Review: N. Jay Jaffee - a disciple of the Photo League gang

March 11, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Review: N. Jay Jaffee Photographs from Public to Personal, 1947–1997 

Monday, January 27 – Sunday, March 23

Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery

UMBC

N. Jay Jaffee  (1921–1999), a one-time student of Sid Grossman of Photo League fame in New York shot black and white photos of New York City. Although he shot in the same documentary, he is certainly not so well known as his mentors at the Photo League.

'The Photo League’s membership roster reads like a Who’s Who of leading American and emigree photographers including Sid Grossman, Aaron Siskind, Jerome Liebling, Dan Weiner, Morris Engel Walter Rosenblum, Weegee, Lisette Model and W. Eugene Smith. Directly inspired by Lewis Hine and the photographers of the Farm Security Administration and with expert guidance from photographers Paul Strand, Berenice Abbott and Beaumont Newhall, the Photo League’s collective portrait of urban life during these turbulent years is comparable to the indelible record of rural America created by the photographers of the Farm Security Administration. Many FSA photographers, including Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott and John Vachon were also active members of the Photo League.'

What isn't mentioned in this exhibition is that the Photo League was seen as a nest of Leftist vipers and radicals by J. Edgar Hoover and the League suffered from that. While there were probably Socialists, Communists (large C) and radicals among them, probably the real bulk of the group were just socially conscious artists who used their work to document what they saw around them that stirred their interest.

Jaffee's work is of that same mind and his work – and his philosophy was so strongly influenced by the Photo League that the League or its leading lights show up in virtually everything he wrote http://njayjaffee.com/writing/.

The exhibit at the Kuhn Library Gallery at UMBC has 70 images out of about double that number in their collection. I think the exhibit would have been improved if the selection was cut by about 20 pictures, leaving a core of quite nice b&w photos. The image of Kuhn that are available on a web search are mainly those that include his quite discerning look at people of the time. He had a knack for catching them in interesting and revealing situations, while his scenes of streets are interesting only for the 70 year look into history and not nearly as much for their photographic value.

Every once in a while, one can see the kind of social realism that Jaffee might have liked to show, much as his mentors did. In a time and place when this situation abounded and this kind of photography was in its infancy, It was a shame that Jaffee didn't do more of this kind of work; he certainly had the eye. One gets the feeling from his writings that he was a great, great admirer of Sid Grossman and stood in awe of Grossman's personality as much as his photographic talent.

"His appearance wasn’t particularly striking. But his personality was. If I could find some of those students who suffered through those classes with me, I’m sure they would agree that Sid Grossman did not seem to take kindly to our presence. He was almost contemptuous; each of us got a taste of his anger and hostility during the course. We were told to bring in our work for a class critique each week. If Sid didn’t care for a student’s photograph, he would tear the print and throw it at the culprit, demanding that he never bring in “such garbage” again. When one of the students confronted Grossman about his manner, he retorted, “I’ve been in photography a long time before you came here and I’ll be in it a long time after you’ve left it!

When Sid vented his anger, I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable. Yet from the first moment he entered that bare classroom, I felt a kinship with Sid Grossman. He never intimidated me. I didn’t know what his politics were or anything about his personal life. He never even mentioned The Photo League, of which he was a founding member, to us. His genius was in expounding a philosophy of photography that was unique. I had never heard anyone speak on a subject with such depth and enthusiasm. I still recall a phrase he repeated several times: “The world is a picture.” This simple statement was a profound insight into the method and meaning of photography."

from 'Remembering Sid Grossman'

Jaffee was a craftsman of his time with the equipment and materials available. See this show, as much for the unvarnished insight into the street of New York as for the display of talent. There are some very lovely small, not popular works to be seen; particularly one of two trees seen through a rain dotted window is very enjoyable.

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A word about the venue. 

The Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery is a startlingly large, rather low ceiling room off to one side of the main library entrance. The walls are well-lit but the room is so cavernous that, even if the walls are hung with pictures, it seems lonely and empty.  I like cozy places more. 

 

N. Jay Jaffee Photographs from Public to Personal, 1947–1997

Monday, January 27 – Sunday, March 23

Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery

UMBC

 

 


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