Atascadero photographer's historical perspective


Through his artful use of the camera and a belief in the ideal of a harmonious society, Joe Schwartz poignantly captured people of various races dwelling, working and playing together.

The 97-year-old photographer, who lives in Atascadero, is known for his enthralling street scenes, particularly of Brooklyn in the 1930s and 1940s. He has been recognized as one of America’s great folk photographers.

Now Schwartz has a new honor: Some of his photos will be chosen for display in the Smithsonian’s planned National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“Photography to me is a way to use an instrument to educate and capture history,” Schwartz said. “You can learn a lot from it. I enjoyed photographing children especially.” The Smithsonian’s 19th museum is scheduled for completion in 2015 on the National Mall in Washington D.C.

Exhibits will illustrate major periods in African American history and include oral histories, images from various influential photographers, art and music.

Curators recently visited Schwartz’s Atascadero home to sort through photos as they build the collection.

They don’t know yet how many of his photos they’ll use or which specifically, but Schwartz has agreed to donate prints to the museum while retaining the negatives and intellectual property rights.

Schwartz’s images are significant to curators in particular for their portrayal of interracial cooperation before the Civil Rights era, said Paul Gardullo, the museum’s curator.

“Joe’s beautifully composed images from this time artistically render his subjects — no matter their race or their dire economic circumstances — as fully human,” Gardullo said. “They will help our museum to tell a more complete story of American and African American history.”

Gardullo noted a 1940s photo Schwartz titled “Miss America,” which he called an “arresting” and “beautiful portrait” of a young black girl at a patriotic gathering in Brooklyn.

The cover photo of Schwartz’s 2000 book “Folk Photography: Poems I’ve Never Written,” features about 20 children — black and white — looking toward the camera.

The children from New York are dressed formally, especially by 21st century standards of children in California, wearing scarves, coats and ties. They display happy faces; a young girl who’s missing her front teeth beams brightly.

Another photo from the 1940s captures a grandfather with a fedora helping to balance a young white boy and a black girl on a seesaw.

Not all of Schwartz’s shots depict racial harmony, however, including a scene of five black children in Santa Monica playing before a wall. A racial slur is scrawled on the wall behind them.

Another image shows graffiti on a New York subway urging the killing of all Jews.

The book also includes scenes in the Los Angeles area.

Schwartz, who grew up poor in Brooklyn, became a member of the Photo League, a group of photographers who banded together around social issues and creative causes and flourished in New York from 1936 to 1951.

Schwartz believed the “best possibilities of American life should be extended to working people across racial and ethnic boundaries,” wrote James Miller, a George Washington University professor, in the introduction of Schwartz’s book.

Harvey Levenson, a professor and department head with Cal Poly’s Graphic Communication Department, helped coordinate the publication of “Folk Photography” and has been a longtime friend of Schwartz’s.

“His photographs tell the story of how, with compassion, sensitivity to peoples’ feelings and common sense, we can all get along,” Levenson said. “Joe continues to be concerned and involved in issues of fairness, justice and equal opportunity for all humankind.”