The Harlem Document

The facial expressions and attitudes of the people are warm and familiar, even as the harsh environment of Depression-era Harlem portrays a hardscrabble existence. How did the late Aaron Siskind, a New Yorker of Russian Jewish heritage, manage to capture such intimate scenes from the lives of the mostly African-Americans who called Harlem home? Take, for instance, the photo of a man napping in his bedroom; a cinema buff, we presume, from the images of screen stars such as Ingrid Bergman and James Cagney hanging on the wall above his dresser. And how did Siskind's forgotten photos wind up at Crealdé, for a 21st-century audience?

There's always a story behind a story behind a story. In a time-honored tradition, the Crealdé School of Art reserves its main gallery this time of year for an exhibition that pays tribute to African-American heritage, in tandem with the annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities in Eatonville and Black History Month.

Long in the works, the Jan. 16 opening of Aaron Siskind: The Harlem Document, an unadorned collection of black-and-white photographs and typed oral histories from the 1930s -- not directly tied to the photos -- is something of a coup for Crealdé. Executive director Peter Schreyer's relationship with the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg led to the sharing of a private collection of 35 images from the historically significant project.

The fascinating journey of this work has been chronicled in "Harlem: Photographs by Aaron Siskind,1932-1940," a book published in 1991 with a powerful foreword by Gordon Parks, a pioneering African-American composer, photographer and filmmaker raised in Harlem. Coincidentally, Parks will be honored at the Hurston Film Festival (see What's Happening) via screenings of his classic film, "Shaft," and a documentary about his life and works organized by the School of Film and Digital Media at the University of Central Florida. In another twist, the Siskind book is no longer in print in the United States, so Schreyer ordered copies directly from the publisher in England and they are available at the gallery.

Siskind was integral to a progressive, if loosely organized, movement in New York City marked by a series of evolving alliances between photographers and writers intent on inspiring social change, as well as changes in the art of photography. The introduction of the book, by Maricia Battle, explains the three different Harlem projects begun by Siskind in the 1930s, starting with his involvement in the Photo League. It goes on to explain the ups and downs that eventually led the dissipation of the original project during World War II and how the photographs and accompanying text were rediscovered, put back together and circulated to the public.

The lost-and-found gems were part of the private collection of Dr. Robert and Chitranee Drapkin that was donated to the Museum of Fine Arts. In her opening lecture, senior curator Jennifer Harden rightly reminded viewers that Siskind had not yet started shooting with 35mm film. So his photographs, while seemingly spontaneous, were careful captures taken using a black-box camera mounted on a tripod. One could easily argue over the quality of the photographs in terms of artistic invention, but there's no denying the humanity of a Harlem now gone that Siskind preserved.

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