Hester Street, with its open-air pushcart market, was once the bustlingcenter of immigrant Jewish life on the Lower East Side. By the 1940s, many vendors had moved their wares indoors. In 1945 Sol Libsohn, one of the founders of the Photo League, photographed the storefront of 88 Hester Street. This tenement building, located on a narrow block between Eldridge and Allen, was then home to a grocer on street level and S.H. Laufer’s optometry shop one floor above. In the upper right portion of Libsohn’s picture, you can see part of the shop’s sign in the window, with its distinctive illustration of bespectacled eyes and a mix of English and Hebrew lettering.
This background detail, however, is easily overlooked, as the emphasis in this photograph is on the people: the frieze of figures waiting at the top of the stairs; the old woman standing on the stoop, caught in a moment of reverie; the man who eyes the camera suspiciously at right; and the young boy who catches sight of us just as he exits the frame. In this richly compelling photograph, Libsohn captured the spirit of this crowded city street and the growing diversity of the neighborhood.
Three years later, fellow Photo League member Bill Witt revisited the site of Libsohn’s photograph and took a decidedly different picture there. Witt shot his image from the top of the stoop at 88 Hester Street, with the right side of the picture seen through the window of the optometrist’s shop. Viewed up close from this angle, the storefront takes on a surreal quality, with its dizzying pattern of disembodied eyes, backwards and forwards lettering, and multiple reflected neon signs. Rather than photographing people on the street in a straightforward fashion, as Libsohn had done, Witt’s picture focuses in on the visual impact of advertising and the psychological effects it may have on consumers. As such, it is much more experimental than Libsohn’s earlier image and demonstrates the Photo League’s shift towards a more creative approach to documentary photography in the postwar years.
Revisiting 88 Hester Street today, I was sad to see that both the grocery store and the optometrist’s shop were long gone. Not even the stoop remains. The building now hosts a car service and a hair salon in what has since become part of Chinatown.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our Photo Hunt Blog series, inspired by The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951. Be sure to see the show (closing March 25) and visit our online exhibition to learn more about the Photo League’s pictures.
Curatorial Assistant, The Jewish Museum, New York
Read the previous Photo Hunt post on the Wishing Tree here >
The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951 is organized by The Jewish Museum, New York, and the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio.
Image credits (top to bottom): Sol Libsohn, Hester Street, 1945. Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, Photo League Collection, Museum Purchase with funds provided by Elizabeth M. Ross, the Derby Fund, John S. and Catherine Chapin Kobacker, and the Friends of the Photo League © Estate of Sol Libsohn/ Bill Witt, The Eye, Lower East Side, 1948. The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Photography Acquisitions Committee Fund © Bill Witt, Courtesy Stephen Cohen Gallery/ 88 Hester Street, 2011. Photograph by Rebecca Shaykin.