Highly regarded as a social realist painter and graphic artist, Ben Shahn (1898-1969) was born in Czarist Russia to a family of wood carvers and carpenters. In 1906, his family fled to the United States and settled in Brooklyn. Shahn studied at New York University and the National Academy of Design where he slowly gained recognition as a painter and graphic designer. In his early career Shahn often used photographs clipped from the city’s newspapers as source materials for his paintings and drawings portraying current political and cultural events.
In the early 1930s, Shahn shared a Greenwich studio with photographer, Walker Evans, from whom he learned much of the technical craft of photography. It was not long after that Shahn began to discover that taking a photograph brought a certain amount of creative satisfaction and he began to split his time between taking photographs and working on his paintings and drawings.
He attended street demonstrations and picket lines regularly and photographed the unemployed and homeless. As in his paintings and drawings from the period, and later in his photographs for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), Shahn was drawn to scenes of human interest. Shahn sought out spontaneous expressions in his subjects in striking, thoughtful compositions. Utilizing unusual perspectives, Shahn often used a right-angle viewfinder attached to his camera which allowed him to look down while taking photographs of subjects unaware to his right. The result was candid, humanistic views of Americans in the depression era.
In 1935 Ben Shahn moved to Washington, D.C. to work as a graphic artist for the Special Skills Unit of the Resettlement Administration. Shahn soon met Roy Stryker who hired him to join the staff of the FSA along with Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee and others. For the FSA, Shahn traveled extensively throughout the South and mid-west capturing the desperate plight of depression era homesteads, industrial workers and small town American life. In 1938, when Shahn’s work with the FSA came to a close so did his serious involvement with taking photographs, however he continued to use photographs as aids in his paintings and drawings.
At the end of his lifetime, Shahn had achieved international acclaim for his paintings but his photographic work remained mostly unknown until the landmark exhibition, Ben Shahn as Photographer at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum just after his death in 1969. Today Ben Shahn’s photographs are included in numerous museums and private collections in the United States and abroad.