried to document what was around us as best we could. Our pictures tried to be deeply felt comments on what we saw, even if it was on a subconscious level, and we didn’t really know why we were doing it. We were considered progressive, but not radical. The Photo League was not a political organization.

But you must understand that it was the beginning of the Cold War, and you cannot divorce what happened to us from the overall political scene of the time. Churchill had made a speech in which he said, in effect, “The Soviet Union is our enemy. We trusted them too far, and now we have to stop.” And it changed the tenor of the country. 

Candy store, Pitt Street, 1937

In order to influence the thinking of the American people, the Attorney General — without any legal right — issued a list of some 330 organizations that he said were “subversive.” On it were listed the Ku Klux Klan, the American Communist Party, Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and all kinds of other organizations, including the Photo League. If your name was on this list, you had to put on your stationary that you were a “subversive organization.”

We were very upset, and we fought back. This was just one of many attacks on the arts that were violating our civil liberties. For a time the Photo League grew stronger, because people realized this listing was nonsensical. We grew, we prospered, we found new headquarters, and there was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm.

But the situation in the country kept getting worse. Finally, there was a trial of the American Communist Party leadership, and one of our members, Sid Grossman, was mentioned during the trials. Things became so severe and unjust that people’s passports were taken away, and others were losing their jobs for taking the Fifth Amendment, because they didn’t want to discuss their political beliefs. In that general atmosphere, members became frightened, and stopped coming around to the League, and it finally just folded.

Children on swings, Pitt Street, 1938

Do you see parallels between those Cold War years and the present political atmosphere in regard to the Gulf War? [1990-1991]
No question about it. If you control the press and the means of distributing information, you can get people to believe anything and be afraid of anything or to support anything. Our government had to sell this war to the American people. We were supporting Kuwait, which is a one-family dictatorship, and Saudi Arabia, which is also a repressive dictatorship where civil liberties are nonexistent. And as the largest debtor nation in the world, where millions of people live below the poverty level, we were spending a billion dollars a day. Many Americans didn’t want the country involved in this conflict.

You’d never have known that from the mainstream media.
No, you wouldn’t. The press was completely co-opted. Iraq was a paper tiger — a small Third World country — and the allied forces had overwhelming power. Furthermore, nobody at the time mentioned that there were going to be tremendous repercussions. We destroyed hospital facilities so that thousands of people, many of them children, are dying due to inadequate care and malnutrition. The Kurds were falsely led to believe that their freedom was imminent. They have suffered terribly due to this misapprehension. And Hussein remains in power. 

Spanish refugees, 1946

Your work throughout the years is divided into discrete projects, albeit they are thematically and emotionally linked. Do any of them claim a greater share of your affection?
John Marin once said that when he sent his watercolors and paintings out into the world, they were like his children. I feel the same way, so I really don’t distinguish much between what I’ve done. Some projects are more complete than others, because I had more time to spend on them. There are different things in each project that satisfy me, that make me happy I’m a photographer. Also, each project is a great teaching source.

When I was doing the Pitt Street series, my first project, I asked myself, “Why am I here? Why do I want to do this?” Well, what I learned is that if you’re a photographer, you have to do something because you feel strongly about it, and you have to wait for those moments that best illustrate what it is you want to say. A photographer doesn’t just copy reality, but communicates to others what he or she experiences. If at the same time you’ve solved the visual problems that are involved — composition, lighting, etc. — well, then you’ve done something worthwhile.

So what that experience did for me was allow me to evolve a sensibility of what I wanted to accomplish as a photographer, what it is I wanted to speak about. The Pitt Street series was my basic education, which permitted me to go on to other things.

Boy on roof, Pitt Street, 1950

Your subjects are usually aware of your camera, yet they always seem relaxed. How did you learn to gain their trust?
When I first began making photographs, people would say to me, “What are you doing on the street? Why don’t you go where the rich people live? Why are you photographing where the poor people are?” So I said, “Well, let me show you what I’m doing, and hopefully that will explain why I am here.” And I made it a practice to return with pictures to give away.

And what I learned, and what I’ve always found to be true, is that people are smart and sensitive, and if you trust them, they will trust you. So when they looked at my photographs, they discovered that I wasn’t making fun of them, I wasn’t trying to show their foibles, or make them look bad. I portrayed them as decent human beings who were full of life. By joining them and giving them photos I found they began to trust me.

For instance, when I was in Haiti, where I couldn’t speak Creole, I met a well-known Haitian historian who introduced me to a tiny village. I couldn’t speak to the people, so what did I do? I brought them photographs. And instead of saying, “Tourist, go home,” they said, “Take a picture of my baby.” No one there had done that before, so they began to trust me, even though we couldn’t speak to one another.

