Sid Grossman was an American photographer, teacher, and social activist. He was the younger son of Morris and Ethel Grossman. Grossman attended the City College of New York
and worked on a WPA street crew. In 1934, he started what would become the Photo League
with co-founder Sol Libsohn. Grossman played numerous roles throughout the Photo League's existence (1936–1951) including educator, administrator, reviewer, editor of Photo Notes and founder of Chelsea Document
(1938-1940), an indictment of obsolete buildings and substandard living conditions in a New York neighborhood. He enlisted on March 6, 1943 and served in the Sixth Army in Panama during World War II. Grossman's 1940 photographs of labor union activity led to FBI investigations and the blacklisting of the Photo League as a communist front in 1947. In 1949, he opened a photography school in Provincetown, Massachusetts, although he continued to live and teach in NYC part of every year. Grossman was married twice: to Marion Hille and then to Miriam Grossman.
Grossman conducted workshops at the Photo League
, the Henry St. Settlement, the Harlem Art Center, and privately in NYC and Provincetown, for almost twenty years. The photographers he taught were many – including Lou Bernstein
, Lisette Model
, Walter Rosenblum
, Louis Stettner
, Helen Gee
, Arthur Leipzig
(who is on record as calling Grossman “probably the most fantastic teacher I ever knew”
) and Leon Levinstein
. Yet Grossman himself said, “I am not an instructor in any classical sense.”
He insisted that his students take on the responsibility for making something of themselves. According to Jewish Museum curator Mason Klein, “Grossman increasingly insisted on the idea of being in the world in a particular manner, engaging with a certain consciousness as a photographer, and connecting to the camera in ways that made photographers question who they were.”
One had to “live for photography,”
in effect transforming and liberating oneself – in order to become a good photographer.
One description of Grossman's “impassioned, often aggressive workshop critiques”
has been provided by one of his students, N. Jay Jaffee
, who studied with him in 1948. On the one hand, “He was almost contemptuous; each of us got a taste of his anger and hostility during the course.”
Yet, “His genius was in expounding a philosophy of photography that was unique. I had never heard anyone speak on a subject with such depth and enthusiasm. I still recall a phrase he repeated several times: 'The world is a picture.' This simple statement was a profound insight into the method and meaning of photography.” “To Sid, photography was serious, not sacred.”
Grossman's first wife, Marion Hille, remarked that he “encouraged his students 'to enjoy themselves right away, to get a feel of taking pictures without technique getting in the way.'”
Jaffee reflected that, “Perhaps, if Sid had lived long enough, he would have also mellowed. Hopefully, he would have received the honor and respect for his brilliance and his work that he so justly deserves.”
Today, almost all of the important photographers and educators he influenced and who continued his legacy are also deceased. All that is left are the photographs he and they made – a considerable contribution.
An influential teacher and activist, Grossman was a founding member of the Photo League, a group of socially-minded photographers that used documentary photography to call attention to poverty and injustice in New York. Showing three ragtag kids, two of whom present their modest toys to the photographer, this image exemplifies Grossman’s humanistic artistic vision, which often testified to the endurance and survival of his subjects. Due to his participation in the Communist Party, the U.S. Government blacklisted Grossman and monitored his activities for several years.
Source: The Met