Atascadero photographer Joe Schwartz receives recognition for the artistry of his work

Timed to run concurrently with Black History Month, a Santa Barbara show features the work of Atascadero photographer Joe Schwartz.

The Santa Barbara Museum of Art opened the exhibit in mid-January and it will continue through April 1.

The show is titled "An Unobserved Life," and although the subjects may have been ignored by society, Schwartz gives us a close look through his lens and his sensibilities.

From the 1930s to the 1970s, he captured the everyday lives of "economically dispossessed" ordinary folks living in the slums or housing projects of Los Angeles and New York. In spite of the great volume of his work, Schwartz was lucky if he sold a photo for $5.

"I certainly never made a living in photography, that’s for sure," he said.

Instead, he earned his wages as a lithographer.

His photos of racially mixed people were considered too controversial to sell, especially prior to the civil-rights movement. Now, in the last decade, he is delighted that his prints bring in $1,000 each.

Many of his subjects are black, and he often shows children of different races playing together, laughing with the innocence of their childhood.

But some of his subjects are more somber. When Schwartz shot a stern-looking black child, he didn’t realize the irony involved when he titled it "Miss America." An early stipulation of that beauty contest was that no "negroes" could enter the competition.

Racially mixed neighborhoods and groups are a recurring theme in his self-published book, "Folk Photography, Poems I’ve Never Written." Some scenes reveal the prejudices of the times, with racial slurs scrawled on fences and walls.

Jose Orozco, who runs the Arthaus studio in Cayucos where Schwartz has shown his work, said, "I know he’s going to get an award someday." But Orozco figured it will likely not be anytime soon. "We photographers are not recognized in our lifetime."

A New York native, Schwartz came to California as a child and moved back to the Big Apple after World War II when he returned from Iwo Jima. He became active in political causes through the tenants’ union at the housing projects where he lived with his wife and son. During that period he also joined the Photo League, whose members included many photojournalists. The group became blacklisted during the communist scare of the 1950s. Schwartz’s social consciousness has been a driving force since then.

"He’s really driven by his passion and dedication to his work," Orozco noted. "He doesn’t veer very far from his love for art and life."

Still young in spirit, Schwartz kicked up his heels for his 93rd birthday last summer at a local gallery as a klezmer band played and he flirted with the female guests.

He makes no bones about still liking the ladies. "Do you think it’s a good attitude?" Schwartz asks.

His photos, however, don’t reveal that side of him. Schwartz describes himself as a folk photographer, and although his work was considered documentary photography when he started out, in the 1970s such work finally became accepted as fine art.


What: Book signing and exhibit, "An Unobserved Life: Folk Photography by Joe Schwartz"

Where: The Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State St., Santa Barbara

When: Today, 2 to 4 p.m.

Show continues through April 1, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday

Entry: Free admission on Sundays.

Information: 963-4364,