Boy with zither, 105th Street, 1952

How do you use the environment to visually comment on your subjects?
There is always an interaction between the subject of the photograph and their environment. For instance, in photographing a group of people on Pitt Street arguing about politics, my objective was to capture the expressive moment. But they were surrounded by the candy store doorway, the artifacts in the window, the building itself, an old woman seated in one corner of the doorway and a young boy bent over a sign at the right. What I chose to include in the photograph had to contribute to what the picture was about. Each square inch of subject matter had to be seen and integrated into a unified whole. That is the job of the photographer. Our success depends on what we choose to include or ignore.

What were you trying to convey with the famous shot of the small boy on a tenement roof?
Roofs on the Lower East Side are fascinating, because of the chimneys and air shafts and variety of other structures. Since I lived in a tenement, I felt a strong personal relationship to these forms and shapes. I was up on that roof one morning, and found that youngster up there with some friends. I don’t often set up a photograph, but I asked him if he would stand at a certain spot that would give me the composition I wanted.

The picture has surreal aspects for me because it is the roof of an old-law tenement: impossible to live in, without air, proper toilet facilities, and lacking heat or hot water. I felt the atmosphere was that of a prison, made even more frightening by the dangerous chasm that was the air shaft. And yet there was a kind of abstract beauty to these shapes and forms that I found quite exciting. It was this mixture of beauty and terror and the young boy’s life force that attracted me.

It’s an optimistic image, like so many of your pictures are.
I don’t ever mean my pictures to be depressing — I don’t believe in making depressing pictures. As I said earlier, pictures have to show you both sides. That youngster was a life force amidst all that poverty.

Hopscotch, 105th Street, 1952

Yet, with the Haitian series, there’s a shift in tone — it’s darker and less hopeful than the rest of your work.

I spent ten months in Haiti in 1958-’59. When I arrived, my first glimpse of Haitian life was a man being beaten by the police. The owner of the hotel where I first stayed said, “If a person dies, you bury him. If a country dies, what do you do?”

Haiti was and is in terrible shape. All the ground cover has been burned for charcoal, so when it rains, the water rushes into the sea, taking whatever little topsoil is left. The average cash income of the Haitian peasant back then was $20-$30 a year. Disease was rampant. And with Duvalier and the Tonton Macoutes, there was rampant physical violence and brutality. I had never seen such poverty and degradation, but I found the people’s attitude warm and friendly.

I could walk through the worst slum at 4 am and not dream of being molested. At the time, there was no armed robbery. People might steal, but no one was hurt. So I sensed a crazy contradiction between people I came to love and respect and the degrading environment in which they lived. It was this contrast I tried to deal with.

Woman leaning on pole, Haiti, 1958-59

Let’s change gears and talk from a technical perspective. Paul Strand said that the warmth and richness of the prints convey your feeling for your subjects. Can you elaborate?
When I began in photography, Strand was my mentor and friend. I knew very little about printing, while Strand was a great master. One day, while I was helping him at the warehouse where he stored his photographs, he came across some old platinum prints. As I looked over his shoulder, he calmly proceeded to tear some of those prints into small pieces. Finally, I got up enough nerve to ask why. “Not good enough” was his reply.

It was a wonderful lesson for a young photographer. Tearing up a print over which you have labored intensively because it is not good enough means you are in control. When I go into the darkroom, I am establishing a rapport with a piece of film that must become my friend. That negative has many secrets that I need to explore. It is a lifeline between what I saw and what I can produce as a finished print.

I begin, through trial and error, to find a way. What paper and what developer will do justice to its tonality? Will I need a soft-working developer, a contrasty developer, or a combination of the two? What surface should the paper have? My credo is that I will not leave that negative until I can make the best print possible, and I try not to settle for less. Time and expense have lost their meaning, and when I succeed, I have a print that will have a life of its own.

Couple, Pamphili Gardens, Rome, 1973

Your prints are remarkable for their luminous quality, with soft yet distinct tones.
Again, Strand was my master. He would be very critical of my early prints in which whites or blacks showed no detail. There is nothing in the real world that is either pure white or pure black. Forms are distinguished by their tonalities. The photographer must reduce the long range of gradation one finds in nature to the limited tonal scale of a piece of printing paper, and that is no simple task.

When I print, I try to solve this problem by searching for the longest possible scale. It is not purely a technical matter, for it has aesthetic and moral overtones. It is my way of paying respect to what I photograph. I find the surface of glossy paper too reflective, so I use a semi-matte paper, which I varnish to provide the depth it would otherwise lack. I also use Nelson’s gold toner to extend the range of my print.

Many photographers just send their work to a lab.
That comes out of contemporary photojournalism — photographers bounce around the world and have little time for darkroom work. Sebastiao Salgado and Henri Cartier-Bresson are two of the most important photographers of our time, but neither do their own darkroom work. As a result, I think their prints suffer.

There is another problem: How is any lab technician to know what the photographer had in mind when the photograph was made? Labs print to a norm, namely, a good, full-scale print and generally on glossy stock. But that is not what photography is about. A fine photograph is a very complex entity. Today we seem besieged by images whose political message is supposed to be all important (and instantly evident), or by images in which the photographer looks inward for the secrets of life. There is nothing wrong with photojournalism. Cartier-Bresson, Salgado and Gene Smith, to name but three, have provided us with superb images, deeply felt.

