N. Jay Jaffee (1921–1999) was a New York photographer who captured the lives of ordinary (and sometimes famous) people, city streets and country landscapes, political movements and private moments. As Janie Welker, curator at the Heckscher Museum in Huntington, New York, noted: “He saw and recorded human activity: a lonely, windswept boardwalk; a whimsical sculpture; men sunning themselves amidst the city grime; the crisp balance of lines and light in a sparkling cityscape; a teddy bear on a clothesline. His photographs not only record the instant, they communicate the substance. The images are exquisite, enduring expositions of lights and shadow, visual textures in balanced tension. They are also filled with wit and humor, and a profound understanding of the ironies in all of our lives.”
In the 1940s and 1950s, Jaffee began photographing the Brooklyn neighborhoods in which he grew up. Manhattan also beckoned, as did Queens, and eventually Long Island. His formal training came after he had been photographing for some time. He attended classes taught by Sid Grossman, of the legendary Photo League, and met with Edward Steichen, then curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1950, two of his photographs were included in the MOMA group show “Fifty-One American Photographs.”
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Jaffee continued documenting street life in New York, as well as Paris, Canada, New England, and elsewhere. His commitment to social justice, including the anti-war and civil rights movements, led him to photograph political demonstrations, rallies, and concerts. His work also included portraits of well-known subjects, such as Yoko Ono, Pete Seeger, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sid Grossman, Dan Weiner, Felrath Hines, and Stan Brodsky. Jaffee’s later work focused on images of the land and seascapes—dramatic or serene—poetic statements about the beauty and mystery of the natural environment.
Jaffee’s photographs have been acquired by major museums and institutions, including MOMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, National Portrait Gallery, Library of Congress, National Museum of American Art, New York Public Library, Bibliotheque Nationale, George Eastman House, and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Exhibits include a major solo show, “Inward Image,” at the Brooklyn Museum in 1981; a 50-year retrospective in 1999, “From Coney Island to Caumsett,” at the Heckscher Museum of Art, and “N. Jay Jaffee Photographs: From Public to Private” at the University of Maryland in 2014.
Jaffee’s work has been featured in college courses at Yale University, Skidmore College, and Binghamton University. His photographs have also appeared in many magazines and books, including American Century of Photography: From Dry-Plate to Digital, edited by Keith David, and Cityscapes: A History of New York in Images by Howard B. Rock and Deborah Dash Moore. His book of early photographs, “N. Jay Jaffee: Photographs 1947-1956,” was published in 1976.