“EVERY MINUTE COUNTS,” the banner in the photograph shouts in big block capital letters, and the four women garment workers below, needles in hand and stacks of cloth surrounding them, make it clear they take the admonition seriously. Isolated and absorbed, yet also somehow bound into this activity together, they exude a serious and determined camaraderie. It’s 1942, and they’re on the home front, working in New York’s garment district, burrowed deeply in the rhythm of the duties of their small corner of the war effort.
This bold and striking image lends its title to the most recent exhibition at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education. Every Minute Counts: Photographs by Katherine Joseph, which continues through September 25, is also the final exhibition at the museum’s space on Northwest Kearney Street before it shuts its doors for several months to prepare for reopening in late spring or early summer 2017 at the old Museum of Contemporary Craft space on Northwest Davis Street, by the North Park Blocks. The new space will provide more than double the square footage, to about 15,000.
If you’ve never heard of Katherine Joseph, don’t feel bad: in spite of the wit and presence and proximity to history of so much of her work, not a lot of people have. Her photography in the 1930s and 1940s slides her neatly into a category of humanistic documentarists that also includes the likes of Dorothea Lange, whose images of Americans in the midst of the Great Depression became iconic, and Margaret Bourke-White, one of the most imaginative and socially revealing photographers for the old Life magazine during its glory years. But Joseph’s career was shorter – less than a decade – and as the war ended, so did it: Joseph hung up her camera, settled down, and raised a family. Even her children didn’t know until relatively recent years of her photographic fling with history.
A big slice of the photographs in this exhibition, including Every Moment Counts, was created when Joseph worked for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, documenting from the inside the union’s activities and political heft. The images range from the factory floor to the White House (the Roosevelts were great friends of the union movement) and capture the lives of hourly workers and giants of the entertainment and political worlds. The images in the exhibit are all shot in black & white, lending the work a sense of historical veracity, and are compellingly framed, with the vital trait that excellent news and documentary photographers share of freezing telling moments in intimate and lively circumstances: fleeting scenes, captured in vividly composed aesthetic frames. Inside the frames, as with the work of most great photographers who immerse themselves in the helter-skelter workings of the world, are a restrained exuberance, a gift for knowing the right moment, and a simple/complicated love of life.
In spite of the documentarian approach to her work, it’s interesting to note that for the most part Joseph didn’t work for news organizations but instead was sponsored by advocacy groups of one sort or another, including the ILGWU. An extended trip in 1941 through Mexico was funded partly by the garment union, with a press pass from the old New York newspaper PM; she and two friends traveled in a car provided by Willys-Overland Motors, the company that would soon rev up the assembly lines to provide Jeeps for the Army during World War II: in return for the transportation, Joseph showed the car in a lot of her images. On the trip she documented a “Goodwill Fiesta” aimed at encouraging Mexico to join the Allies in the impending war, a program encouraged by the U.S. government and including a lot of Hollywood stars and producers: she shot a terrific image of Moira Shearer and Mickey Rooney at a gala in Mexico City, for instance. The exhibit also includes several photos of Joseph out on the streets documenting the destruction on April 16, 1941, when a 7.7 magnitude earthquake struck Colima, about 300 miles west of Mexico City: she’d been working in the darkroom when the quake hit, rushed outside, and started shooting. One image shows the freshly crumbled walls of Colima Cathedral.
Every Minute Counts is showing at OJMCHE because Joseph’s son, the photographer Richard Hertzberg, lives in Portland. His own interest in photography was sparked decades ago when his mother gave him her old Rolleiflex to fool around with. But it wasn’t until after Katherine’s death in 1990 that Hertzberg and his sister, Suzanne Hertzberg, began to uncover evidence of what he calls “my mother’s secret life before her marriage to my father.” Thus began an artistic and family journey into the past that was made more difficult, and perhaps more fascinating, because of the way his mother covered her tracks. Joseph “always brushed off questions about her childhood,” Suzanne wrote. “Her oft-stated view that one could become whatever one wanted at any point in one’s life makes more sense given that she invented her birthdate … claiming to have been born in 1916 and to have left Russia as a baby in the turbulent months between the Bolshevik Revolutions of February and October 1917.” In fact, Joseph was born in 1910 in Odessa, now in Ukraine but at the time a part of the Russian federation and a center of Jewish culture and life. By the following year she and her family were in Chicago; she lived there and in El Paso, Texas, until moving as a young woman to New York to pursue her career in photography.
