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1969 03 14
1969 03 14
"we tried to present the ordinary in an extraordinary manner."
Ben Shahn (September 12, 1898 – March 14, 1969) was an American artist. He is best known for his works of social realism, his left-wing political views, and his series of lectures published as The Shape of Content.
Wikipedia, last update 2023.04.05.
Ben Shahn, with Leica and Right-Angle Viewfinder (from johnedwinmason.typepad.com)
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."
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.)
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.
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.
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.)
On other occasions, the people he photographed knew exactly what he was up to. Sometimes, they weren't happy about it...
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