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Remembering Sy Kattelson Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

6 December 2018

Sy Kattelson, whose subject for 50 years was New York City street life, passed away late last month at the age of 95.

A member of the Photo League along with Paul Strand, Sid Grossman, Berenice Abbott and Lisette Model, his focus was on "people like me, who were not in poverty," he once said.

In fact, he was born in the Bronx to a middle class Jewish family. His father was an electrician who made neon signs and his mother ran a corset shop. His grandfather had been a vaudeville musician, which gave him ideas.

But his first idea, in high school, was to be an aeronautical engineer. When he found out there were few engineering jobs for Jews, he left school to help out the family after they lost their store.

He found a job as a delivery boy for Aremac Camera Store where the German owners encouraged him to "do something interesting" with his life. Like photography. He followed their advice, first working in the darkroom at Stone-Wright Studio and then becoming an assistant to one of the studio's in-house photographers.

'We were trying to do the sort of photography that put real people in the pictures. Somehow, that was considered radical.'

He moved on to Lawrence Studios where he photographed staged scenes illustrators used as references for their magazine illustrations.

Then the U.S. entered World War II. Kattleson volunteered for the Air Corps as a corporal aerial cartographer. He developed film shot from the air to access bombing runs until the end of the war when he worked as an army publicity photographer.

When he returned home at the age of 21, he joined the Photo League, refining his craft under Sid Grossman and Paul Strand before taking courses at the Hans Hofmann School of Art.

His work was exhibited at the first This Is the Photo League exhibit in 1948 and he taught Basic Technique in 1949 and Advanced Technique in 1950 for the League. He served as an executive member until the League was disbanded in 1951 during the Red Scare. "We were trying to do the sort of photography that put real people in the pictures. Somehow, that was considered radical," he said.

He shot fashion photography from 1953 to 1955, becoming one of the first in that field to use a 35mm camera to shoot outdoors. His social realism, though, wasn't always appreciated by art directors.

In 1958 he became a color darkroom technician and manager of a large commercial color photography lab. But he soon moved to Woodstock, N.Y., where he opened Tinker Street Cinema to show art films.

At the same time he mastered Carbon print color processing, a technique that uses multiple emulsion layers to create more artistic color prints.

He returned to photography in the 1980s, using muted color, multiple exposures and collage to extend his vision.

His photographs are included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the National Portrait Gallery, The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston Texas, The Art Institute of Chicago, The New York Transit Museum, The Jewish Museum of New York, The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, The National Gallery of Canada and The Musee d'Art Moderne, Saint Etienne, France.

His Web site includes three portfolios of his images from 1947 to 2000.

Twice divorced, he is survived by his daughter Raina and three grandchildren.

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