Sy Kattelson, Photographer of New York Street Life, Dies at 95
Posted December 5, 2018 9:41 p.m. EST
Sy Kattelson, a photographer and member of the influential Photo League, who captured workaday New York in pictures of nuance and intimacy for half a century, died Nov. 24 at a care facility in Rhinebeck, New York. He was 95.
His death was confirmed by his daughter, Raina Kattelson.
Kattelson joined the League, where he studied and taught classes, in 1947. A leftist documentary and artistic photography group based in New York, the League championed a new aesthetic and helped shape a generation of young photographers.
He was not as well known as members like Paul Strand, Sid Grossman, Berenice Abbott and Lisette Model, but he set himself apart with photographs that tended to be less political, often showing New Yorkers in unguarded moments as they rode subways, walked down avenues, wheeled perambulators and generally went about their urban business.
“Most people doing that type of work were doing poverty-stricken people, like on the Lower East Side,” Kattelson told The New York Times in 2017. “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.”
One of Kattelson’s photographs showed pedestrians from the waist down making their way through a crosswalk, their legs almost an afterthought to the shadows and reflections in a puddle that takes up the entire foreground.
Another picture showed a woman seated alone on the Third Avenue El Train in 1948, her pensive face lit like a scene from a film noir.
Another captured people milling about on 14th Street, some faces reflected in glass and others disconnected by shadows and a ladder in the frame. Everyone is intent on their own pursuits, but they all share the same space.
“Mr. Kattelson’s weakness — if it can be called that — is his respect for the strangers he photographs,” Vivien Raynor wrote in a review of a show at the Jersey City Museum in 1988. She continued, “His presence is never felt, but his inquiring yet merciful sensibility is everywhere.”
The Photo League dissolved in 1951 after the organization was accused of ties to communism. During the 1950s Kattelson shot fashion photography for Glamour magazine, and then worked at a color photography lab. He eventually moved on to more artistic compositions, sometimes made with double exposures or collaging different prints, telling The Times, “I didn’t want to keep making the same pictures all over again.”
In one 1990 photograph Kattelson overlaid a semi-translucent print of people making their way through a crowded intersection atop a less cluttered street scene with a bike and a bus, a portrayal of the transient nature of New York’s energy.
Kattelson’s photographs appeared in the important “This is the Photo League” exhibition in 1948-49, and the Howard Greenberg Gallery in Manhattan, which represents him, held a solo exhibition of his work last year, the first in about two decades. His photographs are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the National Portrait Gallery.
Seymour Kattelson was born in the Bronx on Feb. 11, 1923. His father, Robert, was an electrician, and his mother, Bertha (Garfunkel), owned a corset shop. He grew up in the Bronx and Queens and attended Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, where he discovered a penchant for engineering. He left before graduating because he thought that as a Jew at the time he had little chance of becoming an engineer, and he wanted to help his family earn a living during the Great Depression.
He became a delivery boy for Aremac Camera Store in Manhattan, where he first grew interested in photography, and learned the basics working at several photo studios in the city. In 1942 he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and became an aerial cartographer, and after the end of World War II he briefly worked as an Army publicity photographer in France.
When he returned, he married Rita Lord. The marriage ended in divorce, as did a second, to Estelle Haber.
In 1961 Kattelson moved to Woodstock, New York, where he established an art house movie theater that became the Tinker Street Cinema. He sold the theater, now known as Upstate Films/Woodstock, and moved back to New York City in the 1980s.
In the early 1990s Kattelson moved to Saugerties, New York, where he lived until moving to Rhinebeck three years ago. In addition to his daughter Raina, from his marriage to Haber, he is survived by three grandchildren.