Simpson Kalisher: New York Street Photography

Simpson Kalisher, an American photographer born in the Bronx in 1926, passed away on June 13 in Delray Beach, Florida, at the age of 96. Renowned for his street photography capturing the essence of urban American life in the 1950s and ’60s, Kalisher’s work stood out for its social empathy and imagination.
A member of the generation of dynamic New York street photographers from the 1920s, Kalisher, alongside figures like Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, and Garry Winogrand, contributed to the visual narrative of the time. Lucy Sante, in the foreword to Kalisher’s book “The Alienated Photographer” (2011), hailed him as a guiding figure through a rapidly changing era, capturing both the strict yet richer past and glimpses of the anarchic future.
Kalisher’s street-focused photography, described as “atmospheric urban noir,” showcased scenes from everyday life—a pugnacious child outside a church, a driver sticking his tongue out, or a fed-up man pushing his stalled car.
His work found a place in significant exhibitions, including the Museum of Modern Art’s “Family of Man” (1955) and “Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960” (1978). Noteworthy among his books by him is “Railroad Men: A Book of Photographs and Collected Stories” (1961), which provided gritty portraits of the unsung workers maintaining train tracks during the decline of train travel.
Kalisher, who also ventured into commercial projects, published “Propaganda and Other Photographs” (1976), exploring the neutral aspects of the term and his attempt to illustrate propaganda in everyday life.
Described as a “brutal parodist of pictorial stereotypes” by art historian Ian Jeffrey, Kalisher managed to establish a distinct voice in the photography scene. Sarah Meister, executive director of Aperture, noted his remarkable ability to maintain an individual voice amid commercial projects that were often perceived as limiting a photographer’s creative independence.
Born to Polish immigrants, Kalisher served in the Army after being drafted in 1944 and later completed his education at Queens College. His early photographs of him were published in The New York Times in 1947, and he initially pursued commercial photography, contributing to corporate annual reports and magazines.
Survived by his daughter and two sons, Kalisher’s legacy extends beyond his prolific career. In his reflections on photography, he pondered the line between capturing images and creating art in a world saturated with photographs, emphasizing the challenges and nuances of the medium.

A portrait of Simpson Kalisher

About the Author

Simpson Kalisher, an American photojournalist and street photographer born in 1926, gained national recognition with his 1961 book, “Railroad Men: A Book of Photographs and Collected Stories.” Originally conceived from an unpublished magazine assignment, the book showcased candid moments of men working on trains and in railway yards, accompanied by oral histories. Kalisher aimed to capture the intensity of conflicts, heroes, villains, legends, and songs, while also highlighting lighter moments of human interaction.
Despite his focus on commercial commissions, Kalisher contributed to significant exhibitions like “The Family of Man” (1955) and “Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960” (1978) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. He went on to publish two more photographic books, “Propaganda and Other Photographs” (1976) and “The Alienated Photographer” (2011).
In a 1962 review of “Railroad Men,” Hugh Edwards associated Kalisher’s work with a tradition of realism dating back to the daguerreotype, following the lineage of Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, and W. Eugene Smith. Edwards emphasized the book’s overarching themes of human dignity and character. He held a solo exhibition of Kalisher’s work and acquired a portfolio of photographs from the series, praising them as “impossible to forget and always good to remember.”


Simpson Kalisher: New York Street Photography
December 7, 2023 – February 2, 2024
Keith de Lellis Gallery – New York


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