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