Sid Grossman deeply influenced American photographers of the 1940s and 1950s, both through his own art and as a teacher. Yet because he made very few prints during his lifetime, he is not well known today. San Gennaro Festival, New York City, 1948, is among the finest of Grossman's rare prints, exemplifying many of the characteristics of his work during the 1940s.
In 1936 Grossman and fellow photographer Sol Libsohn founded the Photo League, where they offered classes in photography primarily to young, working-class New Yorkers from Brooklyn, the Bronx, and the city's Lower East Side. In the Photo League's early years Grossman advocated the use of photography as a tool for social reform, but during World War II he embraced a more creative approach. Thereafter he urged those who studied with him to break all the accepted rules of photography—to use available light, for instance, and to allow photographs to be blurred, out of focus, off kilter, and even apparently random in choice of subject matter. In essence, he encouraged his students to do anything that would enable them to capture their experience of the world rather than simply to document what they saw.
San Gennaro Festival, New York City is an excellent example of how Grossman applied these principles in his own work. The photograph depicts a bustling street in Little Italy during the evening celebrations of a popular New York festival. Because Grossman used a long exposure time and only the light from the neon arches to illuminate the scene, the central figure is blurred, conveying a sense of the motion of the crowd. By including the uncertain—perhaps even wary—gazes of the woman at the lower right and the little girl at the bottom center, Grossman draws his viewers into the action of the photograph, rather than leaving them in the role of uninvolved observers. By contrasting the bright lights and playful mouse-eared balloon with the harsher expressions of the people in the crowd, he also succeeds in capturing the strange discord present in the scene. Even the blurred central figure seems to scowl as he lays a protective hand on the shoulder of the little girl holding the balloon string, which itself creates an unexpected division in the picture plane. In this photograph Grossman offers a raw narrative of largely anonymous human interaction, conveying the wisdom of his belief that "a photograph is not merely a substitute for a glance" but "a sharpened vision...the revelation of new and important facts."
San Gennaro Festival, New York City is one of six prints by Grossman that the National Gallery acquired through a generous gift from a private collection. These photographs, along with three others already in the collection, superbly encapsulate both the style and subject matter that Grossman championed and forcefully demonstrate this artist's significant contributions to American photography.
On verso, by unknown hand, upper left in graphite: S-16; upper left in graphite: Mulberry St 35mm / Roll 33 A (best negs 6) / neg # 16 / A (unique); center in graphite script: Sid Grossman; center, stamped in black ink: This photograph if purchased is for your publication / only and must not be syndicated, rented, loaned, nor used / for advertising purposes without written permission. / The customary credit line will be appreciated. / Sid Grossman
Estate of the artist; Private collection, Bethesda, MD; gift to NGA, 2007.
- In the Darkroom: Photographic Processes Before the Digital Age, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2009 - 2010, unnumbered catalogue.
- In Light of the Past: Celebrating Twenty-Five Years of Collecting Photographs at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, May 3 – July 26, 2015