Mel Rosenthal

Mel Rosenthal, a photographer who documented life both close to home in the South Bronx and in faraway places like Tanzania, focusing on the human side of hardship and urban decay, died on Oct. 30 in Redding, Conn. He was 77.

The cause was complications of dementia, said Deborah Dichter, a family friend.

Mr. Rosenthal, who taught photography at Empire State College for 36 years, was especially known for photographing the South Bronx in the 1970s and ’80s, a time of burned-out buildings and desolate streets. But where others often shot only the blight, Mr. Rosenthal usually made people the central element of any picture, emphasizing both the human impact of the conditions and the human spirit that survived amid the bleakness.

A young man turns a flip over a discarded mattress on a sidewalk. A woman and her dog pause for a portrait on Bathgate Avenue.

“Mel was not parachuting in and documenting a foreign place,” Ricky Flores, a visual journalist with the Journal News Media Group in White Plains, said last year on the occasion of an exhibition of Mr. Rosenthal’s South Bronx images at the Museum of the City of New York. “He always talked about showing people in a compassionate way. Other photographers don’t always get that.”  

Melvyn Rosenthal was born on March 5, 1940, in the Bronx. His father, William, was a lawyer, and his mother, the former Lillian Kellin, was an executive secretary and a painter.  The family moved to South Carolina when Mel was young but before long returned to the Bronx. Mel grew up not far from the area he would later photograph so evocatively.

Mr. Rosenthal graduated from City College in 1961 and received a Ph.D. in English literature and American studies at the University of Connecticut in 1967. He discovered photography while doing a student exchange in Rome, taking pictures with an old Leica. But it was a movie — Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 thriller, “Blow-Up” — that really got him thinking about the possibilities of the camera.

“I went nuts,” he told The New York Times in a 2011 interview. “The idea of seeing pictures come up out of trays — if you remember, the most important person was the photographer. He was trying to solve the mystery. I said, ‘My God, this is what I want to do.’ Before that, I didn’t know there was such a person as a photojournalist who solved mysteries in a visual way.”

He may not have gone on to solve mysteries with his pictures, but he did illuminate conditions and social dynamics with them. After teaching for seven years at Vassar College, he traveled to Africa, working as a medical photographer at a hospital in Tanzania and further developing his sense of the power of visual imagery. In 1975 he returned to New York for a job at Empire State College in the Bronx and saw what his childhood home had become.

“I had to walk through my old neighborhood to my office on Bathgate Avenue,” he said. “That’s how I started photographing the Bronx.”

Those images would be collected in a much-admired book, “In the South Bronx of America,” in 2000. But Mr. Rosenthal’s eye and passion took him to many other places: Cuba, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Vietnam.

His work was seen in numerous gallery and museum shows, but he also experimented with nontraditional settings. In the mid-1990s, for instance, his photographs of homeless people greeted theatergoers at Syracuse Stage arriving for a production of “A Christmas Carol,” and the same theater hung his portraits of refugees living in the Syracuse area in conjunction with its staging of “Our Town.”

Immigrants were also the focus of “Refugee: The Newest New Yorkers,” an exhibition seen in New York and several other cities.

“Hardship is certainly part of the story as Mr. Rosenthal tells it,” Holland Cotter wrote in a review of the show for The Times when it was at the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies in Philadelphia in 2001, “but so is success.

“The American dream is still alive here,” he continued; “so are the conflicts it entails as contrasting cultures and values abruptly meet, and people struggle to adapt to a new present while maintaining a hold on what’s treasurable in the past. The dynamic is endlessly fascinating, and Mr. Rosenthal is an alert, patient, receptive artist and observer.”

Among his other exhibitions that looked at that dynamic was “A Community of Many Worlds: Arab Americans in New York,” which opened at the Museum of the City of New York in the spring of 2002, not long after the Sept. 11 attacks. Some photographs from that show were included in “Muslim in New York,” a four-photographer exhibition now at the Laurie M. Tisch Gallery at JCC Manhattan.

Mr. Rosenthal is survived by his wife, Roberta Perrymapp, with whom he had a relationship of some 30 years, though they were married only in 2014. Other survivors include a son, Josh Klinefelter, and a sister, Brenda Rosenthal Naliboff.

Mr. Rosenthal was conscious of the criticism that photographs of people in difficult straits constitute a sort of voyeurism for the comfortable. In a 1989 essay in The Times, the art critic Richard B. Woodward said Mr. Rosenthal viewed his camera as a weapon against desensitization.

“Photography, in his view, may create victims,” Mr. Woodward wrote, “but at least it forces someone to look at them.”

Mr. Rosenthal once objected when someone labeled him an artist.

“I said: ‘I’m not an artist; I’m a messenger,’ ” he said.

By NEIL GENZLINGER NOV. 6, 2017 New York Times

Born1940
Died2017
BirthplaceBronx, NY
GenderMale
CitizenshipUnited States
Cultural HeritageEuropean-American
Light Work RelationshipArtist-in-Residence, 1992
Light Work PublicationsContact Sheet 74
Contact Sheet 97

Artwork

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Essays

The artists who participate in Light Work's Artist-in-Residence Program benefit from an uninterrupted month of work, and in exchange they often provide a fresh insight into the people and places that make up the Syracuse community. One of the freshest perspectives of the Syracuse Community offered by a visiting artist at Light Work in recent years is Mel Rosenthal's photographs of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees. Since 1985 Rosenthal has been photographing refugee communities across New York State. His project brought him to Syracuse on several occasions prior to his residency in May 1992. The contacts he made on previous trips provided him with an introduction to a Community that even the most informed residents of Syracuse don't know exists.

Cultural assimilation is a double edged sword that greets every generation of immigrants and political refugees. In high school we were taught that the United States is a melting pot of cultures from around the world that blend together to form a harmonious society. This analogy breaks down right from the beginning if we recognize that the fire that heats the pot also consumed the original inhabitants of this country. In his photographs, Rosenthal looks at this process of change within refugee communities and documents the evolution of gain and loss in the transition from one culture to another.

Rosenthal captures one aspect of this cultural transition in the photograph titled, 'Women of the Hmong Community.' The two women are sheltered by the shadow of a home a Syracuse neighborhood, and they appear to be seeking protection from the intensity of the glaring contrast they create with their surroundings. Yet the fascinating adornment of the womens' clothes adds a wonderful texture to the uniform lawns and simple architecture of the neighborhood.

In Rosenthal's photograph taken at a Vietnamese wedding, the only trace of non-western culture is a necklace worn by the bride. Rosenthal has crafted the photograph so that all of the activity within the frame leads our attention to the necklace. Floating on top of the intricate lace of the brides gown, the necklace becomes a beacon of the past amidst a ceremony which heralds a new beginning. In the third photograph reproduced here, two Cambodian children are caught in a quiet moment in their family's new apartment. The children face the camera bare chested and relaxed without any visible reminders to link this youngest generation of refugees to their home culture.

Like the intricacies that envelope the refugee communities that he documents, Rosenthal's photographs acknowledge the vitality of the refugees cultural heritage and record the changes that challenge the endurance of their culture like straw in an overpowering wind.

Mel Rosenthal is a free lance photographer and a Mentor for the Department of Photography at Empire State College in New York City.

Jeffrey Hoone (c)1992