Everything changes. In the first part of the 20th century, a lot of artists and photographers devoted a lot of energy to documenting the human condition. In an age that gave us two world wars, epidemics, famines and a protracted economic collapse, there was no shortage of material. It was a time when many painters and photographers focused on social justice as well as everyday human dramas, but it all came to a halt, almost abruptly, at the end of the 1940s. Many great documentary photographers such as Walker Evans, artists who had no political axe to grind but simply relished the process of capturing the fleeting essence of everyday reality, were caught up in the changing of the guard. Suddenly the focus was on aesthetics for its own sake, and the social realists were considered artifacts of another age.
The best of the WPA photographers eventually became legends in their own time, but history's waves occasionally uncover buried treasure long after the fact, and Sonia Handelman Meyer's formerly forgotten photographs are a case in point. Active in the New York Photo League until it folded in 1951, Meyer recorded city scenes with an uncommon flair for the subtle dramas of the streets. Maybe because she was a woman with a nondescript camera, she photographed people so unobtrusively she might as well have been invisible. Seeing her work now is like taking the subway and getting off in the late 1940s. Her photos are slices of life in a forgotten New York as it might have appeared to a fly on the wall. As one who lived there decades later, I felt waves of nostalgia for a Manhattan I never knew.
Unlike the art photographers whose imagery conforms to a profoundly personal vision, the great documentary photographers aspired to a style that transcended style, a you-are-there quality of pure, unfiltered vision. Egoless art is, of course, impossible, but Meyer came closer to it than most in work that bridged the pure vision of Walker Evans and the urban antics of Weegee, the great recorder of the seamy side of New York life. In Coney Island, a guy wears a shabby suit and a worried expression as he nervously clutches a parcel in front of a giant Three Stooges movie poster. A caricature of apprehensive sleaze, the sort of shadowy specter that used to haunt the tawdry Times Square of yore, this guy is obviously a scumbag but you sort of feel for him anyway. A tad less personal is Broadway, a streetscape framed by a theater arcade with sidewalk traffic flowing like a tidal surge of hard-nosed New Yorkers casting wary eyes past each other as women in furs and guys in suits and hats jostle to join the passing parade. The impersonal swirls and eddies of humanity convey the peripatetic impatience of Midtown pedestrians as well as the drama of life in a canyon formed by skyscrapers and theaters, but Meyer manages to humanize it all with ironic empathy and surreal juxtapositions.
That empathy is apparent in another street scene along a sidewalk in what looks like Spanish Harlem, as street urchins play by a curb next to a packed-up pushcart, and a grade school kid with eyes like a visionary poet stares into the interior spaces of his own private reality. Another Spanish Harlem scene features a shop in the basement of a brownstone, 'Lucky John's Voodoo and Religious Supplies," with a window stocked with 'spiritual oils, herbs and powders." But the kicker is the marketing slogan: 'Famous in New Orleans since 1853." Huh? I guess it's good we were famous for something. But it's a great photo by a woman, now 88, who 60 years ago found herself in the thrall of a special time and place that she very subtly, and with great tenderness, captured and preserved for the ages.
- Sonia Handelman Meyer's late 1940s photograph, Broadway, conveys the drama of life amid the skyscrapers and theaters of mid-century Manhattan.