Joe Schwartz, one of America's great folk photographers, dies in Atascadero

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

Joe Schwartz, a pillar in the school of American folk photography in which he documented the plight of the “have-nots” as well as interracial harmony, died Wednesday. The Atascadero resident was 99.

By all accounts, Schwartz’s photographic skills in illustrating the hardship facing those living in poverty in cities such as New York and Los Angeles were matched by a sense of empathy and compassion for those living in such conditions.

“It wasn’t a soft compassion,” said son Carl Schwartz. “It was ver y energized, centered more on ‘doing’ than ‘thinking.’”

Schwartz was born July 6, 1913, to Rose Mandel and Samuel Schwar tz, immigrants from Poland and Romania. His childhood included living in the hardscrabble section of Williamsburgh in Brooklyn, N.Y.

He picked up photography while in high school in the early 1930s, then joined the social activist organization Photo League in 1936.

Before joining the Marines during World War II and serving as a combat photographer in such places as Iwo Jima, he and fellow league members documented the residents of New York tenements, capturing images of down-and-out whites, blacks and Jews working and playing together.

Indeed, according to those who knew him — such as Harvey Levenson, professor and department head of Cal Poly’s Graphic Communication Department — Schwartz’s driving impetus was in showing the value of various races living and working together, and doing so harmoniously.

As engaging as many of his hopeful interracial photos can be, he was primarily a man with a social conscience and a drive to show the value of those less fortunate. That conscience didn’t allow him to look away when he confronted bitter reality.As he told The Tribune in 2003, shortly after his 90th birthday, Schwartz once witnessed “a man in a subway grimacing, the words ‘Kill All Jews’ scrawled on a window above his head. Black girls jumping rope near a brick wall that reads ‘Dirty Nigger Bastards.’ I not only related to have-nots, I identified with them. I didn’t get any money for this stuff. It became a tool instead.”

Indeed, after Schwartz was honorably discharged from the Marines, he and his young family moved into a housing project in Brooklyn, then to Los Angeles, where he made his living as a lithographer.

The Photo League, which counted such notable members as Dorthea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White, was blacklisted by the U.S. Attorney General in 1947 for being “totalitarian, fascist, communist or subversive.” The league disbanded in 1951.

Although Schwartz never made a living as a photographer , his work was rediscovered in the 1970s and ’80s, and featured in dozens of publications.

The next chapter of his life unfolded when one of his grandchildren was born 25 years ago, and Schwartz decided to move to Atascadero to be close to his family. Levenson, who had moved to Atascadero at roughly the same time, dropped by Schwartz’s new North County home and they became fast friends over the next quarter-century.

“I learned we were from the same neighborhood in Brooklyn, so I went to meet him,” Levenson said. “I was awestruck by his house; it was like a museum. It was three floors of artifacts and photos focusing on African-Americans from the 1930s to the 1980s.

“This man was a humanist like no one I’ve ever known, embracing diversity, inclusiveness and human dignity. He had an amazing sensitivity, value and respect for human beings, regardless of who they were or what they looked like.”

The two eventually collaborated on a book, “Folk Photography — Poems I’ve Never Written,” over a decade before it was printed by Richard Blake, founder of San Luis Obispo’s Poor Richard’s Press, in 2000.

Then, about five years ago, Levenson put the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., in contact with the book and Schwartz. The Smithsonian, planning its 19th and last museum, sent a group of archivists to spend a summer with Schwartz to determine which photos from the book to include in its new venture, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, set to open on the National Mall in 2015. It was decided that Schwartz’s images were so deeply moving that they will remain on permanent display.

In the interim, Schwartz was feted and honored by state Senate and congressional proclamations and has been the subject of a Cal Poly colloquium based on “Celebrating Diversity.” And a few weeks ago, Atascadero, celebrating its centennial birthday, included Schwartz in a four-day celebration that also honored his near-100 years and achievements.

Schwartz will be remembered by family and friends as a man with a big laugh; an intellectual who deeply loved music of any and all varieties; and a humanitarian who believed that all people could get along.

As Paul Gardullo, a curator for the Smithsonian and a driving force behind the National Museum of African American History and Culture, said of Schwartz: “His spirit was so alive that I never expected him to die. He was so powerful I continue to be inspired by his works. I was fortunate to have him in my life, knowing he left a record of beauty, struggle and achievement that we’ll be looking at and learning from for a long, long time.”

Services are being arranged.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune