I don’t remember the very first time I met Sid Grossman, but it had to be at Photo League meetings, which I began attending when I was 17, in 1948. He was twice my age at that point and was about to get embroiled in the FBI’s investigation of him, which shadowed him for the rest of his life. By 1949, the Photo Leauge was blacklisted and put on the “subversive” list, in large part because of Sid’s earlier affiliation with the Communist Party. The sad irony for Sid is that while the strong communist sentiments of his early youth earned him the name Commissar at the Photo League, he had already moved beyond the more rigid aspects of his earlier strongly held political views by the time the FBI tagged the Photo League for the investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Sid co-founded the Photo League with Sol Libsohn in 1936. His legacy will forever be linked to the Photo League, and it’s sad demise, but his influence moved well beyond that, driven by his almost insatiable passion for expressing truthful art, which captured not only social conditions, but his perception of inherent dynamic aspects of life. Several years ago, with the launching of the touring exhibition The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951 (co-sponsored by The Jewish Museum and The Columbus Museum of Art), the life, role — and finally — the photographs of Sid Grossman have come more into public view. Good thing!
I was drafted in the army in 1952 and shipped out to Korea. By the time I returned at the end of 1953, The Photo League had seen it’s last days. It was really after that that I got to know Sid. I took one of his legendary photography workshops at his apartment on 24th Street in Manhattan. It was the only photo class I ever took. The year was 1954, shortly after I moved in to the jazz loft at 821 Sixth Avenue where I spent time developing hundreds of rolls of exposed film from my army experience.
There were probably nine others in the class, including David Vestal. Sid was a fantastic teacher and his classes were mesmerizing. He was also infamously tough. His workshops were something of an initiation by fire and no one was exempt from his often brutal critiques. Here’s a great description from photographer N. Jay Jaffee.
His appearance wasn’t particularly striking. But his personality was. If I could find some of those students who suffered through those classes with me, I’m sure they would agree that Sid Grossman did not seem to take kindly to our presence. He was almost contemptuous; each of us got a taste of his anger and hostility during the course. We were told to bring in our work for a class critique each week. If Sid didn’t care for a student’s photograph, he would tear the print and throw it at the culprit, demanding that he never bring in “such garbage” again. When one of the students confronted Grossman about his manner, he retorted, “I’ve been in photography a long time before you came here and I’ll be in it a long time after you’ve left it!”
My own memory of his fiery disdain resulted in a great fondness for his wife, Miriam! I showed a few of my army photographs in the class, which he verbally tore to shreds. While I don’t remember the content of his critique, I am guessing that my appreciative sensibilities that sought to see what intimacy and joy I could find even in the midst of army life clashed with his critical sensibilities and the desire to expose and communicate the raw elements of military culture. Whatever the reason, I threw the whole lot of prints and negatives in the trash bin, but his wife, Miriam, promptly rescued them for me with encouragement to get beyond Sid’s harshness and have faith in myself (which, generally speaking I did!)
As harsh as he was a teacher, he was a wonderful man, whose responded to life with great immediacy. He held nothing back. In 1955, he invited me and my partner at the time (jazz pianist Dorrie Woodson) to come for a visit at his home in Provincetown. We sailed together on his beloved boat the Quahog and spent some very relaxed time with him, his wife, and his young son, Adam. I was able to witness and experience a tender side of the man, who at that point was steeped in photographing his natural surroundings. Here are a few snapshots from that summer, which I only came across recently, prompting this reflection on Sid. Little did I know that he would die of a heart attack just a few months after these were taken. I’m grateful for the gifts he left behind and the attention he is now receiving!