Joe Schwartz was a poor Jewish boy who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the 1910s and 20s. It was there that he started documenting African Americans and the have-nots of America through photography. That work will be on display in the first and only permanent exhibit in the new Smithsonian Institute National Museum of African American History and Culture currently under construction in Washington, D.C. The exhibit is scheduled to open in 2015. Schwartz died in Atascadero in March 2013, a few months before his 100th birthday. He lived in Atascadero from 1985 to his death.
Schwartz grew up in the Brooklyn slums, son of immigrants from Poland and Romania. He studied commercial art in high school at Alexander Hamilton High School; it was there that he began experimenting with photography. According to www.joeschwartzphoto.com, he became an activist soon after and was interested in proving the “high value of the ‘have-nots.’” He studied at the Pratt Institute and learned the fundamentals of art composition. He went on to work at Haloid Paper Co. and learned about lithography.
“He did not do this for a living. His goal was not to make money from this,” friend Harvey Levenson said. “He was a lithographer by trade, he was not a photographer by trade.”
Schwartz joined the Photo League in 1936, which, according to www.thejewishmuseum.org, was made up of mostly young, first-generation, working-class Jewish Americans. The league “promoted photography as a fine art and also championed the use of documentary photography to expose social problems and instigate social change.” In 1943, he joined the Marine Corps and served as a combat photographer in Iwo Jima. He continued his photography worked through the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. In 1990, Schwartz started to work on his book, “Folk Photography – ‘Poems I’ve Never Written.”
“One thing people don’t know about Joe — all of his photographs … was to present a message that we can all get along,” Levenson said. “We are all human beings. There’s absolutely no reason we can’t all get along.”
Schwartz has photographed children of all ages on the streets of New York, music greats such as Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gilliespie, the Watts Riots in Los Angeles, and combat in Iwo Jima, in addition to many other subjects, mostly related to poverty and race.
“You know there are some people who walk into your life and leave a mark – he left a footprint,” San Luis Obispo artist Abbey Onikoyi said of Schwartz. The pair met when Schwartz was 95. “This man invested his life in bringing out blackness. Things that were not popular then. He dedicated his life to bringing it into focus.”
For more on Schwartz, go to www.joeschwartzphoto.com.
PHOTO CREDIT:Mike Messina