Ben Shahn in the American Scene
In the 1920s Ben Shahn became part of the social realism movement. Social Realism is a term used to describe the works of American artists during the Depression era who were devoted to depicting the social troubles of the suffering urban lower class: urban decay, labor strikes, and poverty. The movement is divided into two groups of artists with different approaches. The Social Realists were devoted to depicting the social troubles of the suffering urban lower class. The Regionalists, on the other hand, painted more positive subjects, hoping to lead the nation out of the depression by providing hope for a better future.
His street photographs, taken between 1932 and 1935, defined urban life through the prosaic activities of ordinary people. Using a handheld 35 mm Leica camera, Shahn captured scenes of everyday life in Manhattan neighborhoods. These images illustrated unemployment, poverty, protest, immigration, and social reform issues during the Great Depression. Compelling examples of social-realist art in their own right, Shahn's photographs also inspired much of the work he was more widely known for: his socially conscious paintings and graphic works, as well as his public mural projects that promoted social reform programs of the day.
Text and lettering formed an integral part of his designs and his work was often inspired by news reports. His concern for political and social issues of the day are evident in his series of 23 paintings concerning the Sacco-Vanzetti trial. His painting Vacant Lot (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Conn.) exhibits a poetic realism, whereas his more abstract works are characterized by terse, incisive lines and a lyric ic intensity of color.
*Information taken from "Ben Shahn's New York: The Photography of Modern Times"