Three men surround a woman seated in a cantina. Their unfocused figures, framed by soft light and dark shadows, evoke movement. A hat obscures the woman’s face. The man on our right claps his hands as he stares into the face we cannot see; the man on our left leans inward, arching towards the woman. He, too, carries a hat, which he suspends just above the other hat. Together, the hats take on a character of their own, as if props used in some magic trick. It’s such an ordinary setting, but one the camera imbues with mystery.
This remarkable photograph from the museum’s collection, Aguadulce, Cantina, Panama (ca. 1945), is one of many taken by photographer Sid Grossman and is included in PAMM’s exhibition Sid Grossman: Photography, Politics, and the Ethical Image. A founding member of New York’s Photo League, Grossman championed photography’s capacity to engender social change. Aguadulce, Cantina, Panama is part of a body of work from Central America—Panama and Guatemala—that marks a significant artistic shift in his work.
In 1943, Grossman’s Photo League activities in the U.S. were interrupted when he was enlisted in the efforts of the Second World War. While Grossman was keen to serve in Europe—fighting fascism abroad and familiarizing himself with European communism—U.S. army officials stationed him in Panama, where he began his post as a public relations photographer with the Air Corps in 1945 and served until 1946, after the Army Intelligence Bureau investigated his activities with the Photo League and deemed them subversive.
Time in Panama proved pivotal to Grossman’s work as he experimented with less conventional approaches to photography and refined his skill as a printmaker. What is interesting about his photographs from this period is that they do not depict warfare like some of his Photo League peers who also served in the war. Instead, taken while off-duty, they show moments in the lives of Panamanians—on the streets, in cantinas, and during festivals. Panama, like New York, presented an opportunity to expand his passion for human connection. Most of the photographs were shot in a town called Aguadulce, where the U.S. army airfield was stationed to protect the Panama Canal—a strategic location during the war.
Grossman retained his technical experiments from Panama when he returned to the U.S. in 1946. The years between 1946 and 1948 were the most productive of his career, perhaps due to the aesthetic developments that arose from his time abroad. However, the productivity of his later years was thwarted by the looming anti-communist hysteria that swept the U.S. during the Cold War years. His health also eventually deteriorated as he dealt with the stultifying effects of surveillance before he died in 1955 at the young age of 42. In a brief, but prolific career, Grossman produced a body of work that influenced many subsequent generations of photographers and his passion for social issues feels particularly relevant today.
Sid Grossman: Photography, Politics, and the Ethical Image is now on view in the Diane and Robert Moss Gallery at PAMM through October 28, 2018.