The Broader Picture: The Escape from New York

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The Independent Culture
CONEY ISLAND, 1947, New York-on-sea for working-class families from Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, half-way house for the New York Irish who traditionally holidayed further south on the Jersey shore. This was Blackpool, Morecambe and Great Yarmouth all rolled into one, big dipper and Ferris wheel, hot-dogs and sugar candy, and to the New York street photographer it was an obvious summer alternative to the Bowery and Times Square. Even Weegee gave up his nightly crime beat to come down here, and if your interest as a photographer was in documenting the proletariat, here was the greatest leveller of all - massed semi-nakedness, breast to gut, with all the unrestricted physical contact it necessarily encouraged.

Sid Grossman spent the summers of 1947 and 1948 at Coney Island. He was never to become as famous as Weegee before him, or Richard Avedon after him, though they - and most other New York photographers - would at some time in their careers be compelled to capture the physical euphoria unleashed by sun, sand and sea. Grossman spent most of his time on Bay Eleven, where young Latino boys and girls gathered, and he photographed them close up, their intertwined bodies explicitly sexual in a way that is hard to imagine being allowed on a public English beach 40 years ago. He must have wandered the sand snapping random torsos without restraint, but nobody looks as though they want to bust his camera or demand a fiver.

Grossman was born and brought up in New York. In 1936 he became a breakaway member of the Photo League (separated from the original Film and Photo League), committed to using documentary photography to improve the conditions of the working classes. During the late Thirties and most of the Forties it trained photographers, put on exhibitions and encouraged photo-projects around the country. It also, not surprisingly, fell foul of the FBI, who suspected it of being a Communist front. In 1949, Grossman was accused of introducing an FBI informant into the party and an attempt was made to blacklist him. He left New York for Cape Cod, giving up his political work entirely, and returned there periodically from New York until his death in 1956 at only 43.

What made Grossman important to the continuity of photography in New York, besides his influence in the League, was his role as a teacher. Briefly, between 1949 and 1950, he held informal classes in his apartment for a group of photographers including, most famously, Lisette Model. Compared to the legendary design 'laboratories' held by Alexey Brodovitch, the art director of Harper's Bazaar, Grossman's classes seem small beer. Brodovitch taught from 1936 to 1959, and anybody who had any serious interest in photography attended - Penn and Avedon to Diane Arbus and Robert Frank. These last three, with Brodovitch, Grossman and 11 others, have been pulled together somewhat awkwardly under the label 'the New York school' in a new book of the same title by Jane Livingston (published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang, pounds 45). It is difficult to imagine that the photographers in question would have found an empathy with each other: photographers (royal rats aside) seldom hunt in packs. But their pictures have one thing in common - the only denominator necessary - the people of New York in all their infinite variety.-

(Photographs omitted)