by King Schoenfeld
Irv Schoenfeld was a midwestern amateur who in 1934 found a way to express his vision of the life around him with an innovative American camera, the Ansco Memo. As a young man moving into married life, Schoenfeld carried his Memo for decades, recording his life and the turbulent times of the Great Depression with his remarkable photography. That man was my father, Irving Schoenfeld (1916-2018).
Schoenfeld was born to first-generation German immigrants in Milwaukee, WI. Graduating from high school during the Great Depression, Irv took advantage of the city's public arts and trades programs to study all aspects of photography and try his hand at acting.
In 1934, about a decade after the Leica appeared and five years after the Ansco Corporation introduced its Memo camera, both using the ubiquitous 35mm movie film for still photography, Irv wrote to Ansco to plead for a Memo. A kindly executive offered him a lightly used model for five dollars. With that, Irv began 30 years of recording his life with the Memo.
His portfolio of images ranges from soft-focus, sepia-toned pictorial pastoral scenes shot in rural Milwaukee County, to candid documentary images of striking protestors in the street, to indoor, available-light pictures of short-order cooks and pool players. He settled on simply documenting his life, his wife-to-be, her family, their new home in the WPA-built Greenbelt town, the Village of Greendale, and their children. These family images, however, captured both decisive-moment, impromptu moments as well as carefully-planned and lighted portraits.
Schoenfeld's work was all the more remarkable because of his Memo's limited abilities. While adjustable, its lens was slow and the 35mm film, running vertically through the camera, captured half-frame-size images. When Irv pushed the Memo to capture people lit by only indoor or artificial lighting, he had to overcome slow shutter-speed blur and poor scale-focusing. Yet he captured many wonderful images under such conditions. In fact, the Memo proved to be an excellent visual note-taker—small, quiet, with a large, bright viewfinder, and the capacity to shoot up to 50 pictures on a single roll.
Though I learned all about photography from my father, even using his ancient Memo, only in recent years did I realize the scope of his photographic work—the work of a man with artistic vision and the daring to push the limits of his equipment to capture what he imagined.
In my new monograph on his work, I set Irv in the line of his forebears and the ethos of the Depression years for historical context. For camera collectors, I’ve included illustrations and information about the Ansco Memo system. And for those who love images that are beautiful or moving or revealing, I’ve included a generous selection.
These, the first published vintage photographs taken by the original 1927 Ansco memo 35mm camera, are featured in One Man's Camera: The Original Ansco Memo and the Photography of Irv Schoenfeld. The monograph is available (at cost) from lulu.com.
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