N. Jay Jaffee might not be among the best known American photographers of the 20th century, but a sizable and engrossing exhibit of his works at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, makes it obvious that he deserves much wider recognition.
Jaffee captured the world around him — mostly New York — in vibrant black and white. He had an eye for subtle detail, which enabled him to burrow beneath the surface and give many of his images multilayered textures. The exhibit in the spacious Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery contains nearly 80 examples. (This show represents a fraction of UMBC's extraordinary photography collection of more then two million items.)
"Jaffee never worked as a professional photographer," says Tom Beck, chief curator at UMBC. "His career was in printing. So it was always a matter of balance between his business and personal obligations, his family. And he never worked very hard at getting exhibitions."
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1921, Jaffee developed an interest in photography after returning from army service in World War II. He took classes taught by Sid Grossman at the famed Photo League in New York.
"Jaffee's photographs are in the documentary style, yet underneath is a personal kind of imagery," Beck says. "His 'Snowstorm' from 1947, with people bent over against the blowing wind, is not just a neutral image. It was a scene to which Jaffee could relate. He grew up in an apartment heated only by a stove in the kitchen. So the cold meant something to him."
That photo, one of the most visceral in the UMBC exhibit, helped Jaffee get noticed.
"He brought it to class at the Photo League one Saturday morning and Grossman was head over heels," Beck says. "Three years later, Jaffee took it to show Edward Steichen, who was curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. Steichen immediately wanted to acquire it for an exhibition there."
Eventually, Jaffee gained more attention. He was given a one-man show at the Brooklyn Museum in 1981, for example, and his work has been added to collections at several museums.
"After Jaffee passed in 1999, I was contacted by Paula Hackeling, a resident of Baltimore, who had been a longtime friend of his and had a large collection of his works," Beck says. "She gave us 130 of them, which gave us the makings of an exhibition. I chose 77 with the idea of introducing Jaffee and giving a representation of his work."
The photos from the mid-century New York are especially compelling. Jaffee was a keen observer of ordinary people and ordinary situations, such as in "Shoeshine Conversation," from 1949.
One photo features two women in a subway car, the younger one sporting an expansive lace collar on her dress, stare vacantly from their seats, but you can almost hear the thoughts spinning inside their heads. In another, a street scene finds a somber woman with a heavily lined face holding two paper bags, filled, it seems, with troubles.
There are lighthearted images, too, such as a man sporting a bowler hat and carrying an umbrella on a Brooklyn street (a Brit out of water, perhaps?), and a girl learning to roller-skate, her father clutching her coat to keep her upright. And then there's the man in a Fedora hat, heavy coat and gloves, sunning himself with a reflector board on his chest.
A view of a humble synagogue in 1949 gains charm and warmth from two baby carriages parked outside. Something deeper and darker resonates in a bleak photo from Brooklyn's Brownsville neighborhood — open-mouthed, industrial-looking ovens lined up in a row behind a barbed-wire fence, with prison-like buildings in the background.
The passing years did not diminish Jaffee's knack for the aesthetic shot, as evidenced by the wonderfully impressionistic "Two Trees, Snowstorm (Through Wet Windows)" from 1993 and a Baltimore image from 1994 — a finely shaded detail of the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church.
This is an exhibit worth more than one visit.
If you go
"N. Jay Jaffee Photographs from Public to Personal, 1947–1997" runs through March 23 at the Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, 1000 Hilltop Circle. Free admission. Call 410-455-2270, or go to artscalendar.umbc.edu.