What she shot in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere provides a fascinating glimpse of American life in a very different time – a period of deep national stress and emergency, and also, curiously, of a national optimism, at least on the surface, that seems almost alien in our own politically and culturally fractious times.
In February 1938 she joined the cast of the hit musical revue Pins and Needles, a union-based show that played on Broadway from 1937 through 1940, as they gathered excitedly around Eleanor Roosevelt while she signed autographs for them; the resulting photograph is ebullient. Less than a month later the company was giving a command performance at the White House; Joseph was there for that, too. In Chicago in July 1944 she captured Frank Sinatra and Ethel Merman recording for NBC’s Hit Parade for broadcast on the Armed Forces Radio Services Series. She stuck around Chicago for the Democratic national convention later that month and caught an electric image of Sinatra shaking hands with Harry S Truman, who had just won the vice-presidential nomination. Between them is the incumbent vice president, Henry Wallace, who appears to be genuinely smiling even though he lost the nomination to Truman, who was considered a more centrist politician. Sinatra had been an ardent supporter of the more liberal Wallace, and yet the photograph shows the three men in something very like conviviality – an image that doesn’t immediately spring to mind from the 2016 national conventions. Somehow, it seems, things came together. And Joseph was there to capture the moment.
Then the war ended, and life moved on, and so did Katherine Joseph, trailing a bit of mystery in her wake. Suzanne Hertzberg addresses it in a just-published book (with plenty of photos) about her mother’s life and work, Katherine Joseph: Photographing an Era of Social Significance. In 2007 she and her brother donated three boxes of their mother’s photographs, negatives and diaries to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where they found an archival home with other collections related to labor unions, women’s history, and American life on the home front during World War II. “The collection was small by Smithsonian standards,” Richard Hertzberg writes in a statement posted at the Jewish Museum’s exhibit, “but it contained the answer to the question of where my own fascination with photography came from – Katherine Joseph. Still, it did not offer an explanation of how that fascination was transferred from mother to son, since she never discussed her photojournalistic career with me.”
The Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education’s impending move to the old Museum of Contemporary Craft space, spurred by a successful $5 million campaign, is good news for both the museum and its new space, which came vacant when the craft museum’s overseers, the Pacific Northwest College of Art, controversially shut down the museum in February of this year. The craft museum was the anchor of a block that includes several commercial art galleries, and together they created a significant attractor for cultural visits. The Jewish Museum’s move into the space should reestablish the block as one of Portland’s prime art destinations. The new space will double the Jewish Museum’s exhibition space, and also provide room for a gift shop, a small cafe, archives, offices, storage, a library, and a performance/film auditorium. It will also inevitably enlarge the organization’s budget, and an inability to cover increased costs after its own move from a smaller space was part of what doomed the craft museum, although there is no clear evidence that the gap was unbridgeable.
In the meantime, the craft museum’s programs and collection remain in limbo. The art school said that it would incorporate much of them into its own programming, but so far there has been little evidence of that. Unlike the craft-centered Bellevue Art Museum in Washington state, which has no permanent collection, Portland’s contemporary craft museum had a small but significant permanent collection springing from its beginnings in Oregon’s craft pottery movement in the 1930s, and the collection’s loss from public view continues to vex the city’s art community. With luck and determination the collection could land somewhere else: in a reconstituted, smaller-scale museum, perhaps, or in reassigned space at the art school (though that appears unlikely), or at the Portland Art Museum. But a move to PAM, like any other physical move, would require a continuing flow of money for a curator and support, plus space in a facility that is already taxed for exhibition room. In the meantime, an important chapter in Oregon’s cultural legacy remains hidden from view. The Jewish Museum’s impending move is a matter for celebration. The loss of the craft museum remains a frustration and a deep concern. Or, as the aftermath of Katherine Joseph’s brief and shining career might suggest, a mystery.