On one 1970s New Year’s morning, Harvey Finkle heard music outside his then-home on the 100 block of Bainbridge Street.
He ran outside and saw groups of people marching in costume, heading from Broad Street to the unofficial mummers after party on “Two Street” in South Philadelphia.
So, as a photographer does, he went inside to get his camera before heading back out to start snapping pictures. He’s been photographing “Two Street” ever since.
“It’s really much different there than on Broad Street,” said Finkle, sitting in the studio on Sansom Street he’s had for about 20 years. “It’s more community. There’s practically no division between performer and the person who’s watching the parade. It’s all the same. The audience and the performers are all mixed up.”
At 83 and planning to keep up the tradition this year, he estimates missing just one year photographing the Mummers since 1973. In that time, he’s noticed plenty of differences.
For those who don’t like to wake up early to catch the march down Broad Street (or maybe their New Year’s Eve hangover prevents them from enjoying the loud music and noises the parade brings with it), heading to “Two Street” later in the day is a welcome alternative.
But each year has changed. “They used to come down from South Street all the way down to South Philly,” he recalled of past years. “The streets were lined with people, I mean on Bainbridge, Fitzwater, Christian [streets]. It’s much different now.” And the performers get there much later than they used to.
“So you don’t have the same light,” he said. Though, he added with a laugh, “You have the same madness.”
Dozens of boxes of photographs are stacked on the table in his second-floor studio, some encasing large- and medium-sized black-and-white prints of clowns and performers who’ve made their way down to Second Street over the years.
A clown stands to rest in the doorway of a building covered in wooden panels. Another stands in front of an old bakery, holding an umbrella in one hand and a photograph in the other. In a third, a clown does some makeup retouches as a couple embraces next to him.
Those interested can see some of the photographs as part of an exhibition about “South Philly Traditions” at Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron Ezras Israel, or more colloquially known as “The Little Shul.”
Most of his photos are in black and white, a conscious decision since he started out. His early influences were photographers like photojournalist W. Eugene Smith and the aesthetics of documentary photography.
For the mummers, black and white creates a stark contrast to the brightly colored debauchery that goes down on Broad Street.
“It sort of more reflects Second Street than color would,” he explained. “It reflects the grittiness of what goes on down there.”
He picked up a camera — a Mamiya — for the first time in his 30s after initially spending 12 years as a social worker.
“I did that and I began to do photography as well, and then just decided to take time off from social work and never went back,” said the Oxford Circle native and Central High School alum. “My work that I do is my social work.”
He got involved with politically and socially progressive groups, including helping form the People’s Fund in 1971 — now Bread & Roses Community Fund — and photographing the organizations it supported.
“I was the only one who had a camera,” he recalled. “It wasn’t like today where everybody has a camera. So we gave money to progressive organizations and I began to photograph them.”
He’s photographed for Project HOME since the 1980s. Just last week, he photographed the Homeless Memorial Day gathering at Thomas Paine Plaza for the organization. He’s also worked with Kensington Welfare Rights Union since the early ’90s, with which he has traveled to conferences overseas.
He’s actively involved with organizations that support the disabled and deaf communities, as both of his children are deaf.
He showcased his photographs documenting the 13-year history of the New Sanctuary Movement as part of Penn’s Latinx Heritage Month in September.
Lately, he’s been focusing his lens on immigrants in South Philadelphia.
“The reason I chose South Philly is because that’s where immigrants 100, 125 years ago came — the Jews, the Irish, the Italians,” he said. “The idea was the immigrants coming today, they want the same things the other immigrants wanted, which is [to] be safe, practice their religion, make a living and send their kids to school.”
Within the Jewish community, he’s done projects in which he photographed and interviewed Holocaust survivors as well as a series called “Still Home: The Jews of South Philadelphia.”
On a trip to Israel in the ’80s, he traveled around photographing the Sephardic community.
For him, photography is a means to showcase the qualities of people otherwise perhaps written off by society.
“People sort of denigrate people — they’re poor, they’re working class, they’re immigrants,” he said. “And I find what we’re missing is tremendous talent and tremendous intelligence.”
He isn’t showing signs of slowing down, and he will still be there to photograph the mummers this year.
“At 1 p.m. I’m gonna go down to Washington and Second Street and see what happens and photograph it,” he said. “It’s been a good run. I enjoy what I do a lot.”
Harvey Finkle is evidently a very interesting gentleman. I was never a shutterbug although I took many pictures with a 3d Sawyer Viewmaster camera and was an aerial photographer with the U.S. Navy, and I was a letter carrier and served “Two Street” a good bit and delivered many Jewish Exponents. I was thought to be Jewish because I learned some Yiddish from Leo Rosten’s The Joy of Yiddish and many books by Chaim Potok, a great storyteller with tales of rabbinic family; I am a Catholic who describes myself as a “Jewish Catholic” because my faith was founded by a Jewish rabbi, Jesus Christ. Shalom Aleichem. Mazel tov.