Eyewitness to Labor History
(This article was first published in the November/December 2004 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine.)
The photography of a dedicated unionist with an artist’s eye is now available online, in an exhibit sponsored by the Tamiment Library at New York University.
The images captured by Sam Reiss, known to many as “labor’s photographer,” provide a rich visual legacy of the struggle for workers’ rights. From the Great Depression through the rise of the modern labor and Civil Rights movements, Reiss helped document the fight for decent wages and dignity and respect on the job.
Born in 1910 to Polish immigrant parents, Reiss had hopes of becoming a dentist. After finishing high school, however, hard times derailed his enrollment in a college pre-dental program, and he went to work as a packing clerk in New York City’s garment industry.
Reiss took up photography in the early 1930s. He honed his art through night school and by spending his lunch hour taking pictures — most notably of workers in the streets. During World War II, Reiss, by then working as a machinist, began to pursue photography full-time when his factory went on strike.
His photos for publications of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America soon gained him recognition for artistry, commitment, and journalistic instinct. His reputation as a talented photographer soon spread through the labor movement.
From 1947 until just before his death in 1975, Reiss documented union meetings, picket lines, banquets, etc. He also photographed workers at construction sites, and in factories, laundries, hospitals, and schools.
However, Reiss was not merely a labor photographer. Though he worked largely for unions, he became an important chronicler of the struggles for racial and economic justice. During the turbulent 1960s, Reiss shot pictures wherever he went, from the tenement neighborhoods of New York to the streets of Memphis during the sanitation workers strike; from the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the Poor People’s March on Washington DC.
Many Reiss photos have achieved iconic status, including the image of Walter Reuther and George Meany jointly wielding the gavel when the AFL and CIO merged in 1954.
The online exhibit of Reiss’s work includes about 140 of the more than 80,000 images he left behind. More are on the way, thanks to a grant from the National Archives and Records Administration. To see more of the Reiss’ photography, click here.