A street photographer’s working-class New York

“Whether he trained his camera on exuberant summer scenes on the beaches of Coney Island or the intimate corners of Mulberry Street during the San Gennaro festival, as here, Grossman was one of the greatest chroniclers of working-class life in New York during the late 1930s and 1940s,” writes the Metropolitan Museum of Art of Sid Grossman.

[Left: "Mulberry Street, 1948"]

While still a City College student, Grossman launched his career as a freelance photojournalist; he and fellow lensman Sol Libsohn cofounded the Photo League in 1936, teaching the craft as well as shooting street scenes in Chelsea and Harlem.

[Below: "Harlem Scene: 133rd Street Between Lenox and Fifth Avenues," 1930s]

Grossman’s photos captured regular New Yorkers going about life in the 1930s, but by the 1940s, his photos often had a surreal quality, with subjects out of frame and staring back at the camera.

This made the viewer “an engaged participant in the scene rather than an aloof flâneur, rendering the experience of the picture not just an aesthetic dalliance, but a social activity as well.”

[above: "Two Young Women before a Pastry Shop at Night," 1948]

Grossman might have continued shooting New York—but photos of labor union unrest he took in the 1930s led to an FBI investigation, which deemed the Photo League a Communist front.

The league was blacklisted; Grossman died in 1955.

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3 Responses to “A street photographer’s working-class New York”

  1. marjorie ingall Says:

    Thanks so much for this — I’m embarrassed that I’d never heard of Grossman. That last photo gives me the shivers — it’s like a whole play, with so much going on and so many points of view. Amazing.

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    It’s so rich, isn’t it? I’d actually never heard of Grossman until recently either. But once I saw his photos, I knew I had to give him some blog space.

  3. nycedges Says:

    Agree with Marjorie, thanks for the intro — now I love his photos too!

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