Rescuing Photos that Captured an Era

By Libby Motika
Palisades News Contributor
Photos courtesy of the Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution 

Where do you start a biography? With a camera, in the case of Katherine Joseph, an ordinary American woman, who unknowingly recorded a slice of American social history while she was living it.

To her daughter Suzanne Hertzberg, Katherine’s life before marriage and family in the late 1930s and ‘40s was stunningly intriguing, so much so as to prompt her to write about it.

In sorting through the boxes of her mother’s black-and-white negatives after her death in 1990, Hertzberg found images of members of The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), which was once one of the largest labor unions in the United States, and a key player in the labor history of the 1920s and 1930s. She also came across photos of her mother’s barebones journey through Mexico in 1941— irresistible and historically illuminating.

Katherine Joseph, “Pins and Needles at the White House: A Command Performance,” New York, March 3, 1938. ©Richard and Suzanne Hertzberg

Katherine Joseph, “Pins and Needles at the White House: A Command Performance,” New York, March 3, 1938. ©Richard and Suzanne Hertzberg

An inveterate researcher and writer, Hertzberg focused her master’s thesis at USC on her mother’s decade as a professional photographer, long before she became the ‘50s mom her daughter knew.

After retiring last year from 20 years teaching history at Archer School, Hertzberg decided to revisit her original manuscript, adding material she had since gleaned and reshaping it for a general audience.

The longtime Palisades resident will present the remarkable story captured in her book, Katherine Joseph: Photographing an Era of Social Significance, on Thursday, Oct. 20, 6:30 p.m. at the Palisades Branch Library.

Katherine Joseph, “Parachute Factory,” New York, ca. 1944. ©Richard and Suzanne Hertzberg

Katherine Joseph, “Parachute Factory,” New York, ca. 1944. ©Richard and Suzanne Hertzberg

Given that very little of Katherine’s writing exists, Hertzberg had to rely on her own carefully annotated research and the diaries and letters written by Katherine’s Mexico traveling companion, Thelma Goldman. “My mother was not the only brave, adventuresome woman, certainly no Amelia Earhart, but the time and place are enormously important,” Hertzberg says. “One of my goals was to have my kids know about their grandmother.”

In many ways, Katherine’s early years followed the familiar immigrant story. Arriving from Russia, her father and uncles found their way by establishing a dry goods business in Chicago; her brothers opened a number of fashionable women’s shoe stores, Joseph Salon Shoes, that catered to wealthy customers in the Chicago suburbs and later in Beverly Hills.

Decidedly uninterested in school and dropping out of junior college, Katherine rebelled against working in the family business and left home to become an “emancipated woman.” Hertzberg discovered her mother’s 1930 appointment book wherein was recorded “dinner and dance dates, theater performances, weekends out of town and names of long-forgotten beaux.”

Unknown, “Portrait of the Photographer and her Darkroom,” New York, ca. 1943. ©Richard and Suzanne Hertzberg

Unknown, “Portrait of the Photographer and her Darkroom,” New York, ca. 1943. ©Richard and Suzanne Hertzberg

Though many questions about Katherine are not known—how she learned her photography craft and supported herself, how she left Chicago for New York and began her association with the ILGWU—her affinity for progressive politics can be understood. The devastating Depression that cast millions into poverty aroused a social concience in the country and spurred on the rise of unions and organized political action. Katherine became the official photographer with the ILGWU as the union was evolving from a small group of sweatshop workers to a political force with nearly half a million members.

Along with documenting the factory workers, Katherine photographed the union’s cultural activities. ILGWU President David Dubinsky, stirred by a union “way of life,” aimed to make it a center of athletics, artistic expression, socialization and creative performance. With that idea, Pins and Needles, a lighthearted drama that spoofed everything from Fascist European dictators to bigots in the Daughters of the American Revolution, premiered in New York. The show opened on Nov. 27, 1937 and closed in June 1940, after 1,108 performances.

