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Matinee: 'Proof of Character: Marlis Momber' Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

13 March 2021

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the 296th in our series of Saturday matinees today: Proof of Character: The Legacy of Marlis Momber.

In this 5:51 documentary on Marlis Momber, the New York photographer tells her story from the moment she arrived from Berlin as a single mother to the archiving of her "uncountable negatives" of her Lower East Side or Loisaida* community.

Born in Berlin in 1943, she studied photography in both Berlin and Paris before moving to New York in 1966. At her studio on Fifth Avenue, she worked as a fashion photographer for clients like Gucci and Elizabeth Arden.

Her interest in the Lower East Side began when she saw a mural there painted by Maria Dominguez. She tells the story on her Web site:

I came out of LaGuardia at the time, came over the Williamsburg Bridge, down Delancey Street. There was this mural, this most beautiful mural. Right up there on the wall. I asked the cab driver, "Could you please drive by there?" He says, "I ain't going there." I said, "What do you mean you ain't going there? This is New York City. This is like, you know, five minutes away from where you're supposed to take me on Fifth Avenue and 25th Street." "I ain't going there." So I came to the studio. I asked my assistant to give me a loaded camera. He said, "Yeah, but it's got film from Panama." I said, "It's OK. Give me an extra roll," blah, blah. I got on my bike and went back and took my first photo. That was it. That was the end and the beginning of Marlis Momber, fashion photographer becoming a documentary photographer.

The mural may have been captivating but the neighborhood reminded Momber of post-World War II Berlin's bombed out streets. When her father visited her in Loisaida from Berlin, he took one look at it and asked out loud why they don't just paint it all white.

But she found a lot of beautiful energy in that devastated neighborhood.

And she has documented it over the years, telling stories, she says, of "gentrification, urban development, slum lords/arson for profit, squatting, affordable housing/homesteading, cultural identity, education, the arts, drugs and urban crime."

And along the way she's shot weddings and graduations, family gatherings, portraits, performerances and even done some commercial work.

The images were never her photographs, she says in this clip. The community itself created the photographs, she just pressed the shutter button. So as a tribute to the community, she is archiving the collection.

She's made some 2,000 prints already of those uncountable negatives.

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