Two new exhibitions at the Hudson River Museum reflect the institution’s refocused mission to represent the communities it serves.
The first, titled “Can I Get A Witness,” includes 45 photos by the award-winning, contemporary American photographer Herb Snitzer. The second, “Through Our Eyes: Milestones and Memories of African Americans in Yonkers,” is the culmination of a yearlong project.
The Snitzer exhibit, which is on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida, documents the struggle for equality and the exultation of the human spirit.
“Snitzer came to New York in the late 1950s, and it was a defining moment for photojournalism,” curator Laura Vookles said. “He saw the power of photojournalism to make a statement that would do something and that would be meaningful. So a lot of his photographs have this element of showing people’s lives and also documenting civil rights.”
Snitzer’s parents fled the pogroms in Ukraine, which might be why he has a passion for human rights, according to Vookles. “And he was also just a good person,” she added.
Snitzer, now in his 80s, is of Jewish descent, but became a Quaker. He resides in St. Petersburg.
“These are not just any photos,” Vookles said. “Snitzer was incredibly gifted. His skill at adjusting the focus and deciding how he’s going to use each photo is amazing.”
The exhibit starts with photographs of New York City street scenes at night where children of different races are playing, then features intimate shots of iconic jazz musicians from the 1950s and ’60s, including John Coltrane, Nina Simone and Miles Davis.
“Even all the pictures of jazz, he sees as shedding light on what was a difficult lifestyle, that there was struggle involved,” Vookles said. “People were working so hard that they were exhausted. And the fact that they participated in making jazz music was in itself an act of protest and self-expression that was really important.”
In one photo, Louis Armstrong stands outside his home in Queens, looking worn out in between draws on a cigarette. In another photo, Simone sits back in a chair laughing, which was not typically how she was photographed.
The exhibit also includes powerful images and collages that focus on the civil rights movement and activism from the late ’50s until today, including a Pride Parade in St. Petersburg.
In the fall of 2018, curator Christian Stegall began soliciting photographs for “Through Our Eyes.” He received about 700 submissions.
The museum was awarded a Kress Interpretive Fellowship, which funded the hiring of Stegall for the project. The Kress Foundation designed its fellowship program to provide mentored professional development by curators and museum educators. Stegall, a native of Georgia, earned a master’s degree in history last year from the Cooperstown Graduate Program at SUNY Oneonta with a goal of working in museums.
The exhibit shares photos from organizations that African-Americans founded, like the Vulcan Society and Yonkers Guardians, and photos of African-American churches in Yonkers, the first of which was founded in 1879.
The oldest photo in the exhibition, dated 1907, shows a house at 140 Warburton Ave., which belonged to Francis J. Moultrie, a successful caterer. The most recent photo, from 2015, is of Hudson River Museum security guard Dennis Fields posing for photographer Jordan Matter at the opening of Matter’s exhibition “Dancers Among Us.” In the photo, Fields stands with his left leg perpendicular to his right.
“I want people to see how connected this community is and how people are supportive of one another,” Stegall said. “I often say if everyone on the wall could come off and have a conversation, it would be a very lively room. Often people on this wall know people on the other side. Even though they are separated by theme, their paths have crossed in some way, shape or form.”
In a corner of the exhibit’s gallery is an installation about Harry’s Shoe Repair, including photos, letters and video. The shop was owned by Perstine Wesley and was located off of Getty Square.
“Wherever you go in communities across the nation, there’s an institutional place where everybody goes to learn about the community and have a chat, and for Yonkers, that was Harry’s Shoe Repair,” Stegall said.
Stegall hopes the community finds recognition from the walls of photographs.
“We had the opening last month,” Stegall said. “Just to see people shed tears, and the nice things people wrote, it really validates that their history is important.”
“Can I Get A Witness” is on view through Aug. 18, and “Through Our Eyes” until Nov. 3.