A Chronicle of New York City
Photography’s historical significance, aesthetic qualities, and early bias toward documentation played a key role in how we remember the past, often shaping our perspectives. Consequently, photographers used the medium to represent their surroundings and realities. William “Bill” Witt, a photographer born in New Jersey, captured powerful pictures that showed a unique time in American history, creating an insightful chronicle of New York City.
A Visual Record of the Great Depression
At a crucial period in America, one of economic struggle and food and housing insecurity throughout all corners of the country, a small group of young photographers from New York City came together. They began documenting their neighborhoods during this turbulent period, creating a visual record of the Great Depression and its effects on the city.
Photography as a Catalyst for Social Change
With a bold aim to use photography as a catalyst for social change, not merely as a means of recording life, these aspiring photographers, many the children of working-class immigrants, set out on the streets to capture everyday scenes. They became known as The Photo League and ultimately helped enter an American page into the world of documentary photography and social realism. One essential photographer whose work augmented the optical prose of the city and its inhabitants was Bill Witt. Born in New Jersey, Witt’s candid, unreserved eye, capable of capturing images with immediacy and intimacy, abreast in the ebb and flow of life on the city streets, helped create a layered record of the gritty urban landscape as it came of age into modernity.
“As a young photographer growing up in the Great Depression, I was impressed and inspired by the great documentary photographers of the Farm Security Administration. At this time, there was a group of young photographers in New York dedicated to documentary photography known as The Photo League. I joined and exhibited with The Photo League until its demise in 1951. The Photo League has since been recognized as an important force in American Photography.” – Bill Witt.
The pictures created by members of the New York Photo League provided permanent records of both the economic difficulty of the period and the joys of humanity in this particular part of the country, essentially serving as snapshots for posterity. Social documentary photography in the 1930s through 1960s had an authenticity to it. “Truth” was thought to be on the streets and photographable. Thus, Witt’s pictures had authority. They were real accounts of moments experienced by Americans that showed the reality of the world in the middle of the century. His images showed the interconnectedness of people in this urban environment, capturing the spirit of the city and the nature of fraternity between neighbors.
“I am a product of my time. I was born in 1921 in Newark, N.J. I grew up in the Depression, a period with much emotion.” – Bill Witt.
From Student to Teacher
Bill Witt studied photography at the Clarence White School of Photography in New York City and with Alexey Brodovitch at the New School for Social Research in the late 1930s. He worked for the commercial photographer Valentino Sarra along with Dan Weiner, who introduced him to the Photo League around 1940. During World War II, Witt served as a photographer for the Army Signal Corps from 1943 to 1945. After the war, he taught the advanced technique class at the League in 1947. He participated in two group shows with League members: “In and Out of Focus” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1948 and “This Is the Photo League” from 1948 to 1949. Witt remained a member until 1949. Outside the League, he exhibited his photographs in group and solo shows.
Standing the Test of Time
Since the start of his career, Witt created remarkable pictures of New York, capturing the city’s unique energy. Some photographs stood the test of time and remain some of the world’s most renowned images of N.Y.C. Witt’s work is in the collections of many private and public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Hallmark Collection, the Smithsonian Institute, and many university museum collections. His work regularly appears in exhibits devoted to the New York School and the Photo League.
Paying Homage to the Creating of a Legendary Metropolis
Bill Witt’s pictures present the hustle and bustle of the city, the advertisement signage that lined the panorama, the architectural development of various styles of buildings, and the human dimension of the city. All paying homage to the creation, picture by picture, of a legendary metropolis, that of the fabled, mid-century City of New York.