Times Past: Joe Schwartz let his photos do all the talking

February 6, 2012 

Joe Schwartz was born in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood of brownstone tenements in Brooklyn. His parents separated and Joe’s mother, a finisher in the garment district, supported the family.

In the 1930s, Joe witnessed violence and injustice. He decided to let a camera do his fighting for him. He started taking pictures of the people as they walked or worked in the streets and sat on the stoops of the brownstone buildings.

One day in his Kingsborough neighborhood, Joe observed several real estate agents urging elderly people to attend meetings aimed at keeping African-Americans from purchasing homes. Joe thought that he “had to fight back,” against this kind of talk.

“I started taking photos of blacks and whites living together peacefully, helping each other, working together. I wanted to illustrate the truth through my photography. I began shooting pictures for use with petitions to the city for more playgrounds, improved housing conditions and cleaner streets.”

It was a transforming moment for Joe. He started distributing leaflets and picketing local branches of national chain stores, demanding fair hiring practices for all races.

Joe joined the Photo League, a Depression-era cooperative of amateur and professional photographers who wanted to create a more honest depiction of America’s working classes.

He knew that his life’s work would be in photography, depicting the condition of the poor and downtrodden.

“I had the answer for social and economic injustice. I’d let my camera speak for me.”

There weren’t many jobs for photographers in the Depression. Instead, in 1936 Joe found work as a lithography “stripper” in a print shop for $12 a week.

In 1938, Joe met and married Anne Paley, a dancer with Martha Graham’s troupe. With the outbreak of World War II, Joe joined the Marines, becoming a combat photographer with the Fifth Marine Division on Iwo Jima.

After V-J Day, Joe returned to Brooklyn where he resumed shooting his visual “street histories.” He moved to Los Angeles in 1950 and started shooting images of L.A.’s famed “Black Ghetto” along Central Avenue and the Watts-Willowbrook projects.

These images are invaluable records of African-American history in California, taken at a time when most Los Angeles photographers were shooting “scenic Southern California,” the Hollywood-Beverly Hills scene or the beach side culture. To me, Joe’s images are a perfect companion for some of the “Easy Rawlins” stories set in the 1940s by mystery writer Walter E. Mosley.

Later, although Joe wasn’t an addict, he lived with and photographed Chuck Deidrich’s Synanon community in Venice for three years.

More than 20 years ago, Joe retired to Atascadero to be with his daughter, Paula Motlo.

In 2000, Cal Poly English professor Steve Marx assisted Joe in putting together an incredible 60-year retrospective of his work titled “Folk Photography: Poems I’ve Never Written,” published by Cal Poly’s Graphic Communication Department.

On Monday from 5 to 7:30 p.m., a community colloquium titled “Celebrating Diversity” will address the virtues of living and learning in a diverse society.

It will feature remarks from a variety of national and local speakers, a panel discussion, Black History Month exhibits, poetry reading with musical accompaniment, and a presentation honoring 98-yearold folk photographer Joseph Schwartz for his lifetime of work documenting the virtues of diversity.

A reception will follow at 7:30 p.m. The program and reception are free and open to the public.

Come and meet this remarkable man whose vision for America is summed up in one photo: “The Tricycle Gang.”

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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