Published by Safe-T-Gallery Inc.
Don Burmeister: Owner/Editor
Barbara Confino: Associate Editor
It is easy to forget: how far we have come, how far we have yet to go. Your memory of the first of these will be refreshed by a visit to “Social Forces Visualized: Photography and Scientific Charity, 1900 – 1920” at Columbia University’s Wallach gallery.
Charity has been around a long time, but this exhibition demonstrates how efforts to aid the needy took a different approach around the turn of the 20th century. No longer was it considered adequate simply to assist those in need; rather, attention was given to understanding poverty and social ills in the hope that charitable efforts would prove to be more effective and with longer lasting consequences. Photography played an important role in that it was used to document the lives of the poor and the conditions in which they lived. While this effort was in part scholarly, there was also recognition and exploitation of the power of well-chosen imagery to mobilize support for charitable and social reform activities. This interesting exhibition explores these changes in the practice of social work in America.
More than 120 vintage photographs, many never exhibited in over century, are displayed, along with supporting material such as books and other media from the period. Materials are taken from the Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Collection, which obtained them when the Community Service Society (CSS) donated its collection to the university. These items were collected by two leading charitable organizations of the 19th and early 20th centuries: the New York Charity Organization Society and the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, which merged in 1939 to form CSS, still a vital force in the city today. This exhibition is yet another testament to the wealth of material, much of it in the form of photography, that has wisely been retained in archives of both government and private organizations.
The exhibition (curated by Drew Sawyer and Huffa Frobes-Cross, graduate art history students at Columbia) focuses on four themes: two substantive (housing and health), one methodological (social surveys), and one programmatic (welfare). Much of the exhibition documents the condition of housing for the working class in the city (in a word, atrocious) and health conditions at the time (a revealing and shocking statistic is that almost 40% of the deaths in urban populations during this period were attributable to infectious diseases). The “social survey”, an early form of applied social research, was used to document such conditions, both visually by means of photography and also with scientifically designed statistical surveys. Images in this section focus on public baths and public toilets, euphemistically dubbed “comfort stations”. Finally, the “welfare” component of the exhibition visually documents programs used to provide employment for the aged jobless. Photographs show women in one such enterprise sewing, while men are photographed making wooden toys.
Among the name photographers in the show are Jacob Riis (author of the ground-breaking book “How the Other Half Lives”), Lewis W. Hine, and Jessie Tarbox Beals. Also contributing are several commercial photography firms, notably Underwood and Underwood, and Brown Brothers, who played much the same role photo agencies do today. While curator Sawyer explained in an interview with Columbia Magazine that “our purpose goes against a purely aesthetic interpretation,” you will nevertheless find these photos fascinating and pleasing to look at; many are of children, always attractive photo material, even if they are poor. Though in all honesty it must be admitted that while you may not have seen these particular photographs, you no doubt have seen others like them, though likely without the heuristic overlay that makes this exhibition so successful.
One pair of photographs demonstrates an unexpected artistic ambition of an unknown photographer. A photograph (c. 1915) depicts a young adolescent girl seated on a box with two girls standing beside her. A second print shows the same girl still on her box, but darkroom trickery has been used to crop out the other girls and darken the portions of the brick wall immediately surrounding her, resulting in a mandorla conferring an almost religious intensity to this forgotten slum dweller.
If this exhibition reminds you of how far we have come, it presumably will spur awareness of what we have not yet done at a time of increasing economic disparity where persistent pockets of poverty… you fill in the rest - just don’t take all day.