John Albok: Tailor/Photographer/American

If life forced him to cut cloth to other men's measurements, he made sure that his art was cut to his own. He possessed that great and necessary human quality -- empathy -- the ability to see through our differences to our common humanity.
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There are times when I look at this amazing country wounded by a Bush-inflicted war, greed, neglect, and venomous fear-mongering, and I wonder how long it will take to recover from the squandered years of this presidency. Sure, the '08 election may help by bringing in some real changes. For starters, we could get better leaders at the top. What we also need are better leaders at the bottom; more people who recognize their kinship in that much scoffed at notion of a family of man. Perhaps that's asking too much of those struggling to get by from paycheck to paycheck. But then I think of an immigrant tailor named John Albok and I feel it is all very possible.

I don't expect you to know who Albok was. I didn't for much of my life although he lived and worked as a tailor a few blocks from my family's apartment when I was a teen-ager in New York. If I passed his store as I made my way to Central Park all I would have seen was an aging tailor bent over his sewing machine near his shop window on Madison Avenue. Albok, unknown to me and most of the world, was one of the great photographers of New York City from the nineteen thirties through the eighties. Although his photographic work is now treasured by private collectors and museums, his was not a name to reckon with during his lifetime which spanned the golden age of American photography with such stars as Margaret Bourke White, Walker Evans, and Bernice Abbott. John Albok regarded himself as an amateur who simply made a photographic record of the world he saw around his home and shop. But he was so much more than that and his life was a triumph of genius and determination over adversity.

I first heard of Albok after his death in 1982 when I happened to read his obituary in The New York Times. He was just beginning to glean some recognition for his work before he died. I clipped his obit, and tossed it into a file I marked "interesting." And I didn't take it out again for a decade. The facts of his life were simple enough. Born in 1894, he was apprenticed as a boy to a tailor in his native Hungary. His Catholic family was so poor that his parents and his sister literally starved to death in Eastern Europe in those desperate years immediately following the First World War.

As a man of twenty-six he boarded a ship for the United States with no formal education and little more than an old box camera and his tailor's craft to provide him with a life and a living. Upon arriving in New York in 1920 he had managed to earn twenty dollars by taking pictures of his fellow steerage passengers in between their violent bouts of sea-sickness. He eventually opened his own small tailor shop to support his new family; a wife and daughter, determined that they would not suffer as his family had in Europe. And yet he found the time to take extraordinary photographs of New York places and faces while working long hours at his sewing machine.

Albok's finest photographs are genre studies of men at work, children at play, and Central Park in all its seasons. These black and white silver and platinum gelatin prints captured his New York world in light and shadows. Google John Albok and you are in for a treat. Among Albok's many photos are those of the winter sun casting shadows on a fresh snow in Central Park, so crisp it helps me to recall my own childhood pleasure in a first snowfall. He was a master photographer of street children at play revealing their sassiness and their innocence against the background of worn city streets.

There was also the serious social observer in Albok, revealed in his photos of African Americans in the struggling Harlem of the thirties and early forties, compassionate studies of those suffering the most during the Depression. "Going Places" is a marvelous picture of a forlorn looking black man, his children piled high on broken crates making their weary progress down a city street in a horse drawn cart. It's the blues without a guitar but with all the pain and the beauty. Look at the faces of Albok's people and you see much more than their poverty. Albok captures the dignity in a poor man's life by regarding him as an individual, not as a class or a race.

In "Sweet Potato Man" taken in 1944, a street peddler stands by his cart, isolated, without customers, with only some children nearby in the deepening shadows, the funnel of his cart issuing a stream of smoke that rises in the early evening sky like evaporating hopes, a perfectly balanced design by a photo-artist with a great eye and a love of people who struggled through difficult lives. There is a great sadness in this picture but the beauty of its composition is inescapable, and it honors the humanity of its subject.

Among my personal favorites are scenes from the 1939-40 New York Worlds Fair; a great event in its time for New Yorkers like my family and the many visitors from around the world. A couple of years ago I took out that "interesting" obit file and used it as inspiration for a musical comedy I was writing with the late composer Wally Harper, one that we first called "Say Yes," and later revised as "This Fair World." The plot concerned the family of a gentle store keeper who like Albok was an amateur photographer, and it was set against the New York of the fair that Albok photographed. The musical had its premiere in 2000 at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. Beneath its light hearted tone was an attempt to deal with the issue of class distinctions in America, one of the great secrets that we Americans don't often like to acknowledge.

On July 30, 2000, a week prior to its opening, The New York Times published an article I had written about my preoccupation with the memorabilia of that fair: "Art/Architecture - Treasures of a Past Glowing with Hope." It was a fair I had attended with my family as a small boy. We were eager to see the much touted "World of Tomorrow" that introduced us to futuristic buildings of geometric shapes with a touch of Oz and early Disneyland by way of the Bauhaus. It was a fair of Dali paintings and giveaway Heinz pickle pins, reverential displays of washing machines, and models of superhighways that would never have a traffic jam; a celebration of the new world a comin' after the Depression that was slowly drawing to an end. It was also a world on the brink of war. While John Albok was photographing this fair dedicated to world peace and the brotherhood of man, that brilliant photo-sociopath Leni Riefenstahl was glorifying Hitler through her photographs of Nazi rallies. Albok's art was a vote for life and human dignity while Riefensthal's was a glorification of brute power and a cult of death.

After my article appeared in print I received a phone call from Albok's daughter Ilona, and we began a friendship that has lasted for nearly a decade. I have yet to meet Ilona in a face to face, we talk on the phone occasionally, or send letters, yet I consider her a good friend to me and my family. Ilona, a beautiful cabaret artist and Broadway singer in her youth, lives in retirement in Dallas and she no longer travels to NYC. I think of her as a Pen Pal - that was what we called such friendships in my youth that were kept up by writing letters - long before anyone thought up email - email being something Ilona stubbornly refuses to accept as a civilized way to communicate. She is a woman of immense spirit and generosity who devotes herself to the care of innumerable animals and exhibitions of her late father's work. We soon discovered that we had at different times attended the High School of Music & Art in New York, a public school then located in Harlem that was built on the belief that the study of the arts was not merely a luxury for the rich but a necessity for every city kid with a talent worth developing. That was the real "no child left behind" -- not the one of today devoted to teaching kids to pass tests at the cost of a real education. Most of all, we shared a view of the world nurtured in the New Deal and demonstrated by Albok's photographs that the least of us must matter to all of us. If that sounds like an old lyric from a Pete Seeger song, well, it remains a very good song, still worth singing.

I find Albok's life story more important than ever in these days of heightened anti-immigrant feeling. Albok came to this country right before new laws were instituted that sharply restricted immigration. Lacking the money for a formal education did not prevent him from becoming a superb citizen, a diligent worker, a fine artist, and a literate man. His was a life of chances denied and opportunities seized. If life forced him to cut cloth to other men's measurements, he made sure that his art was cut to his own. And that art was infused with his love for people. He possessed that great and necessary human quality -- empathy -- the ability to see through our differences to our common humanity -- recognizing the pain and joy that we all experience in our lives. His work is an illustration of the eighteenth century poet William Blake's lines "To see a World in a Grain of Sand/ And a Heaven in a Wild Flower/ Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/ And eternity in an hour." It's nice to know that in the mid twentieth century a fine artist walked among us in the guise of an immigrant tailor who owned a simple box camera, a sharp eye, and a great heart.