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Sam Reiss Papers

Call Number



1929-1992, inclusive
; 1950-1975, bulk


Reiss, Sam
Reiss, Helen (Role: Donor)
Reiss, Jessie (Role: Donor)


3 Linear Feet (4 boxes)

Language of Materials

English .


The collection encompasses a small amount of biographical and documentary material on Sam Reiss (1910-1975), one of the most prominent and prolific photographers of the labor movement in New York City from the 1940s through the 1970s. It also includes individual issues from a wide range of labor and liberal political publications in which his photographs were published.

Historical/Biographical Note

From the late 1940s until his death in 1975, Sam Reiss was among the most prominent and prolific photographers of the labor movement in New York City. During the three decades that Reiss earned a living with his camera, he documented a changing work force in a changing city, building a reputation as "Labor's Photographer." Week by week, throughout his career, Reiss made photographs that document New York's labor movement during its most active, influential, and progressive years. .

Born in New York City in 1910, Reiss was the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants. He grew up in the city, where his father worked as a tailor. Like many children of New Yorkers who worked in the garment industry, Reiss hoped to escape having to make a living in an economic sector beleaguered by difficult working conditions and low pay. After graduating from Manhattan's Stuyvesant High School in 1929, Reiss enrolled at New York University as a pre-dental major, intending to join the ranks of professionals by becoming a dentist. At the University he attended only night classes to allow him to work a garment-industry job during the day. By January of 1933, after four years, Reiss had managed to accrue two years of college credits. It was then that his father suffered a stroke that left him disabled; Reiss dropped out of school to help support his family and found full-time employment as a shipping clerk at a clothing factory in the men's garment district.

In 1936, Reiss enrolled in evening photography classes at the Brooklyn Museum's Art School, where he remembered that his first instructor was Tom O'Scheckel, a pictorialist photographer who had served as president of the Pictorial Photographers of America. Using a simple wooden box camera, Reiss began photographing during his lunch hour; he photographed co-workers as well as other laborers on the streets of New York City. In 1938 he wed Helen Handwerger; two daughters, Jessie and Harriet, were born to them.

During World War II Reiss found work as a machinist, but when his shop struck in 1946, he used the enforced hiatus to take the opportunity to attempt to earn his living with photography. He started by shooting baby pictures, weddings, and bar mitzvah celebrations, but did not meet with success until he started to specialize as a press photographer for labor union publications. He received his first labor news assignment in 1947, when he was hired to shoot some photographs for the RWDSU Record, the newspaper of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Workers Union. Throughout his nearly thirty-year career, the RWDSU, as well as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, the Transport Workers Union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union remained among Reiss's major clients, employing him regularly to document the activities of their organizations, although he also shot for dozens of other labor unions and locals.

In addition to his labor union and other organizational clients, Reiss continued to do private commercial photography. However, it is worth noting that the subjects of many of these photographs were labor figures and their families; Reiss was frequently a union official's choice of photographer for photographing personal family events such as weddings and birthdays, or children's portraits.

Reiss continued to work until only a few months before his death from cancer in December 1975. That same year, a retrospective exhibit of his work was mounted by his daughter, Jessie, and displayed at the gallery of AFSCME, District Council 37.


Bildersee, Barnett. "The Camera Eye: Snapping the man in the street." New York STAR Picture News, Sunday, September 12, 1948, p. 14.Gene Thornton, "Photography View," New York Times, Sunday, January 25, 1976."Going Out Guide--Labor Log." New York Times, Tuesday, December 16, 1975.Klein, H. L. "Focus on 27 years of labor history: LI'ers photos on display." Long Island Press, Sunday, December 7, 1975."Labor Press Photographer Sam Reiss Dies." AFL-CIO News, January 3, 1976.Pollack, Michael. "Sam Reiss Dead at 65; Labor Press Photographer." Textile Labor, March 1976, p. 11."Reiss Photos Donated." New York Labor Heritage, Volume 1, No. 4, Summer 1980.Rich, Rona. "Sam Reiss Knew His Labor." The Village Voice, December 15, 1975, p. 130."Sam Reiss: Labor Photographer." Labor Press Council of Metropolitan New York. Press release, undated.


Folders are arranged alphabetically.

