Times Past: Joe Schwartz of Atascadero captured images of history

July 21, 2012 

In the heat of a midsummer election year when America seems so torn apart, we might reread Walt Whitman’s epic poem, “Leaves of Grass,” written in 1855 as the great divide of the Civil War was approaching:

“ … the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors … but always most in the common people.

“Their manners, speech, dress, friendships … (their) freshness and candor … the picturesque looseness of their carriage … their deathless attachment to freedom — their aversion to anything indecorous or soft or mean — the practical acknowledgment of the citizens of one state by the citizens of all other states — the fierceness of their roused resentment — their curiosity and welcome of novelty — their self-esteem and wonderful sympathy elegance of soul … their good temper and openhandedness —the terrible significance of their elections — the President’s taking off his hat to them, not they to him — these too are unrhymed poetry.”

Whitman was fascinated by the faces of America. Each individual blade of grass had its own matchless quality, which in turn added to the uniqueness of the whole.

Whitman wrote “Leaves of Grass” not far from where pioneer photographer Matthew Brady had opened his new studio at 359 Broadway, over the popular restaurant Thompson’s Saloon in New York City. In 1855, Brady was advertising a new process for making photographs on paper from glass negatives.

Up until that time, individual faces were the exclusive province of poets like Walt Whitman, portrait artists and the makers of waxed images from plaster cast death masks like Madame Tussaud. Brady and his staff, Alexander Gardiner and others, were about to engrave the faces of America’s Civil War for posterity.

Visual communications had caught up with the written word.

By the 1930s, modern photojournalism came into being. Henry Luce, the publisher of Time magazine, following the success of several European publications, started Life magazine in 1936.

Soon, Americans became familiar with names like Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Capa, Ruth Orkin and the incomparable Edward Steichen.

We have often discussed Dorthea Lange’s photograph “Migrant Mother,” which was taken in rural Nipomo in 1936.

Florence Thompson, the stranded “migrant mother” with five children, embodied President Franklin Roosevelt’s “one third of the nation, ill fed, ill housed and ill clothed.”

Other photographers followed in the tradition of Dorothea Lange. They include 99-year-old Joe Schwartz of Atascadero.

Joe was born in a Brooklyn slum, lived in California for much of his life, was a combat photographer with the 5th Marine Division on Iwo Jima and, although he wasn’t an addict, lived with Chuck Dietrich’s Synanon community in Venice for three years.

Joe, like Walt Whitman, saw the American dream along with its nightmares. But he remains a person of hope, and his photographs reflect that optimism. Happy birthday, Joe! You are a treasure of our Middle Kingdom.

• • •

Joe Schwartz’s photographs will be on display in August at Joebella, 1121 Rossi Road in Templeton. It’s just off Highway 101 at Vineyard Drive next to Trader Joe’s. You can purchase Joe’s album, “Folk Photography: Poems I’ve Never Written,” at Joebella.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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