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A Camera with a Conscience: Documenting Diversity in America

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Atascadero photographer Joe Schwartz has always identified with America's have-nots: Women. Children. Immigrants. Minorities.

"I looked for strong-willed people living in dignity...struggling for survival against tough and miserable odds," Schwartz wrote in the introduction to his 2000 book, "Folk Photography: Poems I've Never Written." "To illustrate and circulate the love of humanity I so deeply felt became a mission, a driving force ..."

"What he tried to do in a lot of his work is show people getting along regardless of gender, age, race, religion, what have you," said longtime friend Harvey Levenson, who heads the Graphic Communication Department at Cal Poly. "His outlook was a very positive one....that's the thread that runs through his work and his life."

Now Schwartz, who marks his 100th birthday in July, is being honored by the community he's called home for 25 years. The centennial celebration, which takes place Feb. 12 through 15 in Atascadero, coincides with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Colony of Atascadero by developer E.G. Lewis.

"When we found out we had a resident that was also turning 100 who had so much (of an) impact on culture and diversity, we decided to add him to our celebration," said event organizer Audrey Banks, management analyst for the city of Atascadero. "He's definitely had an impact on the community here."

Born in the impoverished Williamsburg neighborhood in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, Schwartz -- the Jewish son of Eastern European immigrants -- made his initial foray into photography as a high school student. (His first camera, a Voigtlander Superb, occupies a place of honor in his Atascadero home.) He spent a short stint at the Pratt Institute of Brooklyn, then started working as a lithographer for Haloid Paper Co.

In 1936, his friend David Robbins persuaded him to join New York's famed Photo League, a large, loose cooperative of amateur and professional photographers united by a passion for progressive politics. Founded by Sid Grossman and Sol Libsohn, the group counted Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, Walter Rosenblum, and W. Eugene Smith among its members and supporters.

It was an ideal fit for Schwartz, a social activist whose experiences during the Great Depression made him "politically aware of the many problems of the poor," he later wrote.

Schwartz married modern dancer Anne Paley in 1939 and joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1943, serving in the 5th Division as a combat photographer on Iwo Jima. After World War II, he moved his family to the diverse Kingsboro Housing Project in Brooklyn, where he served as president of the tenants' union.

Years later in California, his daughter said, Schwartz participated in protest marches alongside actor/singer Paul Robeson and Stephen Hole Fritchman, the progressive pastor of the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles. She remembers signs bearing the words "Bread Not Bombs" and discussions that stretched deep into the night.

"He would have these people come to our house and offer (them) a place to sleep or a meal or financial aid. ... He was always out there, caring so much," Motlo said of her father, who graduated from the Fred Archer School of Photography in Los Angeles in 1953 and spent the next few decades in Southern California working as a lithographer.

Motlo, who spent part of her childhood in the San Gabriel Valley after her parents separated, moved to the Central Coast in the early 1970s to study social science at Cal Poly. Her father joined her in Atascadero in 1988.

It was there, living next door to his daughter and her family, that Schwartz finally found the time to tackle one of his biggest projects -- sorting through six decades of black-and-white prints and negatives.

"For years, he wanted to put his photos into a book and finally the puzzle pieces fell into place," Motlo said, with the help of Levenson, Atascadero graphic designer Bill Jennings, and San Luis Obispo printer Richard Blake.

Although famous faces do show up in "Folk Photography" - folk singer Pete Seeger, New York City major Fiorello LaGuardia and jazz icons Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn, to name a few -- the majority of Schwartz's subjects are ordinary working-class people: grubby children playing in gutters, crumpled drunks sleeping on city benches, street vendors hawking everything from pretzels to pencils.

Whether photographing a wizened Italian woman slinging a gunnysack, an African-American girl picketing unfair hiring practices or a recovering drug addict enjoying a smoke break, Schwartz always depicted his subjects with dignity, his friend said.

"Joe focused on ... the have-nots of America," Levenson explained. "There was a lot of poverty, deprivation, and prejudice that took place during that era. What he did helped bring to light some of these situations."

Such stark images of social and economic disparity often made viewers "uncomfortable," Schwartz acknowledged. Yet he sought to show possibilities as well as problems -- seeking out scenes of "humans, young and old, of various races and national origins" living in harmony.

"My eyes and my camera are constantly aimed toward the activities of folks in an interracial mix," particularly children, Schwartz explained in "Folk Photography." "I've been crusading with ideas that most people are naturally cooperative, especially when given favorable conditions."

Schwartz's crusade has steadily gained attention in recent years, thanks in part to high-profile supporters such as Paul Gardullo, curator of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture, and James Miller, professor of English and American studies and director of the Center for the Study of Public History and Culture at George Washington University in Washington D.C. Both men spoke at "Celebrating Diversity," a community colloquium held at Cal Poly in February 2012 that included a tribute to Schwartz.

"All the tributes and all the accolades he's been getting in the last few years, he really feels like he does deserve them because he always felt his work was important," Motlo said of her father, who's even received a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition from U.S. Rep. Lois Capps. But the biggest honor is yet to come.

Some of Schwartz's photos will be displayed at the National Museum of African American History and Culture when it opens in 2015 in Washington, D.C. Gardullo said the photographer offers a valuable historical perspective.

"One of the aspects of Joe's work that makes it so enduring is that it helps us to remember a crucial past of interracial cooperation and understanding reaching back to the 1930s and '40s," Gardullo wrote in an email, "a period that we too often think of as disconnected from the traditional civil rights and desegregation movements.

"This past -- one of people of different races and ethnicities working, struggling, laughing and playing together -- is a crucial part of the historical record and can teach us much ..."

The past will come alive once again at Atascadero's tribute to Schwartz, which starts Feb. 12 with a presentation at the Atascadero City Council meeting.

On Feb. 13, there's a reception and photo exhibit at Atascadero City Hall, followed by a screening at the 2012 documentary "Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League's New York" at Galaxy Colony Square Theatre. (Schwartz and his work appear in the film and the photography show associated with it, "The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-1951.")

The City Hall photo exhibit runs through Feb. 15. In addition, two Atascadero galleries, Envisions Gallery and The Olive Tree Gallery, are holding receptions for Schwartz on Feb. 15.

"I've never been more proud of Atascadero than I am now," Levenson said. "By tying Joe to the centennial ... they're making a statement that the values of Joe Schwartz are very good values and these are values that the city of Atascadero wants to be associated with."

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