Times Past

Fundraiser for Cal Poly to bring photo cooperative’s story into focus

February 4, 2013 

Joe Schwartz’s ‘Two’s a Team’ was taken at Brooklyn’s Kingsboro Housing Project in the 1940s.


At the age of 3, Atascadero’s Joe Schwartz joyfully crossed a street with pails to fill with beer at “Uncle Benny’s Saloon” in the Brooklyn slum where he had been born.

Joe’s eyes have been alert to the world ever since.

Photojournalism in the 1930s transformed the way much of the world viewed history. Young photographers caught the rough streets of our cities, farms ravaged by the Dust Bowl and migrant workers sweating to harvest our food.

Dorothea Lange took the “ultimate” images of the Great Depression when she photographed Florence Owens Thompson in a Nipomo bean field for the Farm Security Administration.

Austrian-born Arthur Fellig, known as “Weegee,” photographed often brutal images of violent crime on the streets of New York. Sleeping in his clothes on a cot next to his police radio, Weegee was famous for arriving at the crime scene before the police. His 1945 book “Naked City” shaped the theme of the 1947 film noir, “The Naked City.”

Margaret Bourke-White specialized in photographing the hard and dangerous labor of dam builders, and factory and mill workers. She met Time magazine’s Henry Luce and was hired to work on his new photojournal, Life magazine, in 1936.

Robert Capra used the lightweight 35 mm camera with its super-fast lenses on the battlefield of Ethiopia in 1936. His motto was, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” He was killed covering the fall of French Indochina in 1954.

These pioneers of photo journalism were affiliated with the Photo League, founded in New York City in 1936.

The story of this influential cooperative is told in the film “Ordinary Miracles: the Photo League’s New York.” The film will be shown in a special fundraiser to benefit diversity and inclusion programs at Cal Poly at Atascadero’s beautiful Galaxy Theatres at 8 p.m. Feb. 13. Tickets are $12 if purchased in advance, $15 at the door, and can be purchased online at Cal Poly’s Performing Arts Center or by calling 756-4TIX.

Featured in the film is Atascadero’s Joe Schwartz, who on July 6 will celebrate his 100th birthday. Joe is scheduled to be present for the showing.

Readers of Times Past know something of Joe’s work. “Ordinary Miracles” documents the connection between Joe and the Photo League. Joe studied art at Pratt Institute but says it was the Photo League that taught him “how to see.”

Growing up, he dealt with plugged-up toilets and vermin-infested kitchens. 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.”

“How does one return small favors to kindly bakers, working men, sacrificing mothers and grandmothers?” Many of these hard-working people are portrayed in Joe’s 2000 book, titled “Folk Photography.”

“I look for strong-willed people surviving in dignity. I desired to find and record the best in those anonymous old friends.”

With the outbreak of the second world war, Joe joined the Marines, becoming a combat photographer with the 5th Marine Division on Iwo Jima.

As a veteran, Joe returned to the streets of New York, using his camera to bring a divided America together as he does in “Two’s a Team,” taken at Brooklyn’s Kingsboro Housing Project in the 1940s.

Joe, you are truly a man for our century!

This column is by Liz and Dan Krieger. Liz is a retired children’s librarian. Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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