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America in black and white



How come no one ever tells me anything? Such as, for example, that Atascadero-based master photographer Joe Schwarz was quietly exhibiting some of his legendary folk photography at Linnaea’s Café this month?

Schwarz, 99, was born in Brooklyn in 1913. He served in the Marines as a combat photographer during World War II, and joined the Photo League—alongside other greats, such as Dorothea Lange—in 1930.

The images currently gracing the walls of Linnaea’s (they’ll be up through the month of January) are of the kind for which Schwartz is most known: documentary street photography capturing, with equal reverence, the lives of jazz stars and kids on tricycles roaming the streets.

Sarah Vaughn, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and David Howard share a table at L.A.’s Club Oasis, each of them dressed to the nines and grinning ear to ear, in a work titled Great American Musicians. Dizzy Gillespie, face wrinkling into an expression of laughter, sports a sharp-looking suit and tie. Elsewhere, hippies sit together on the grass, growing out their hair. Children attempt to scale a fence in a shot framed by ubiquitous Brooklyn brownstones.

Schwarz, whose work has been collected by the new Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African-American History and Culture, documented the disparate (and often conflicting) cultures and lifestyles of America, particularly in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. The civil rights movement is a major theme running through the images in the current show, depicted through photographs of the NAACP Civil Rights Convention and storefronts where the words “Whites Only” have been painted next to a more innocuous sign advertising “Light Lunches.”

But Schwarz seems less taken with epitomizing “the issues” of the day as with showing the humanity of the groups affected by those issues. The grinning kids in Tricycle Gang, easily bonding despite any differences of race and class, emphasize a common human experience, rather than a divided one.

The artist’s work can be found in the coffee table book Folk Photography: Poems I’ve Never Written ($60, and in the traveling show “The Radical Camera,” featuring a collection of works by Photo League photographers. Or just drop by Linnaea’s at 1110 Garden St. in downtown San Luis Obispo for a cup of coffee and a slice of history to go with it.

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