Platt Fine Art is pleased to present an exhibition and sale of more than forty works by documentary photographer Lee Sievan, whose images from the 1940’s are a remarkable testament to everyday life in mid-century New York. This is Sievan’s first solo retrospective since she was profiled in a joint exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York in 1997.
Horses & Cars, Suits & Coats, c. 1940s
Though long overlooked, Sievan has now been recognized alongside other mid-century documentary photographers. Each of her images reflects a unique perspective of quotidian subjects: fish sellers, horse drawn carts, and immigrants. They now serve as windows into a brash and bustling city whose cobblestones and carriages were already vanishing in the wake of modernization. Born to Polish immigrants on October 9, 1907, Sievan grew up in the vibrant community of New York’s Lower East Side.
After graduating from Hunter College in 1925, she found a secretarial position in Hunter’s Biological Sciences Department and worked there for forty-two years. This proved a practical means of supporting herself and her husband, painter Maurice Sievan, whom she married in 1934. Maurice, an Abstract Expressionist of the New York School, had close ties to Mark Rothko and other modernists including Milton Avery, Barnett Newman and Robert Motherwell. The marriage “catapulted [her] into the fascinating world of the arts that was to become the focal point of [her] life.”
Milton Avery at Eastover, c. 1950
Lee Sievan’s interest in photography stemmed from the desire to produce a pictorial record of her husband’s work. Throughout their decades-long marriage, she created hundreds of portraits of her husband at work. However, she soon found that her passion for the aesthetics of photography grew, though a documentary-style focus would be a prevailing theme throughout her large body of work.
Sievan began her formal training in 1938 at the American Artists School, where, fortuitously, her first teacher was Eliot Elisofon (1911-1973), a prominent documentary photographer whose work often appeared in Life magazine. By this time, Sievan had already begun to develop her interest in documentary photography, and Elisofon’s ethos proved to be a formative influence on her work.
WPA Cleaned this Area, Monroe St., 1939
Sievan’s two later teachers, Berenice Abbott and Weegee, were no less influential as two masters in the art of documentary photography. Both had trained their lenses on the ever-changing landscape of New York City. Sievan studied with Abbott at the New School for Social Research and, later, the Photo League. Abbott’s celebrated book, Scenes of New York, was to have a profound effect on her pupil’s own New York vision. Yet Sievan’s photographs of the same city are distinguished from those of her mentor by a socially inquisitive and sometimes humorous character that is entirely her own.
Another of Sievan’s friends and teachers, Weegee, often produced images replete with humor, in spite of grim content. Sievan’s role as his darkroom assistant was likely instrumental in helping her cultivate a personal brand of realism. Abbott, Weegee and Sievan were all affiliated with the Photo League, an influential organization whose members often campaigned for photography as a vehicle of social change.
Sievan’s work, however, lacks the polemic for social justice, as is predominant in the work of Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis. Instead, we see in Sievan’s photography a genuine compassion for and curiosity about the human condition – an egalitarian interest in people from all walks of life, rich and poor, men and women, children and the elderly. New York was teeming with such subjects who seem to have been waiting to be captured by her lens. Though Sievan was charmed by her subjects, photography was increasingly an aesthetic calling for her. She delighted in the myriad compositions that emerged from everyday life in New York – lines of laundry fluttering in the breeze, shop window displays thick with text, masses crossing the avenues, 2014 and the vast framework of New York’s own architecture – bridges, El platforms and skyscrapers.
Chatham Square, c. 1940s
For critic Pierre MacOrlan, documentary photography was less about technique and more about “capturing contemporary life… at the right moment by an author capable of grasping that moment.” Lee Sievan’s body of work is filled with such moments, frozen in time.
Lee Sievan (American, 1907-1990) exhibited at Hunter College, the International Center for Photography, and the Camera Club of New York, N.Y., and was last profiled in a joint exhibition with Maurice Sievan at the Museum of the City of New York in 1997. Her works can be found in the permanent collections of the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the International Center for Photography, the Bibliotheque Nationale, and the Museum of the City of New York, among others.