Capturing the 1934 San Francisco Strike

Dorothea Lange's Humanist Documentary Photography

Dorothea Lange is known for her humanist documentary photography of people and a nation in crisis during the Great Depression and World War II. While she traveled often, working as a photojournalist for government-sponsored programs, San Francisco was important in shaping Lange's democratic worldview and her influential documentary style.

In her early twenties, Lange and a friend decided to travel the world taking photographs. They ran out of money in San Francisco and Lange started working at a photo-developing counter and later opened an upscale portrait studio that she ran for sixteen years. When the Great Depression hit, she began seeing the social unrest in the streets below from the window of her studio. The first work she made that was concerned with social welfare was White Angel Breadline in 1933. Unsure of this new direction in her work, she hung it behind the counter at her portrait studio, to the expressed confusion of her customers.

"A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera. I have only touched [life] with this wonderful democratic instrument, the camera." —Dorothea Lange

By 1934, in San Francisco, "there were Communists, mass meetings, and demonstrations...a good deal of social ferment." The present work was taken in August 1934, a few months after a longshoremen strike grew into a general strike of over 150,000 workers in San Francisco. The signs speak out against the unfair practices of "German bosses" who tried to break the strikes and the American press, who, under direction of the government, attempted to discredit strike leaders by branding them as Communists (some were, but most were not). The stern, immovable presence of the police officer, barricading the viewer from the crowd, tells of the violent clash ("Bloody Thursday") between protesters and police that had occurred on July 5th. To either side of the dark, tense, columnar officer, is an old man with a cane and a young girl looking directly at the viewer.

Dorothea Lange, Salvation Army, San Francisco, April 1939

Other photographs by Lange from this time capture unemployment lines and soup kitchens, but others show the resiliency that persisted: members of the Salvation Army play instruments and sing; men, without work, sit together, talking in the bright midday sun; and, most importantly, as seen in the present lot, people strike to bring about greater equality in hard times. Though their situation was dire, Lange captured the individual's right to dignity, hope and communion. Her photographs came to embody not just the darkness of the era, but its optimism and strength as well.

From the strike depicted in this photograph, the longshoremen (and workers in other industries) received higher pay, lower weekly work hours and more fair hiring practices and the win was a catalyst for the industrial unionism that emerged in the 1930s.

We need not be seduced into evasion of it any more than we need be appalled by it into silence.…Bad as it is, the world is potentially full of good photographs. But to be good, photographs have to be full of the world.

Dorothea Lange

The Mark Isaacson
and Greg Nacozy Collection

The Collection of Mark Isaacson and Greg Nacozy includes over two-hundred works from one of the most significant figures in mid-century collecting. Mark established the influential Fifty/50 gallery in New York in 1981 (later partnering with Mark McDonald and Ralph Cutler in 1983), which shaped the tastes and collecting habits of many and brought furniture, decorative arts and jewelry from the 1930s, 40s and 50s to the forefront of the market at a time when they were largely overlooked.

Greg Nacozy and Mark Isaacson in Venice, c. 1985 

Fifty/50’s and Mark’s legacy is most closely associated with bringing Italian art glass to the United States (Mark even advised the MET on their Italian glass collection) and raising the profile of mid-century furniture and American studio jewelry and ceramics; iconic examples of each are represented in this auction, including an early Rudder Stool by Isamu Noguchi, Charlotte Perriand’s and Pierre Jeanneret’s Bahut No. 2, a Gerrit Rietveld Zig-Zag chair, pottery by Edwin and Mary Scheier and Fausto Melotti, and Venini glassworks.

The most exciting aspects of this auction are the more intimate ones—the works from Mark's and Greg's personal collection that speak to Mark's eclectic taste, his boundless curiosity and sensitivity toward objects and art, and how generous he was in sharing his interests with others and letting them share with him. Standouts include several works by Robert Mapplethorpe—who was close friends with Mark, photographed several Fifty/50 catalogs and got many of the ceramics in his photographs from the gallery—the ecstatic wood construction Wild Plant by Leo Amino, a painting by Ralston Crawford of a spectacularly minimalist skyscraper façade, and photographic works by Man Ray, Edward Weston, Lynn Davis and Dorothea Lange.

Mark with Ed and Mary Scheier; Robert Mapplethorpe and Mark

This auction also features many works that tie together the thread of Mark’s collecting practices, going beyond the downtown New York sensibilities of the 1980s and showing the scope of eras and cultures that interested him; the sgraffito incisions on a 1940s Scheier vase echo the geometric features of a Senufo Kpeliye'e mask, the entrancing and complex shadows of a grain elevator in a photograph by Ralston Crawford contrast with the severe plainness of a New York City step-back building captured by Walker Evans, and the radical gestures of gay image making are seen in the works of George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus and Robert Loughlin. One of the artists in this sale, George Dureau, a photographer from New Orleans (where Greg is also from) who greatly influenced Mapplethorpe early in his career, perhaps best captures the spirit of this collection, saying about his own work:

“I live a warm, involved, humanist sort of life. There are lots of people passing through it. I have exciting experiences and learn things about people. They always go into my art. I cannot have an experience and it not go into my art.”
Mark and a friend at Brimfield; Mark's and Greg's apartment; Mark and Greg at The Armory Show

Fifty/50 gallery reshaped the collecting market during its twelve-year existence, closing in 1993 after Mark passed away from AIDS; his partner Greg has cared for the collection since.  The Collection of Mark Isaacson and Greg Nacozy offers an opportunity to see a short but impactful life lived through an enthusiasm for art and design, one that inspired many to see and appreciate objects and live with them as fully as Mark did.