Simpson Kalisher, a well-known New York street photographer, has died at age 96. Kalisher started out in photography when he was just 10 years old.
Kalisher sought out characters on the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn and his efforts saw him exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art.
He also released a series of books including the 1961 tome Railroad Men: A Book of Photographs and Collected Stories which contained portraits of railroad workers at a time when the industry was declining. According to The New York Times, Kalisher also tape-recorded the workers and used what they said as accompanying text to his photos. Kalisher published Propaganda and Other Photographs in 1976.
Kalisher was born to Polish immigrant parents on July 27, 1926. His father was a jeweler and watchmaker while his mother was a dressmaker.
He grew up in the northeast Bronx area and was drafted into the Second World War in 1944 where he was decorated with the Combat Infrantryman’s Badge.
Long before that, he had shown an interest in photography and had even begun selling prints as a teenager. After the war, he first took up commercial photography. Kalish was successful in this endeavor, shooting photos for Texaco and his work appearing in advertisements. But he decided to move into photojournalism.
“When I decided to make photojournalism my career I was less interested in making art than in making a living,” he says in a memoir.
Kalisher used Canon and Contax 35mm cameras at the time but he became disillusioned with the work. Despite popular periodicals like Sports Illustrated and Fortune running his photos, he began looking for more meaningful photography.
“When I saw a series of Stieglitz photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe’s slender hands gracing round (they were always round) slick industrial products, I was prompted to photograph the hands of a Black worker washing down one of the white wall tires of my father’s 1947 Hudson,” Kalisher wrote. “It was my first protest photograph.”
The writer and critic Lucy Sante says Kalisher’s most distinguishing feature “was his social empathy and imagination.”
He died on June 13 at his home in Delray Beach, Florida.
Image credits: All photos by Simpson Kalisher.