Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Cal Poly professor Harvey R. Levenson.
If you haven’t yet seen any of the nationally renowned Joe Schwartz’s photographs, plan on visiting the Atascadero Library where several of his photos are on display through January. Unless you want to wait until a new Smithsonian museum opens in 2015.
“That's a long time for me,” said the 97-year-old Schwartz from his Atascadero home. “I hope I last that long.”
The Smithsonian is still deciding which of his work to feature in the planned National Museum of African American History and Culture. In the meantime, the Atascadero exhibit includes some of his black-and-white shots from the 1930s to ’50s, from Brooklyn, N.Y., to the Midwest to the Los Angeles area.
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His longtime friend and fellow photographer Louisa Cardinali compares him to a camera-wielding Woodie Guthrie, hitchhiking and riding the rails across the USA.
His themes are mostly those of class struggles and pre-civil rights inter-racial cooperation. Born into poverty himself, Schwartz’s compassion remains with people on the fringe, the disenfranchised.
“Basically, he is a Mother Teresa,” said another longtime friend, Professor Harvey R. Levenson, who heads Cal Poly's Graphic Communication Department. Although Schwartz wants his photos to spark social change, he is in no rush.“He doesn’t care when it makes a difference, as long as it makes a difference,” Levenson said.
Schwartz's beautifully composed images will help the planned Smithsonian museum tell a more complete story of American and African American history, said museum curator Paul Gardullo, who notes how fully human Schwartz renders his subjects.
Having lived through the Great Depression, Schwartz takes special note of the current economic crisis in the United States. He spoke of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, when the government created the Work Progress Administration that employed artists such as himself to lift people’s spirits and provide hope through the rough times.
Schwartz said he hasn’t been doing any new work, but he still gets out with a camera, often with his friend Cardinali. “He's mentored me for years,” she said. She offers him tips on using digital cameras, which he still finds challenging. He’s catching on though, said Cardinali, adding, “He’s really just teaching me even more, because he has this amazing eye, especially for composition.”
Cardinali, who taught at the Men’s Colony, took Schwartz to present his photos to the prisoners. “They just loved him,” she said. “He’s come through a lot; he's seen a lot in life. He’s never had it easy.”
Levenson, who serves as a liaison between Schwartz and the Smithsonian, helped produce Schwartz’s book, “Folk Photography: Poems I’ve Never Written.”
Schwartz is also featured in a documentary by Columbus Art Museum on the Photo League of the 1930s that recorded the working class.
As Schwartz nears the century mark, he remains alert and engaged.
The secret to Schwartz’s longevity, Cardinali believes, is that he’s open to finding out new things. “Life is truly an adventure for him.’’And though Schwartz says he gets frustrated with some memory slips, Cardinali said that Schwartz can recall the circumstances of every single photo he has ever shot.