Author Suzanne Hertzberg

Author Suzanne Hertzberg

Word-of-mouth was so enthusiastically positive that even Eleanor Roosevelt raved about it and invited the troupe to perform at the White House. By all accounts, the President loved the skits and asked for a photographer to commemorate the event. All in attendance had been asked to forfeit their cameras at the door, but Katherine had surreptitiously slipped hers into her purse. Responding to the President’s request, she stepped forward and immortalized the event with a photograph that ultimately became an important document in Roosevelt-era labor history, appearing in at least 10 national periodicals.

Hertzberg keeps the story moving with Katherine’s photos as her guide, not only chronicling her mother’s adventures, but also as a window to a mother whom she would not have recognized.

She knew her mother as reserved, but powerful in a quiet way. “Mother was extremely private. She was dazzled by my father, who was an enormous intellectual tour de force, and not an easy person. So to learn about her flamboyant joie de vivre made me happy.”

Fearlessness is the consistency her mother retained, Suzanne adds. Following her work with ILGWU, Katherine and two friends— Thelma, a Chicago labor organizer, and An- drée Vilas Graham, a French émigré— wrangled a job with the Willys-Overland Motor Company (famous for the Jeep) to promote the company’s Americar, “that even a woman can drive!”

The three women, young and attractive, set off in January 1941 on a “South of the Border” tour in an Americar to take photos featuring the car, “Willie,” and themselves against exotic backdrops. They traveled across the border at Laredo and headed south as Katherine recorded everything she saw, from primitive farms, orange groves, haciendas, thatched roofs, and small children everywhere to a remote mine in the Sierra Madre and the broad boulevards and modern apartment buildings of Mexico City.

In order to counter the growing presence of Germans and German sympathies in Mexico, the Roosevelt administration launched a counteroffensive by collaborating with Hollywood to stage a Goodwill Fiesta in Mexico City. A delegation of movie stars flew there in April 1941 to participate in a glamorous reception at the American Embassy, Easter Sunday festivities, a rodeo, a bullfight and a barbecue.

Katherine managed to secure press credentials to the events, taking pictures and mingling with the likes of Norma Shearer, Mickey Rooney, Wallace Beery and Johnny “Tarzan” Weissmuller.

Katherine Joseph, “Americar,” published in “Katherine Joseph’s Photo Scrap Book of Acapulco,” Mexico Speaks, October 1941. ©Richard and Suzanne Hertzberg

Katherine Joseph, “Americar,” published in “Katherine Joseph’s Photo Scrap Book of Acapulco,” Mexico Speaks, October 1941. ©Richard and Suzanne Hertzberg

When the Americar adventure ended in June 1941, Katherine returned to New York and jumped into a frenzied time as America prepared for war. Her photographs during the war years chronicle the many contributions of the American labor force to an Allied victory. Katherine also married Arthur Hertzberg in the spring of 1944, and worked her last professional assignment that July. All her photos were retired to cardboard boxes.

Unknown, “Visiting Tayoltita Mine,” left to right: Katherine Joseph, Thelma Goldman, and Andrée Vilas Graham, Tayoltita, Durango, Mexico, March 1941. ©Richard and Suzanne Hertzberg

Unknown, “Visiting Tayoltita Mine,” left to right: Katherine Joseph, Thelma Goldman, and Andrée Vilas Graham, Tayoltita, Durango, Mexico, March 1941. ©Richard and Suzanne Hertzberg

Katherine and Arthur, with their two children, moved to Pacific Palisades in the mid-1950s and bought a house on Via de la Paz.

While Suzanne’s mother never talked about those early years as a photographer, and never picked up a camera except for family snapshots, she wasn’t finished. After 20 years as a homemaker, she started a long career in the travel industry, owning her own business.

“I didn’t want to make my mother into this heroic figure, but rather a person with a sense of adventure who went for what she wanted,” Suzanne says. “She shared what she wanted me to know. I told her story the way she would have told it. Does one have the right to reveal more?”

Katherine Joseph’s archive now resides in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Hertzberg’s free talk on Oct. 20 is hosted by the Friends of the Palisades Library.

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