The files are organized into three series:

Missing Title

  1. I, General Files, 1929-1992
  2. II, Appointment Books, 1970-1975
  3. III, Oversized Publications and Clippings, 1939-1975

Scope and Content Note

Collection encompasses miscellaneous personal/biographical items including a college transcript, labor union-related press badges, union membership/dues cards, job notebooks, certificates, correspondence, and five daily diaries-cum-appointment-books for the years 1970 through 1973, and 1975. The latter appear to record almost exclusively photography jobs rather than any private or personal information. (Although Reiss died in December of 1975, after a lingering illness, the last diary entry is in late September of 1975.) The Collection also includes a book published by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, Health Security By Union Action: A Report on the Sidney Hillman Health Center, that was apparently illustrated exclusively with Reiss' photographs, plus issues of 21 different labor union and liberal political organizations' newspaper titles as well as 34 additional publications, from between 1953-1971, which include Reiss' photographs. A partial list gives a good indication of the breadth of Reiss' documentation of the labor movement in the New York metropolitan area, as well as his long list of clients: The 65er(Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union District 65), The Advance(Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America), Allegro(Associated Musicians of Greater New York), AFL-CIO News(Washington, D. C.), AFL-CIO advertisement in the New York Times, The Co-op City Times(United Housing Federation), The Cooperator(United Housing Federation), Sunday News[ Daily News?], Dining Room Employee(Dining Room Employees Union Local 1), Electchester Beacon(International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3), Electrical Union World(International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3), Forty Acres and a Mule(the Educational Program of the New York Urban League, students), Frontpage(Newspaper Guild of New York), The Guild Reporter(American Newspaper Guild), Hotel and Motel Voices(Hotel, Motel and Club Employees Union, Local 6) IUE News(International Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers), Justice(International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union), Labor Chronicle(New York City Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO), New York Daily Column(New York Daily Column, Inc.), New York Teacher(New York State United Teachers), RWDSU Record(Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union), the TWU Express(Transport Workers Union of America), United Housing Foundation advertisement in the New York Times, and The United Teacher(The United Federation of Teachers).

Bound publications and pamphlets (as well as various published items such as advertisement brochures, organizational creeds, anniversaries and other commemorations) include publications by the following organizations: A. Philip Randolph Institute; Allied Educational Foundation, IBT Local 815; Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America -- including Amalgamated Laundry Workers Joint Board, Louis Simon Scholarship Fund, New York Clothing Manufacturers' Exchange, Inc., New York Joint Board, Sidney Hillman Health Center, Philadelphia Joint Board; Amalgamated Lithographers of America Local 1; American Federation of Musicians Local 802, Musicians' Emergency Relief Fund; Brooklyn Children's Museum; Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO); Gandhi Society for Human Rights, Inc.; Haym Salomon Home for the Aged; International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 3; International Economic Research Bureau; International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union including -- Dressmakers' Joint Council: Amalgamated Cutters' Local 10, Dressmakers' Local 22, Eastern Region, Italian Dressmakers' Local 89, Local 60-60A, Northeast Department; International Rescue Committee; Joint Apprenticeship Program of the Workers Defense League - A. Philip Randolph Educational Fund; New York Cardiac Center, Inc.; New York State Commission Against Discrimination; Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, including -- Retail Drug Employees Union Local 1199 1199 Drug News; Retail, Wholesale, Chain Store Food Employees Union, Local 338; Sidney Hillman Foundation; State of New York Workmen's Compensation Board; Sullivan County Hotel Association; Transport Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO; United Housing Foundation, including: Amalgamated-Warbasse Houses; Seward Park Housing Corporation; Veterans Administration (Veterans Hospital); Radio and Television Guild; Welfare and Health Council of New York City; Women's League for Israel.

Conditions Governing Access

Materials are open without restrictions.

Conditions Governing Use

Any rights (including copyright and related rights to publicity and privacy) held by Sam Reiss were transferred to New York University in 2009 by Jessie Reiss. Permission to publish or reproduce materials in this collection must be secured from Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Archives. Please contact, (212) 998-2630.

Preferred Citation

Published citations should take the following form:

Identification of item, date; Sam Reiss Papers; WAG 262; box number; folder number; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Donated by Helen and Jessie Reiss in several installments between 1980 and 2008. The accession numbers associated with this gift are 1980.008 and NPA.2009.015.

Audiovisual Access Policies and Procedures

Audiovisual materials have not been preserved and may not be available to researchers. Materials not yet digitized will need to have access copies made before they can be used. To request an access copy, or if you are unsure if an item has been digitized, please contact, (212) 998-2630 with the collection name, collection number, and a description of the item(s) requested. A staff member will respond to you with further information.

Related Material at the Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

Sam Reiss Photographs - Part I - Negatives (PHOTOS 021)

Sam Reiss Photographs - Part II: Photographic Prints (PHOTOS 021.1)

Sam Reiss Photographs - Part III: 1975 Retrospective Exhibit (PHOTOS 021.002)

Sam Reiss: Eyewitness to Labor History, 1948 - 1975" (an online exhibit)

Collection processed by

Erika Gottfried, 2007-2008.

About this Guide

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on 2023-08-20 16:38:05 -0400.
Using Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language: Description is in English.

Edition of this Guide

Reiss Papers Wag #262.doc


Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
70 Washington Square South
2nd Floor
New York, NY 10012