Reiss, Sam.

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Samuel Reiss was among the most prominent and prolific photographers of the labor movement in New York City from the late 1940s until his death in 1975. During the three decades that Reiss earned a living with his camera, he documented a changing work force in a changing city, building a reputation as "Labor's photographer." Week by week, throughout his career, Reiss made photographs that document New York's labor movement during its most active, influential, and progressive years.

Born in New York City in 1910, Reiss was the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants.He grew up in the city, where his father worked as a tailor. Like many children of New Yorkers who worked in the garment industry, Reiss hoped to escape having to make a living in an economic sector beleaguered by difficult working conditions and low pay. After graduating from Manhattan's Stuyvesant High School in 1929, Reiss enrolled at New York University as a pre-dental major, intending to join the ranks of professionals by becoming a dentist. At the University he attended only night classes to allow him to work a garment-industry job during the day. By January of 1933, after four years, Reiss had managed to accrue two years of college credits. It was then that his father suffered a stroke that left him disabled; Reiss dropped out of school to help support his family and found full-time employment as a shipping clerk at a clothing factory in the men's garment district.

In 1936, Reiss enrolled in evening photography classes at the Brooklyn Museum's Art School, where he remembered that his first instructor was Tom O'Scheckel, a pictorialist photographer who had served as president of the Pictorial Photographers of America. Using a simple wooden box camera, Reiss began photographing during his lunch hour; he photographed co-workers as well as other laborers on the streets of New York City. In 1938 he wed Helen Handwerger; two daughters, Jessie and Harriet, were born to them.

During World War II, Reiss found work as a machinist, but when his shop struck in 1946, he used the enforced hiatus to take the opportunity to attempt to earn his living with photography. He started by shooting baby pictures, weddings, and bar mitvah celebrations, but did not meet with success until he started to specialize as a press photographer for labor union publications. He received his first labor news assignment in 1947, when he was hired to shoot some photographs for the RWDSU Record,the newspaper of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Workers Union. Throughout his nearly thirty-year career, the RWDSU, as well as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, the Transport Workers Union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union remained among Reiss’ major clients, employing him regularly to document the activities of their organizations, although he also shot for dozens of other labor unions and locals.

In addition to his labor union and other organizational clients, Reiss continued to do private commercial photography. However, it is worth noting that the subjects of many of these photographs were labor figures and their families; Reiss was frequently a union official's choice of photographer for photographing personal family events such as weddings and birthdays, or children's portraits.

Reiss continued to work until only a few months before his death from cancer in December 1975. That same year, a retrospective exhibit of his work was mounted by his daughter, Jessie, and displayed at the gallery of the labor union, District Council 37.

From the guide to the Sam Reiss Photographs - Part II: Photographic Prints, Bulk, 1950-1975, Circa 1930-1975, (Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Guide to the Sam Reiss Photographs, circa 1930-1975 Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
Role Title Holding Repository
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associatedWith Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963 person
associatedWith Kennedy, Robert F., 1925-1968 person
associatedWith King, Coretta Scott, 1927-2006 person
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associatedWith Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union. Local 1199 Drug, Hospital, and Health Care Employees Union (New York, N.Y.). corporateBody
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associatedWith Williams, Harrison A., Senator person
associatedWith Wilson, Malcolm, Governor, 1914-2000 person
associatedWith Zimmerman, Charles S., 1896-1983 person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Philadelphia (Pa.).
Union Square (New York, N.Y.)


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SNAC ID: 56354326