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Harvey Finkle: Photographer captures movement for educational equity

Documentarian will be honored at the Notebook's Tuesday celebration.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

At the June 9 Turning the Page for Change event, the Notebook will honor Harvey Finkle for his nearly half-century of work documenting social movements in Philadelphia, including the long and continuing struggle for equitable and excellent public education.

The Notebook was founded in 1994 as a volunteer operation. Even after it was staffed, photographs were “catch as catch can,” said editor and publisher Paul Socolar. “In 2000, when Harvey connected with me and offered to help, he worked with a tiny budget to start giving us quality photographs.”

Over 15 years, these photographs have included compelling images of classrooms and activist protests. Always, they capture the energy of the moment and the emotions of the people.

They can stir delight or anger. They can be heartwarming or heartbreaking, like the indelible image of Fairhill principal Darlene Lomax-Garrett on the last day of that school’s existence.

Yet when Finkle is asked why he is able to take such good photos, he chuckles. “I never think of it that way,” he said. “I try to have a nice composition.”

“When I started out, I was interested in the art of photography. I wasn’t so much interested in social change.” But he happened to be involved in the beginnings of the People’s Fund in the 1970s, which became Bread and Roses Community Fund, “and I was the only one with a camera.”

He grew up in Oxford Circle, went to Central High School, left Temple after one year and was drafted into the Army. At the height the Cold War, he spent his tour in France, finding spare parts for equipment. When he came back, he finished at Temple with coursework in liberal arts, business, and accounting. “I had no idea what I wanted to do,” he said.

He got a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work and worked for awhile in that profession.

“I’m sure he was good at it; he’s such a great listener," said civil rights attorney Steve Gold, who met Finkle on the basketball court when they were in their 20s. “Then he realized he really, really loved his photography and has had a camera around his neck ever since, like, 110 years.”

It’s a Leica. Finkle said he likes it because it doesn’t make noise. “I much prefer people don’t even know I’m there,” he said. He still shoots film – black and white – and prints his own photos. He only started using a digital camera and shooting in color at the Notebook’s request. “I’m not quite a Luddite, but close to it,” he laughs.

Mostly a self-taught photographer, he quickly established himself as the chronicler of Philadelphia’s social movements. He’s had exhibits of photos of homeless people, and has followed many groups, including the Kensington Welfare Rights Union and Project HOME, women’s organizations and former prisoners seeking re-entry into the working world, Disabled in Action and ACT UP Philadelphia.

One of his iconic photos shows a woman using a motorized wheelchair, yet exuding strength. She wears a jaunty hat and has two flags behind her.

And the Mummers. That was one of his first projects when he started. Gold said that he never photographed the strutting up Broad Street, but caught them afterwards at Two Street, when they were more relaxed. What emerged were the human beings under the costumes.

Besides his unerring eye, “he’s incredibly smart,” said Gold, “and very political, always has been. He cuts through all the bull—-.”

At the same time, “He is able to meld the politics with the incredible warmth of people.”

There have been dozens of exhibits, including at the prestigious Institute of Contemporary Art and many at the Free Library, the Donnell Library in New York, and local colleges and universities. He published a book called Readers, capturing people reading in all kinds of situations. Catalogue exhibits include “Still Home: Jews of South Philadelphia;” “Philadelphia Mosaic,” about 10 immigrant families; and “Independent Living: the People Behind the Movement,” on disabled rights.

He has won awards from the Bread and Roses Community Fund, Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, and One Step Away, a monthly newspaper written by homeless people.

“Harvey is uniquely able to capture the intrinsic humanity of a person in his photographs,” said Sister Mary Scullion of Project HOME. “He has a third eye that enables us to see beyond the physical characteristics … to see people’s hopes, dreams, struggles and especially their dignity.”

The Notebook website has more information about Tuesday’s celebration and fundraiser honoring Harvey Finkle at University of the Arts. Admission is $75, and $25 for ages 25 and under.

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