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Martin Elkort: New York Photo League

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New York in the 1940s

For a fuller version of some parts of this story, see the Rangefinder magazine profile, by Larry Brownstein in the Jan 2006 issue. You can also read some of Elkort's own thoughts on photography on his web site.

Early Success

Martin Elkort (b 1929) got his first byline and pay check at the age of 10, when on a family trip they were caught in a downpour that left water knee-deep on the street. With the family Kodak he photographed people wading through the water, then persuaded his father to drive to the Baltimore Sun offices. The next day his picture made the front page.

First Camera

He got his first camera, a Ciro-flex, a US copy of the Rolleicord TLR made by Cameras Inc. of Delaware, Ohio), at 15 as a present after a 4 month hospital spell recovering from polio. It wasn't a cheap camera, costing his father around a week's salary.

The twin-lens design made it easy to take photographs without being obtrusive - or even noticed. The 15 year-old Elkort was soon wandering around the streets of Manhattan and taking whatever or whoever interested him, learning to walk up close while looking down at the viewfinder image with the camera held against his stomach. Before long he had replaced the camera by a the superior Rolleiflex TLR.

Studies

He was soon studying art and photography seriously, starting in the best possible way by taking advantage of cheap student entry to make use of one of the best collections in the world at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Soon he was enrolled at The Cooper Union Art School, first studying to be a painter but soon switching to photography. Elkort also studied at the Art Student's League and the Pan-American School of Art in New York.

Steichen and MoMA

While at Cooper Union, in 1948, Elkort made an appointment with Edward Steichen, curator for photography at MoMA. Steichen looked at his pictures, was very polite but told him there was nothing that made him stand out from the other 35 million amateur photographers in the country.

I don't know which pictures Elkort took to the interview, but he had by then taken a number of the pictures from the Lower East Side in 1947 that appear on his web site, including 'Two Women Shopping', 'Alms Collector', 'Blind Musician', 'Italian Bakery' and 'Gypsy Kids' as well as some other great images in the 'Miscellaneous Old' section of his web site. Either Elkort had made a very poor selection of his work or he caught Steichen on a day he was suffering from a peculiar blindness.

New York Photo League

In 1948, Elkort became involved with the New York Photo League, remaining a member until it closed. As he wrote to me recently: "The Photo League has always held a special place in my pantheon of the past. It was a singular, influential experience and helped me form my worldview..." His previous work on the streets of New York was very close to the core of the League tradition, but through the League he met many of the best photographers of the day and learnt from them and their work. Among those he studied with were Aaron Siskind and Imogen Cunningham.

New York Pictures

Elkort's pictures give a very real feeling of the life on the streets in that immediate post-war period. They show the shops and the tradesmen, children playing, women talking, goods for sale. He also photographed characters of various kinds, including the legendary musician 'Moondog; "people ask me if I dress the way I do to attract attention ... I attract attention because I dress the way I do." His way often included a sheet or cloak worn like a toga and a Viking style helmet.

Coney Island

A few years later, Elkort returned to see Steichen with another set of pictures, including his 1949 work from Coney Island. This time was more successful, with Steichen being impressed by the warmth, humanity and humour of his work and he bought three pictures, 'Girl with Cat', 'Puppy Love' and 'Soda Fountain'. MoMA's fee was mean to an extreme (have good photographers always got a raw deal?), but the recognition that it gave him was important, confirming that what he was doing was worthwhile.
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