The Real City: Reginald Marsh’s Photographs of New York
Marsh’s photographs only began to receive public attention in the appraisal of his estate following his death in 1954. A major proponent in this process was Norman Sasowsky, a former student of Marsh’s who rented studio space in the same building as his teacher at One Union Square. Shortly after Marsh’s death, the young Sasowsky was hired by Felicia Marsh and William Benton, a former senator from Connecticut who was Marsh’s Yale schoolmate and most significant patron, to catalogue and help distribute the material in the estate. Lloyd Goodrich, then associate director of the Whitney Museum and Marsh’s oldest childhood friend, provided a space in the museum’s library for this massive undertaking to take place—a process that would ultimately take twenty-five years. It was during this period that Sasowsky unearthed the multitude of photographs that Marsh had left behind. [xvii] He advised the artist’s widow to donate the artist’s photographic prints, contact sheets, and negative rolls, along with his photographic notebooks and diary, to the Museum of the City of New York in 1979. [xviii] Sasowsky’s interest in these works also led him to spearhead the publication of a portfolio of fifty posthumous prints made from Marsh’s negatives in January 1977, in association with two dealers, Middendorf Gallery and JemHom. [xix]
Goodrich was the first to publish images of the photographs in a scholarly context, reproducing thirty of them in his 1972 Marsh monograph, which remains the largest catalogue of the artist’s work to date. At the same time, however, Goodrich and other scholars continued to follow the artist’s precedent by minimizing the importance of the photographs and overlooking their direct influence on his painted compositions. “The subjects are often identical [in Marsh’s photographs and paintings], but there the relationship stops,” Goodrich asserted. “Probably they were simply another product of his consuming interest in New York and its life. Marsh was not a Stieglitz; his photographs do not show the latter’s selectivity and artistry. But as documents of an artist’s eye for the city’s many aspects, they have their special value.” [xx] Art historian Thomas H. Garver, who authored the catalogue of a traveling Marsh retrospective the same year, concurred with Goodrich’s assessment. Insisting on the primacy of the sketches, he wrote that “photography was never as important a documentary device as the sketchbooks, for it didn’t permit the flexibility of rendering that the little sketches allowed.” [xxi]The direct relationship between Marsh’s paintings and photographs would not begin to be documented until 1983, in Marilyn Cohen’s catalogue that accompanied a Whitney Museum exhibition of Marsh’s work.
Intriguingly, the primary person to recognize the independent artistic merit of the photographs in the years immediately following Marsh’s death was photographer and curator Edward Steichen, who included several of them in a 1957–58 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art entitled Seventy Photographers Look at New York. Lent by Marsh’s widow, the three prints in the show were enlargements made from Marsh’s negatives. The first depicted a down and out, probably unemployed man perched on the sidewalk of a Lower East Side street corner, his face obscured by deep shadows; the second was a contemplative scene of sailors and other figures at the boating lake in Central Park; and the third, an image of fashionable shoppers and a nun asking for alms outside Bonwit Teller, was one of shots that inspired the watercolor Mink and Mannequins (126.96.36.1993, 188.8.131.525, 184.108.40.2068). How Steichen arrived at the decision to highlight Marsh in an exhibition devoted exclusively to photography—indeed, how he even knew about these works—remains a mystery. In all likelihood, they were brought to his attention by Grace Mayer, the curator of prints and photographs at the Museum of the City of New York, who had cultivated an interest in Marsh’s work and worked closely with Steichen on Seventy Photographers Look at New York. [xxii] As images of the installation testify, Steichen’s exhibition recognized Marsh’s photographs as a part of the urban documentary tradition that was central to American photography and that gathered a powerful new sense of vigor and relevance during the Depression. In the show, Marsh was situated within a historical continuum of New York photographers from nineteenth-century pioneers such as Mathew Brady and Jacob Riis to his contemporaries, including Berenice Abbott, Weegee, and Lisette Model.
Marsh’s photographs are less refined and technically adept than those of his contemporaries, but as the Museum of Modern Art exhibition acknowledged, their blunt immediacy and investment in documenting the spirit of a specific historical moment represented a worthy parallel to the efforts of the period’s urban documentarians—Abbott, Shahn, and Walker Evans, as well as the members of the radical New York Photo League, including Weegee, Model, Walter Rosenblum, and Aaron Siskind, among others. With them, he shared the impulse to document the city’s transformation in the 1930s, and as a result, his images closely resemble the work of these practitioners. Weegee’s crowded beach scenes, Model’s voluptuous female bathers, Evan’s shop windows and subway portraits, and Rosenblum’s Lower East Side streetscapes all find parallels in Marsh’s photographs. [xxiii] The extent of Marsh’s awareness of these photographers is unclear, but as an avid consumer of popular culture and magazines, he could not have been unfamiliar with their work. His diaries from 1933 indicate that he knew Shahn, an artist whose approach to photography was perhaps most akin to his own. Both eschewed the sweeping vistas and crisp architectural visions of the city favored by Abbott, Stieglitz, and others in favor of the Bowery, with its profusion of signage, scraggly buildings, and colorful inhabitants. Likewise, neither prized technical mastery in their photography, instead primarily using the medium to collect dynamic visual data that could be broken down and recombined in subsequent painted compositions. [xxiv]
[xvii] Sasowsky, e-mail message to author, February 11, 2012.
[xviii] Marsh’s studies for the murals he painted at the Customs House in lower Manhattan were also given to the Museum by Felicia Marsh in 1976.
[xix] The portfolio was published in a limited edition of twenty-five with four artist-proof sets; the Art Students League continues to make the copies of the portfolio available for purchase.
[xx] Lloyd Goodrich, Reginald Marsh (New York: H. N. Abrams, 1972), 40.
[xxi] Thomas H. Garver, “Reginald Marsh and the City that Never Was,” in Reginald Marsh: A Retrospective Exhibition (Newport, CA: Newport Harbor Art Museum, 1972), unpaginated.
[xxii] The curatorial files regarding the exhibition, which are in MoMA’s archive but not yet publicly available, may someday yield additional clues. Grace Mayer subsequently resigned from MCNY in 1959 to work as Steichen’s personal assistant in the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art; she became a curator there in 1962.
[xxiii] Marsh’s particular interest in capturing cultural phenomena in decline, such as burlesque and circus sideshows, also forms a kind of analog to Abbott’s Federal Art Project–sponsored book, Changing New York (1939), which chronicled the city’s transforming architectural geography, with particular emphasis on aspects of the city’s geography slated for demolition or in the process of disappearing.
[xxiv] For additional information on Shahn’s New York photographs, see Deborah Martin Kao, Laura Katzman, and Jenna Webster, Ben Shahn’s New York: The Photography of Modern Times (Cambridge, MA and New Haven, CT: Harvard University Art Museums and Yale University Press, 2000).