The photographer Sy Kattelson grew up in Queens and the Bronx, but he spent the ’40s and ’50s wandering the streets of Manhattan, turning his camera toward the lower-middle class passersby on the streets of Midtown and Union Square that happened to catch his eye. Not that that was his first time venturing into foreign territory: He’d just returned from France, where he volunteered to develop aerial film analyzing bomb paths to avoid the draft—and, in the process, discovering that cameras had shrunken to a much more portable size.
Sy Kattelson’s Postwar, Pre-Street Style Scenes of New York
Sy Kattelson, “Man in Jacket,” 1949.
Sy Kattelson, “Provincetown Couple,” 1950.
Sy Kattelson, “Man with Cigar,” 1948.
Sy Kattelson, “Man on Broadway,” 1949.
Sy Kattelson, “Woman with Hat,” 1948.
Sy Kattelson, “Children Thru Doorway,” 1948.
Sy Kattelson, “Untitled,” c.1948.
Sy Kattelson, “Two Men in Doorway,” 1948.
Sy Kattelson, “14th Street,” 1953.
Sy Kattelson, “Woman on Union Square,” 1953.
Free of gear to lug around, and safely back on friendly soil, Kattelson headed back to the streets, steering mostly clear of the poverty-stricken Lower East Side of his contemporaries but still sticking to working class subjects, lending them an air of post-war splendor that, in the ’50s, when magazines like Glamour had him shooting fashion editorials, became all the more amplified. It’s a style Kattelson, now 93, kept up with into the ’90s, as evidenced for the first time in an exhibition of both his early and more current work at New York’s Howard Greenberg Gallery, on view until February 11.
But it’s his midcentury photos that really showcase the photographer’s eye: decades before the emergence of street style photography, he cultivated a style of honest, off-the-cuff portraiture, from the hardened faces of unsuspecting New Yorkers to the feather-plumed hats and matching pearl necklaces that hint at their peacocking descendants.
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