The Photographer

Artist: Jacob Lawrence (American, Atlantic City, New Jersey 1917–2000 Seattle, Washington )

Date: 1942

Medium: Watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper

Dimensions: 22 1/8 x 30 1/2 in. (56.2 x 77.5 cm)

Classification: Drawings

Credit Line: Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 2001

Accession Number: 2001.205

Rights and Reproduction: © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


In 1942, Lawrence turned to the daily life of Harlem as the subject for his works, creating a series of thirty paintings devoted to this theme, including The Photographer. Lawrence had focused on historical themes prior to this juncture, and his work had become celebrated with the completion of the "Migration Series" in 1941. That sweeping cycle of sixty paintings was purchased jointly by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Phillips Collection in Washington.

In his historical pictures, Lawrence had developed a methodology that included prodigious research at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). Now the artist's primary subject became the community in which he lived, and his research involved the acute and sensitive examination of his immediate environment. Lawrence called it "observations of the human condition." He did not habitually sketch right on the scene-his is an art of distillation and transformation of observed phenomena. In the early 1970s, looking back on his career, he described his work as "reality rather than realism," more "symbolic than meticulously descriptive."

In The Photographer, Lawrence depicts a vibrant street scene viewed from above, a bustling and rhythmically composed field of pedestrians and vehicles or other conveyances (motorized, horse-drawn, and human-powered). There is reference to the asphalt street itself and to the sidewalk, but the artist's framing of the composition eliminates the architectural setting. The environment is articulated through the diverse spectrum of workers and pedestrians populating the scene. In the foreground, a photographer captures the image of a well-dressed family posing for him to the left, and the camera's flash-a dynamic, jagged, abstract white shape-assumes center stage in this stylized, patterned composition.