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American Quarterly 53.1 (2001) 94-122
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The Testifying Eye:
Ben Shahn in New York
MANY WHO COME TO AMERICAN ARTIST BEN SHAHN (1898-1969) ARRIVE FIRST at his paintings. When they discover the photographs, they are perhaps pleasantly surprised and perhaps a little dismayed. Their discomfort is a result of a century-and-a-half's argument over where photography belongs in the taxonomy of creative expression: is it art or something less? At the heart of Ben Shahn's New York: The Photography of [End Page 94] Modern Times is a declaration that the photograph is the equal of the canvas. Shahn, a photographer for the Resettlement Administration (RA) and the Farm Security Administration (FSA, herein RA/FSA)--the same New Deal agency that employed such luminary photographers as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, Carl Mydans, and Marion Post Wolcott--is perfectly positioned with one foot in each world of photography and painting. 1 By selecting Shahn as a subject for this exhibition and then refusing to shy away from the debate, the curators have ushered in a new era in the relations both between non-photographic art and photography and between artists and the art-curious: critics, collectors, historians, and others.
While the exhibition has received very positive critical response, one reviewer for the Washington City Paper [D.C.] expressed a long-standing bias when he wrote of the show at its Phillips Collection venue, that hanging photography and paintings together diminishes both. 2 The reviewer clearly missed the point of the exhibition. Shahn understood how each medium might complement and assist the other, and he is the most able exemplar of this dialogue across media. Choosing to do a show on Ben Shahn, especially of his New York photographs, was easy: his photographs have a unique empathetic quality missing even in his much celebrated colleagues' work, and his paintings are deeply symbolic, since they combine subtle political and social commentary with abundant skill and humor. As the City Paper reviewer's comment suggests, choosing to do a show of his paintings and photographs together was bold; taboos still exist surrounding the subject of a painter's use of or reliance on photographs. Simply hanging the two media on the same wall generates criticism. How Shahn's New York photographs relate to his paintings is a central theme in the exhibition. In fact, it is impossible to understand Ben Shahn as a painter (or as a muralist or graphic artist) without understanding him as a photographer; the reverse is true as well. Consequently, with this exhibition the curators have given viewers rich fodder for arguments against accessing the "truth" of art solely through de-contexualizing it, against the "death of the author," and against the highly dubious practice of deconstructing photographs. [End Page 95]
Ben Shahn's New York
Shahn, who fled from czarist Lithuania in 1906 with his working-class Jewish family, knew New York well; he took most of his New York photographs (made between 1932 and 1936) across the East River from his Brooklyn home, in the ethnic neighborhoods...