The Photographer

Jacob Lawrence American

On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 999

In this work, the artist positions the viewer along a busy street in Harlem, which is bustling with activity. A construction worker descends into a manhole. A finely dressed businessman with a briefcase hurries to work, while a horse-drawn cart carries a brass bed frame—perhaps a sign of new arrivals to the neighborhood. The movement in the scene is accentuated by Lawrence’s frequent use of diagonal lines and angular shapes. In the midst of this colorful urban maelstrom, a photographer snaps a group portrait of a well-dressed family, the bright flash of his camera forming a dynamic barbed abstract form. Itinerant portrait photographers practiced their vocation on the streets of Harlem in the 1930s and ‘40s, capturing on-the-spot likenesses in tintypes (direct positive impressions on thin iron sheets) with box cameras.

The painting’s first owner was the social activist and politically left-wing photographer, graphic designer and painter Ben Shahn, who purchased the work from the pioneering and influential New York-based dealer of avant-garde art, Edith Halpert, owner of the Downtown Gallery, which represented both Lawrence and Shahn in the 1930s and ‘40s. Lawrence’s vibrant depictions of life in Harlem—in addition to his renowned series focused on prominent Black historical figures, such as Toussaint Louverture and Harriet Tubman—have served as touchstones for innumerable other artist-activists such as Romare Bearden and Faith Ringgold.

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The Photographer, Jacob Lawrence (American, Atlantic City, New Jersey 1917–2000 Seattle, Washington), Watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper

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