Sy Kattelson started taking photographs before World War II, using a camera so big and unwieldy it took two people to operate. His subjects were models for catalogs or magazines, and his images were often used as source material for illustrations. When Mr. Kattelson, who will turn 94 next month, returned from the war, it was with a more portable camera and a sharper eye. He joined the left-leaning Photo League and began documenting the street life of lower-middle-class New Yorkers.
“Most people doing that type of work were doing poverty-stricken people, like on the Lower East Side,” said Mr. Kattelson, who grew up in the Bronx and Queens, the son of an electrician and a shop owner. “I started to think, ‘What about people like me, who were not in poverty?’ So I tried to show people what they were living like.” Often overshadowed by better-known members of the Photo League, such as Sid Grossman or Lisette Model, Mr. Kattelson continued to evolve after the League dissolved in 1951, under suspicion of being a Communist organization. “I didn’t want to keep making the same pictures all over again,” he said from his home in Saugerties in the Hudson Valley. By the 1980s, he said, “I got interested in double exposures and putting pictures together” in collages. He added, “I wanted to get more information in pictures.”
Those later works are on exhibit for the first time at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in Manhattan, along with older images, in his first solo exhibition in nearly 20 years. “I remember people arguing about whether photography was a serious art form,” he said. “The Photo League talked about it the way I thought about it, as a serious art form showing ordinary people’s lives.” The group’s political leanings, he said, were never his concern. “I was just trying to show the world what it was.”