SAM REISS: EYEWITNESS TO LABOR HISTORY

Often referred to as "labor's photographer," Sam Reiss used his camera to capture historic events that shaped American labor. His image of George Meany and Walter Reuther at the merger convention of the AFL-CIO in 1955 is a potent representation of a new era in labor history. While he recorded other national labor-related events, such as the march in support of the sanitation workers strike in Memphis in 1968 (held the day before Martin Luther King's funeral), and the Poor People's March on Washington in the same year, it was mostly in New York City that Reiss recorded the day-to-day building of a labor movement. From 1947 to 1975, he photographed labor union membership meetings, marches, strikes, demonstrations, picnics, banquets and other events. He climbed scaffolds, picked his way through abandoned tenements, and followed local union chiefs and national and international leaders (such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and U Thant), going wherever the concerns of labor took him. Although he worked for many unions, he was chiefly associated with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, the Transport Workers Union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the New York City Central Labor Council, and District 1199, hospital workers.

But Reiss was not called a labor photographer solely because his clients were in the labor movement. He earned that designation because he himself was a member of the labor movement. He cared deeply about workers' rights and he felt that his work carried with it many responsibilities, foremost among them portraying the dignity of work and workers. As a result, he was trusted by trade unionists and could move freely among them taking his pictures. In addition, Reiss concerned himself with the issue of poverty in one of the nation's great cities, as well as the fate of the state of Israel and combatting antisemitism.

Reiss was the son of immigrants; his father was a tailor. When he graduated from Manhattan's Stuyvesant High School, Reiss enrolled in New York University's pre-dental program. But the Depression put an end to his plans for a career in dentistry. Instead, he worked as a packing clerk in the men's garment district on lower Fifth Avenue. Around 1932, while still employed as a clerk, Reiss developed an interest in photography. He began to take night courses in photography at the Brooklyn Museum. During his lunch hours he took photographs of workers in the street, pushing handtrucks, swapping stories, watching the passing scene. During World War II, Reiss became a machinist. When his shop went out on strike in 1946, Reiss decided to become a full-time photographer. He began by taking baby pictures and photographing social functions. It was at one such event that Reiss met the editor for the newspaper of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Workers Union. The editor hired Reiss to shoot a few pictures. Soon, the RWDSU became Reiss's first account. Regular work for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America followed. Reiss's artistry, commitment, and journalistic instincts gained recognition throughout the labor movement and his career was established.

In 1975, the Metropolitan Labor Press Council and District Council 37 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees hosted a retrospective exhibit of Sam Reiss's photographs, entitled, "An Eyewitness to Labor History, 1948-1975." As the exhibit made abundantly clear, after twenty-nine years Reiss's work had become a visual history of the New York City labor movement. Although he was gravely ill at the time, Reiss, assisted by his daughter, Jessie, researched and selected what he considered to be his finest photographs for the exhibit. Several weeks after its opening, he died.

In the 1980s, Sam Reiss's family donated the photographs assembled for the 1975 exhibit, as well as some 80,000 negatives--most of Reiss's life work--to the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. The 128 photographs selected for this online exhibition of Reiss's images represent only a tiny fraction of this donation, yet they suggest the scope and richness of Reiss's work.


The online exhibition is arranged in two sections:
By Year and By Subject.

The images in this exhibit (as well as other photographs in the Sam Reiss Collection) may not be reproduced without written permission from the Reiss family or from the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives.

For more infomation, contact:

Erika Gottfried
Curator of Nonprint Collections
Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives/
Tamiment Institute Library
New York University
70 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012
Telephone: 212-998-2635/30
Fax: 212-995-4070
e-mail: erika.gottfried@nyu.edu