‘Times change and they change in difficult ways. Not knowing what to do about it, I go back to simple stuff — which is, I hope, to make photographs thinking about truth and justice’. So said Mel Rosenthal, the New York photographer who died last week. ‘To make photographs thinking about truth and justice.’ That may sound crass and tacky. Rosenthal’s photographs were anything but. They were not shouty or strident or agitprop. But they were infused with warmth and humanity and, yes, a burning desire to tell truth and enable justice.
Born in the Bronx in 1940, Rosenthal started photographing his neighbourhood in the 1970s and 80s as it started crumbling through poverty and deliberate government policy. The photos are quite extraordinary; many of them look as if they are from war zones – the kind of photos we are used to seeing from Syria or Iraq – and yet were taken a few miles north of the Empire State Building. But what Rosenthal captured was not just the bleakness and decay. He captured also the human spirit amidst the bleakness and decay, the resilience and life that other photographers did not see, and politicians and policy-makers often trampled over. His photos of the South Bronx were eventually published in 2000 in a collection simply entitled In the South Bronx of America. They were at the heart of a tremendous exhibition last year at the Museum of the City of New York.
By the time his South Bronx photos were published in a collected form, Rosenthal had already moved on to new subjects, most notably photographing New York’s immigrants. The photos below are from his series on the South Bronx in the 1970s and 1980s, and on Arab Americans in New York City, taken in the years around 9/11. Most come from the exhibitions at the Museum of the City of New York.
In the South Bronx