Still capturing our attention

People The Arts

May 1, 2022

Featured Image: Teenage Boys, Circa 1946-1950, Spanish Harlem

by Sharon Smith

photographs courtesy the Sonia Handelman Meyer photography archive

At age 102, it’s been years since Sonia Handelman Meyer picked up a camera, but she still talks about photography — and future exhibits — with clarity, specificity and excitement. One can almost picture her walking the streets of New York City decades ago, quietly capturing candid images of people going about their everyday lives. Some of her favorite “street scenes” line the wall of her home at Waltonwood, a continuing-care community in Cotswold. Many others are housed permanently in museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Jewish Museum in New York and the Mint Museum.

“I never thought I was good,” Handelman Meyer says with a half-shrug and small smile. But, she quickly speaks to why the people in her images are important — many of them immigrants, minorities and children in Harlem, Brooklyn and the Village.

A couple in Harlem, NY leans on a railing talking while two onlookers watch circa 1946-1950
Love, Circa 1946-1950, Harlem
An intersection circa 1946-1950 that features a pedestrian in a fedora crossing the street in front of a bus.
Third Avenue El at East 20th Street, Circa 1946-1950
New York City
A child circa 1947-48 in a hospital in Harlem, NY.
Beautiful Boy, Sydenham Hospital, Circa 1947-48

Handelman Meyer got her start in the 1940s as a member and secretary of the New York Photo League, a forum and incubator for world-renowned photographers. As her artist statement reads, “Mostly, I photographed children and reflections of my city — rough-edged, tender and very beautiful in its diversity.”

This year, part of her collection is scheduled to be on exhibit in Poland. Her son, Joe Meyer, who manages the Sonia Handelman Meyer Photography Archive, says his mother’s works will also be part of an upcoming PBS documentary. Two books are also in the works. 

Yet, for the better part of 50 years, her photographs sat in boxes, untouched. The Photo League disbanded, a victim of the McCarthyism era, and Handelman Meyer focused on family. It wasn’t until she moved to Charlotte in her 80s, that she and her son connected with local photographers and gallery owners who helped put Handelman Meyer’s work on exhibit.

An elderly woman sits on a couch wearing a multicolored-jewel toned scarf
Sonia Handelman Meyer

Lili Corbus, emeritus associate professor of art history at UNC Charlotte, was among the group of Charlotte creatives who helped bring attention to the collection 20 years ago. “Sonia is a treasure; her insightful photographs comprise some of the best examples of mid-century documentary photography in the U.S., wherein significant issues relating to all areas of social justice are brought into sharp and compelling focus,” Corbus says, about the woman she also counts a dear friend.

Even now, Handelman Meyer says she’s stunned by the public interest. Her son sees it differently, noting the historic importance of the images coupled with his mother’s first-person narrative. “Once she gets going, it’s beautiful — the way she speaks,” Meyer says about his mother. Then, speaking directly to her, “You have a message behind these images that you want to be perpetuated. Those moments are locked in time, thanks to you, and they’re very meaningful.”  SP

Intel of Your Wildest Dreams!


Good stuff, right? Sign up to get our newsletter delivered to your inbox every Friday. It’s free, so no excuses.


By entering your email address you are agreeing to our TERMS OF USE