A Master of Documentary Photography Celebrates His Legacy

Earlier this week I took my son to the opening night of a photography exhibit called Mel Rosenthal: 40 Years in Pictures. The evening celebrated Mel’s retirement from teaching at Empire State College, where he was hired in 1975 to¬† to build a photography program in the South Bronx, alongside teaching American Studies and Media. He subsequently founded the Photojournalism Program at the school’s Manhattan location, and has since nurtured and mentored countless photographers.

Mel Rosenthal has spent the last four decades traveling the globe from Cuba, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and VietNam back to his native South Bronx. A strong believer in the connection of art to activism, he has made it a point to chronicle the lives of people who have been marginalized, misunderstood, or simply overlooked. Venturing into communities outside the mainstream, Mel has also focused on immigrant and refugee communities, exploring their uniqueness in a way that often underscores the universality of human experience.

I first met Mel back in the late 90’s during my erstwhile foray into documentary filmmaking, at a time when he was preparing to publish his book, In the South Bronx of America. We quickly bonded on the topic of our respective creative work. At the time, I was working on a project I had undertaken to examine the lives of Iraqi citizens who had been negatively impacted by American-led sanctions aimed at toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime. As my exploration took me in the direction of meeting Iraqi refugees who had resettled in the United States, I suppose it was no coincidence that Mel and I found a common bond in our pursuit of giving voice to the voiceless.

Mel Rosenthal’s work has a way of evoking the simple beauty in the humanity of people. He sees them as they are and communicates his appreciation for them to others by quietly observing them and reporting back on their moments in time. It is obvious that his is a loving eye – not sentimental or cloying, just coming from the heart, and not afraid to accept life as it is.

And indeed, his philosophy on photography as an art form also embodies an elegant simplicity. I overheard one of his former students declaring to him, “You said, a camera’s just a box with a hole,” with the conviction of someone for whom this basic truth had become a foundational support. When another photographer, who had only corresponded with Mel via e-mail prior to this first meeting, asked him, “What do you shoot with these days?” he replied, “I don’t know, whatever I have that’s around.”

A humble, unassuming man, Mel does what he does because it’s work he believes in. He has repeatedly stepped into war torn or otherwise less than cushy environments, to document the reality he finds there, captured in the eyes of the human beings with whom he always finds some common ground. He just knows how to relate to other people.

Although he walks and speaks a bit slower than he did several years ago, Mel has not lost that sparkle of life that infuses his every communication. In this photo, he is telling my son, whom he was meeting for the first time, how lucky he was to have me for a mommy. A short while later, I listened to the two of them trading renditions of radio sound effects they had each learned how to imitate vocally, impressing each other…

You can always tell when someone of significance is in the room. People hover about, waiting to get close, planning what they want to say. Some share inordinate amounts of information about themselves in rushed introductions, others work to be impressive about their accomplishments, to communicate their worthiness to someone whom they admire so much, while all are just so glad to be connected to him in some way. Mel, who has both the toughened exterior of a war correspondent and the soft heart of a child, regards each person he encounters with the same clear gaze of appreciation for their particular connection, listening patiently as he engages with him or her.

Although I never did finish that film, he and his girlfriend Bobbe have never ceased to express their support for me as an artist, and as a human being. Just as all of my unfinished projects have been a necessary part of my own development, I wonder how many projects Mel has in some stage of (in)completion, waiting for him to devote more time to them. Now that he’s retiring from teaching, who knows where his energies will be directed?

One thing is for certain, Mel has inspired countless photographers and other creative individuals to pursue their art in service of humanity. Re-invigorating my contact with him and Bobbe has already got me wondering about new ways I can make myself useful…

This exhibit will be up and running until February 3, 2012 at the Hudson Gallery, SUNY Empire State College, Metropolitan Center, 325 Hudson St., 3rd Floor, NY, NY

Photo courtesy of Ricky Flores

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3 Responses to “A Master of Documentary Photography Celebrates His Legacy”

  1. Mel was my photo teacher, inspiration and dear friend, begining around 1980. He introduced me to another student who was equally inspired by him and we were later married. Incidently, Ricky Flores who took the photo in the article above was another dear friend of the time. I can barely say how much it has meant for us to count Mel as a teacher and a friend. We now live upstate but hopefully the show will still be up in a few weeks when we can get there.

    Thanks for a lovely article and good luck in your work

  2. Paul,
    What a great story you have about Mel. He does have that way of touching people’s lives… I’m really glad you took the time to comment. I actually met several photographers through Mel as a result of attending that event who have become trusted colleagues and friends.

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