MIAMI — There’s an iconic photograph of folk singer Woody Guthrie, his skin weathered with sun, cigarette at his lips, the line of his guitar strap on a clean diagonal, as if triangulating man, instrument, and negative space. It was shot by Sid Grossman, of New York’s radical Photo League, in 1948, the year the collective was blacklisted during the Red Scare and declared a subversive organization, both for its documentation of the city’s impoverished communities and its Communist affiliations. (Guthrie, for his part, was long associated with various communist groups — without becoming an official member himself.)
This photo is not part of Sid Grossman: Photography, Politics, and the Ethical Image, an exhibition dedicated to the photographer’s life and work from the late 1930s and mid-1940s, now on view at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM). But its absence delineates the show’s cutoff point: a few years after the Photo League was blacklisted and Grossman defamed, he moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, and shortly thereafter passed away. The image also encapsulates the care Grossman extended to both his subjects and his practice and what, exactly, photography was for him: “A photograph is not merely a substitute for a glance,” he once said. “It is the revelation of new and important facts.” Exposing the economic inequities of New York City, he photographed poorly constructed tenements and crowded homes — as well as sublime and poignant street scenes, like the pleasures of adolescent life on the Coney Island boardwalk or the bemused faces of children in Harlem, briefly taken aback by his camera.
The Photo League emerged from a nationwide, Communist-affiliated photography movement; the New York City branch evolved into the League in 1934 after Grossman, then 23, met fellow photographer Sol Libsohn and gave the collective a name. Grossman, the youngest child of two Jewish first-generation immigrants from the Austrian Empire (now Poland), was not only a Photo League member but an educator — at the Photo League’s workshops, the Harlem Art Center, and, later, in Provincetown — and the founder of Chelsea Document, an exposé on the neighborhood’s living conditions. He encouraged his students to work in much the same way he did: on the street, in the thick of it, with veneration for the artistry of the medium and its ability to broadcast varying realities. Photographs of the Chelsea tenements at PAMM are unassuming street scenes. Sheets dangle from clothing lines in “Untitled (New York apartments)” (1940), edges of the open windows tattered and mildewed; heat and bodies are evoked. Their actual presence, though, is more compelling. The teenagers and children in “Swimming Pool, Colonial Park (Harlem)” (1939), lounging on their bellies, poolside on stone steps damp with chlorine, are nearly cut off by a blurry figure — another kid stepping into the frame the moment Grossman hit the shutter.
Grossman went on to document labor unions in the Dust Bowl, and his images from that time are poetic tapestries: in “Oklahoma” (1940), horses, saddled with thick, shiny leather, occupy the foreground, while a farmer in overalls stands atop a distant hill in the background, giving him the contours of something heroic. “Arkansas (family of folksingers)” (1940) projects as much activity as the swimming pool photograph from New York, the lively musicians — primarily women — unaware of the photographer (save for one in the center, smiling giddily). Grossman’s time here became fodder for an informant who doubted his dedication to patriotism, noting, according to The New York Times, that “Mr. Grossman was a Jew who had photographed poor people.”
He enlisted in the military and was stationed in Panama, where his photos took on a stark, cinematic quality. One subject, cloaked in a robe and carrying a cross in “Untitled (Black Christ Procession, Panama)” (1945), stares at Grossman, caught in a moment of surprise or annoyance or somewhere in between. There’s the air of cultural intrusion on Grossman’s part and, perhaps as a result, the rest of his photos in Panama appear to be taken at a slight distance. In “Aquadulce Cantina, Panama” (1945), a man on the left raises his hat, his shirt stained with the shadow of the figure on the right; a child at center faces forward, but none of them seem to see Grossman.
The PAMM has included a timeline of Grossman’s life, from birth through his untimely death at age 42. An accompanying clip from a documentary on The Photo League offers — from multiple colleagues — the explanation that the stress of the group’s blacklisting and the painful accusations against Grossman’s character ultimately took his life. Work like his — with this sort of moral history — is often deemed “humanizing,” the photographer’s social consciousness eclipsing the images themselves. In reality, the distance afforded by photography can have the opposite effect, distilling whole swaths of life into mere subjecthood. The quote “The question of naturalism is a fallacy,” is attributed to Grossman; he carried no delusions about an image’s ability to display something natural and unaltered. The camera changes things. Still, he met his subjects where they were, documenting them reverentially, purposefully and, until his iniquitous defamation, unceasingly.
Sid Grossman: Photography, Politics, and the Ethical Image is on view at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (1103 Biscayne Blvd, Miami) through October 28.