Ben Shahn loved his Leica. To be more precise, he loved what he could do with it, especially when outfitted with a right-angle viewfinder.
In my last post, I talked about Shahn's 1935 encounter with a traveling medicine show in a small town in Tennessee and showed several of the photos that he made that day. Just a few hours after it went up on the web, someone sent me an email, asking me to say more about the camera, the viewfinder, and the way he made photos. Her wish is my command.
Ben Shahn: Street scene, Circleville, Ohio. 1938. (The reflection in the window behind the two men shows Shahn in the act of making a photo with the right-angle viewfinder. You can get a better look by clicking directly on the photo to enlarge it.)
Shahn is best known as one of the twentieth century's most significant painters. But for a brief time, in the 1930s, he was also an important photographer. In later life, he sometimes claimed that photography had been nothing more than an adjunct to his painting, a way of sketching. In fact, the story is more complicated than that. Yes, it was a quick and accurate way of sketching. No, it wasn't a sideshow.
For nearly a decade, Shahn's photography was an end in itself. In her book Ben Shahn, Bernarda Bryson Shahn, his second wife (who did all the driving on their 1935 road trip through the South), insisted that he "respected the camera, and did not see it as a prop for painting; each picture that he took was valued for its own qualities as [a] document or image." "In the process of photographing," she adds, "he learned a new way of seeing."
Ben Shahn: A deputy with a gun on his hip during the September 1935 strike in Morgantown, West Virginia. 1935.
In the 1930s, he made thousands of photos while working for the federal government's Resettlement Administration [RA], the functions of which were later transferred to the Farm Security Administration [FSA]. He and other RA/FSA photographers, including Walker Evans, an old friend, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott, and Jack Delano, created a body of documentary work that has never been equaled in scope or quality.
Not surprisingly, they took their jobs very seriously. Shahn remembered that "we tried to present the ordinary in an extraordinary manner." (Quoted in Frances K. Pohl, Ben Shahn.)
Ben Shahn: Boone County, Arkansas. The family of a Resettlement Administration client in the doorway of their home. 1935.
Cameras like Shahn's Leica -- "miniature cameras," as they were called -- were still novelties in Depression-era America. At a time when most cameras were large, cumbersome affairs, 35 millimeter "miniatures" were compact, maneuverable, and relatively inconspicuous.
Walker Evans was one of the first American photographers to see the Leica's potential, and he passed on his enthusiasm to Shahn, with whom he shared a New York studio. They often went out together on photo expeditions through the streets of Manhattan, both using Leicas with right-angle viewfinders, hoping to catch their subjects unposed and unprepared.
Ben Shahn: Unemployed trappers, Louisiana. 1935.
It's tempting to call the advent of Leicas and other 35 millimeter cameras, such as the Zeiss Ikon, revolutionary. It's certainly fair to say that these miniature cameras changed the look and feel of photography and the working methods of photographers at least as much as the recent move from film to digital capture. In addition to being small, they could produce up to 36 exposures without having to be reloaded. (Most professional cameras then in use had to be reloaded after every shot. Some made 12 exposures.) The loose, improvised, fly-on-the-wall character of so much of the photojournalism, war photography, documentary photography, and street photography of the past 80 years wouldn't exist without the small camera.
Ben Shahn: Street musicians, Maynardville, Tennessee. 1935.
The techniques that Shahn learned on the streets of New York were directly transferable to the documentary photography that he did for the RA and FSA. His subjects often seem to be unaware of his presence, and the moments that he captured were fleeting. His camera's ability to record many exposures quickly, together with its compact size and its right-angle viewfinder are a large part of the reason why. Sometimes, according to Shahn, people didn't even realize that the small metallic thing in his hand was a camera. They'd never seen anything like it. Without the viewfinder, it probably looked something like this. (I haven't been able to determine precisely which Leica model he used.)
Ben Shahn: Medicine Show, Huntingdon, Tennessee. 1935.
On other occasions, the people he photographed knew exactly what he was up to. Sometimes, they weren't happy about it.
Ben Shahn: Zinc, Arkansas, deserted mining town. 1935. (Click directly on any of these photos to see larger versions.)
On the whole, however, Shahn seems to have been the kind of guy that people liked -- or at least didn't mind having around.
Ben Shahn: Sharecropper on Sunday, Little Rock, Arkansas. 1935.
Shahn made many portraits, while working for the RA and FSA. Like all portraits, they're collaborations between the subjects and the photographer. Many are powerful.
Ben Shahn: Itinerant photographer in Columbus, Ohio. 1938.
In these cases, it wouldn't have mattered whether Shahn was using his Leica or a bulky large format camera on a tripod. The relationship between the photographer and the subject was what mattered the most.
Ben Shahn: Self Portrait Among Churchgoers. 1939. Tempera on masonite. Copyright Estate of Ben Shahn.
As important as photos were to Shahn, in and of themselves, they were also grist for his artistic mill.
The painting above combines an image of him, using his Leica with its right-angle viewfinder, and elements of two photos that he made while working for the RA.
Ben Shahn: Church at Pleasant Unity, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. 1935.
The Westmoreland County church (above) provides the background, while two Mississippi women in black (below) occupy a bit of the sidewalk.
Ben Shahn: Two women walking along street, Natchez, Mississippi. 1935.
You can read more about the way that Shahn used photography in his paintings and murals, here.
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I've taken Shahn's photos from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, at the Library of Congress. (They are not under copyright.) At the time that he made them, he was working Resettlement Administration and, later, the Farm Security Administration, but he was not employed by Roy Stryker's Historical Section, home of the legendary RA/FSA documentary project. Instead, the Special Skills Section had hired him for his expertise as a painter, muralist, and lithographer. He admired the job being done by Stryker and his photographers, however, and donated the photos that he made to the Historical Section's archives.