To get a glimpse of what life was like in New York City over 70 years ago, you only have to consider the work of Sy Kattelson, a Brooklyn-born photographer aged 93, who studied with Sid Grossman and Paul Strand, and is known for his association with the Big Apple's famed Photo League.
The first solo exhibition in nearly 20 years of work by Kattelson will be on view at Howard Greenberg Gallery from January 12 – February 11, 2017. The show of 45 photographs focuses on street photography made in the NYC from the 1940s and 1950s and includes work from the 1980s through to 1990 that has never been on public view.
His street portraits in the gritty, urban environment often show a moment of introspection or contemplation. As Sy Kattelson explains: "I try to be as unobtrusive as possible, looking for those moments when people are focused in on themselves. And I try to find settings where this inwardness is contrasted by the dynamics of the city, by taxi cabs rushing past, by advertisements, the perspective of the street, and by the other people in the same space, everyone in their own thoughts."
Despite differences in technique, a similar vision can be seen, even among those photographs taken 35 years apart. A link is evident between Man With Cane, 1950, where the image is divided by store windows, and 14th Street, 1953, where the break is caused by the frame between two adjacent negatives. A similar composition shows up in work from the 1980s and '90s, such as Bus, Line, People, 1990, a double exposure, and Untitled (street and shadows), 1990, a diptych with reflections. In each photograph, the people framed by the network that the city creates.
Among the images not made in New York is one of a woman selling fruit in Mexico in 1956 showing Kattelson’s playful geometry, capturing numerous diagonal lines surrounding his sensitive portrait. Another depicts a pair of women with white gloves, pearls, and proper handbags warily watching New Yorkers getting off a bus in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 1950.
“When I go out to shoot I’m always looking for something, for a specific idea that I have," said Kattelson. "I wait until I find it. I don’t take a lot of photos. I try to put as much information as I can into each photo. That’s what interested me in reflections – in storefront windows and the windshields of cars. This eventually led me to the double exposures, and to the prints where I butt together two different images."
Main image: Sy Kattelson, 14th Street, 1953