Leo Goldstein began capturing East Harlem in 1949 after he’d joined the New York Photo League, a photo club that originated around the beginning of the Great Depression. An immigrant of Russian-Jewish descent, Goldstein trained his lens on East Harlem – where he had lived for a time – and its newly established community of Puerto Ricans, which flourished following World War II.
Having remained largely unseen for the last 70 years, his photographs are now the focus of a new book, East Harlem: The Postwar Years. The images were edited by Régina Monfort from a selection of rescued prints that he had left behind and, since there are no remaining negatives, the book provided a way of archiving his work for future generations. However, it wasn’t just a case of preserving Goldstein’s photographic legacy; his work also makes a valuable contribution to the history of New York and the perception of the local community.
Writing in the preface, author and journalist Juan González recounts the biases and ostracism that the Puerto Rican community had faced, and how both tabloid papers and Hollywood productions helped to fuel prejudices, stereotyping and clashes. However, he highlights that there were people who recognised the resilience and positivity in these neighbourhoods, including photographers and activists – among them Goldstein.
“We who lived through those years in East Harlem can assure you, [Goldstein’s] lens was truer than any of the news articles, movies, or books of the era, and we are all enriched by the work he left behind,” he said.
While the likes of Frank Espada or Hiram Maristany are known for capturing the area (since known as El Barrio) from the 1960s onwards, Goldstein’s archive fills in the earlier missing pieces of an important picture.