Photographer John Frank Keith wandered Philadelphia in the 1920s, capturing scenes of people in front of their houses. The photographs tightly frame groups of people—drinking, playing, babysitting, hanging out—against backdrops of South Philadelphia brick and concrete. The Library Company of Philadelphia offers a great set of Keith images on its Flickr page, as well as a digital exhibition of his work.
The Library Company writes that Keith was a friendly loner who never married. He had a day job as a bookkeeper and hobbies including “stamp collecting, keeping the beat with marching music on a phonograph, making and setting off fireworks, and reading the World Book Encyclopedia.”
He used a simple camera to make his images, curator Merry A. Foresta writes, a choice that “dictated a consistent distance from his subjects.” As a result, there is a sameness to the images, which focuses the viewer’s eye on changing details of dress, facial expression, and attitude.
While other photographers of his day—Walker Evans, Lewis Hine—photographed everyday people as a way of commenting on society’s ills, Keith, who left very few records, appears to have thought of his project as simply a way to meet people, be a part of the neighborhood, and earn some small amount of money from subjects who paid for copies of his images.
Thanks to reader (and photographer) Christopher Boas for the suggestion.