This blog post is part of an ongoing series in collaboration with Archives Month Philly, a city-wide festival each October celebrating historical records, archives, and rare books. Learn more and check out their events calendar at https://archivesmonthphilly.com.
A “threshold between private and public space” is how Monument Lab artist Kaitlin Pomerantz describes the stoop, the inspiration for her Washington Square Park monument On the Threshold (Salvaged Stoops, Philadelphia). Composed of reclaimed stoops from demolished buildings the dozen installations invite visitors to stop, sit, and to have a private moment in public. Like a stoop, a camera can be a threshold between private and public spaces.
For Philadelphia photographer John Frank Keith (1883-1947), a city stoop often served as his outdoor studio. The Library Company of Philadelphia holds over two hundred of his photographs taken in Kensington and South Philadelphia between the 1910s and 1940s. Dozens of working-class Philadelphians — men, women, young, and old — entrusted Keith to use his camera to transform their stoops into monuments to their life. Some play cards, some sit and embrace, and others “strike a pose” on the thresholds to their homes.
Although Keith predominantly focused his lens on his sitters, glimpses of alleys, shadowy figures in windows, and other incidentals of brick and mortar city life frequently crept their way into the frame. In one circa 1931 photo of three men seated together seemingly after a long day, their equally weary dog just makes his way into the photo. Nonetheless, family pets also often had their moment to be immortalized on their stoop.
An eccentric man, Keith was born outside of Philadelphia into a family of means. By the age of ten, his family owned a residence in North Philadelphia and a farm in Pennsauken, NJ. Around this period, he attended the prestigious George School in Newtown, PA. A bookkeeper by trade as a young adult, he began his practice as a “roving” neighborhood photographer before the First World War. By 1930, he listed photographer as his profession in the census. Within the decade preceding, and the years following, he left his North Philadelphia residence and became a boarder while taking his portrait photographs that he often called his “friends.” By the early 1940s and a few years before his death, Keith worked at the Work Projects Administration. His exact job is unknown. However, his passion to document his fellow urban dwellers remained.
Alone, in pairs, and as families, the individuals Keith photographed attest to Pomerantz’s and the “The Stoop” Monument Proposer’s assessment of it as a space of social interaction, a communication hub, and playground to be celebrated. Keith’s photographs capture this sentiment. They are a testament to the city stoop as a place to see and be seen, to play and relax, and to be yourself.
To learn more about Keith and his work, visit the Library Company’s online exhibition: Faces and Facades of Philadelphia: Three Decades of Portraits by John Frank Keith.