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John Frank Keith

Born:
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1883

Died:
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1947

Biography

Keith worked as a bookkeeper in a fish market but spent weekends making photographs. His subjects were invariably the working-class families of Philadelphia's Kensington area. Never asking payment for his pictures, he gave them to the people he photographed.

Keith's informal archive is more than a collection of individuals: it is an intimate portrait of a neighborhood in the 1920s. Working in a documentary style reminiscent of Lewis Hine, but without Hine's social activism, Keith posed members of the community—usually children—on the front stoops of their urban row houses. His inexpensive camera dictated a consistent distance from the subjects, and his amateur-quality lens was responsible for the slightly unfocused distortion at the edge of the picture. Had he stood farther away, the camera's blur would have been too great; standing closer, he would have lost all reference to the neighborhood. Like itinerant photographers of the nineteenth century who counted on the similarities of circumstance and dress to compose a picture, Keith rarely changed the major elements of his photographs. Instead, he focused on the small details that did change: the difference in a door frame or the contrasting colors of shoes worn by two almost identical sisters.

Merry A. Foresta American Photographs: The First Century (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art with the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996)