But I am speaking of a photograph that can live on a wall next to any other work of visual art and hold its own. That requires more than intriguing subject matter; it needs a combination of things that many contemporary photographers ignore. Such works must have an original vision. They must have visual complexity so that the image will expand as a result of the formal resolution. A further glow will be furnished by the print quality. To settle for less makes photographs repetitive, lacking in sensibility and staying power.

Cowboys and Indians, Paris 1973

You’ve enjoyed a long and celebrated career, marked by many exhibitions and honors, but only recently did you come out with your first book.
The idea of a book has been with me for a long time, but the opportunity just never presented itself. It’s very hard for a photographer to get a book published, because generally speaking, they’re not-for-profit events, and publishers are reluctant to do that sort of thing. But fate was kind to me. I went to Germany about four or five years ago, and as a result of a show I had in East Germany, someone from the Verlag der kunst in Dresden asked if I’d be interested in having a book of my photographs published.

Which is more satisfying, a book or an exhibition?
They are both satisfying, but in different ways. In an exhibition people have the opportunity to see original prints, which I believe is how photographs are meant to be seen. The finest reproductions do not match the quality of an original print. But the audience is limited. Exhibitions are ephemeral too; they disappear as quickly as they appear. More photographs can usually be reproduced in a book, and the work can be seen wherever books are sold. A book also becomes part of history. It will exist long after I am gone, and it pleases me that my work will be available to future generations.

Man with beads 1980

Naomi Rosenblum: A historian’s perspective
As a sidebar to the Walter Rosenblum interview, I also spoke with his wife, Dr. Naomi Rosenblum, a noted photo historian and author of A World History of Photography.

Can you contrast modern photojournalism with that of past decades?
There is so much more electronic journalism than in the past. Video has had a big effect, and magazines are different. You don’t have the prevalence of big picture magazines anymore, which is what we relied on very frequently in the past for news and interpretation. They were as organized as contemporary television news, but one could still go back and look over the pictures. You could read between the lines, assuming that you understood that the material had been organized in such a way that you were supposed to see it in a certain light. There was also more room for the individual to insert himself or herself into the picture than in contemporary journalism. Tastes have changed also. There is enormous interest now in personal lives rather than in issues.

Things are now focused on individuals, and on personal, private habits rather than anything that gives you a context for what’s going on in society. Everything’s been sort of atomized in a way in this postmodern world, so that people have a hard time fitting things together or making sense of them. That is seen in the journalism of today, which I don’t find very interesting. The page layouts are not interesting in the magazines. It’s very hard to tell the ads from the editorial material. The layout is identical for both of them. That makes it very difficult for people to sort things out for themselves. I think they are less informed than they used to be.

Friends, Lincoln Hospital 1980

How would you assess Walter’s development through the years? There seems to be greater clarity of vision with maturity.
I’m not sure it’s clarity of vision; richness may be a better word. I think he probed more deeply inside himself and into his subjects. There is a more profound view of things than in the earlier work, which was put together extremely well and had a great deal of empathy. But the empathy was on a narrower range. I think he gradually became more conscious of the tragic dimension of life.

Even though he says he doesn’t want to make depressing pictures — and I don’t think they are — there’s certainly more room in the later pictures, especially the Haiti series, for the fact that people have very profound problems in their lives that affect the way they look and how they feel. While Walter doesn’t want to feel that there’s no hope for them, the pictures say to me that the hope is sort of a little edge to a life that’s lead in great tension and suffering and conflict. I think that’s the dimension that was given greater play in the later years.

Bus stop, 1980

What do you consider his most important contribution to photojournalism?
I don’t think of him as a photojournalist at all, and for a very specific reason. That is because his pictures were not made for magazine reproduction, and they were ordinarily not made for a text. There’s a big difference between what photojournalism does and what his work is about. He falls somewhere into a vague slot between what in the old days was called social photography and art photography. I’ve never found a suitable name for it — just photography.

Walter brought a unique sense of optimism to a very pessimistic world, the sense people have that somewhere, sometime, there will be the possibility of transcending terrible circumstances. That’s unusual today, because photographers who have similar political or social interests, who feel things aren’t right, will bang you over the head with their pictures. Their images come with messages and writing on them, and there’s very little feeling in them.

By feeling I mean an emotional quality that one reacts to immediately. There is very little magic or mystery in photography today, and not much profundity, since a lot of work is all quite obvious. I think the fact that Walter kept on all these years with the same kind of agenda is unique too. In a sense, that’s the heritage of the FSA photographers and Hine and Strand — that human beings are to be treated with respect, and that there is hope and optimism.

Happy child, Mullaly Park 1980

(All photographs by Walter Rosenblum. To learn more about his life and work, please visit


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