Alexander Alland was born in 1902 in Sebastopol, Crimea. During the Russian Revolution (and after the disappearance of his brother and the death of his mother) he illegally left Russia in 1920, bound for Turkey. He worked as a photographer's assistant in a portrait studio in Constantinople, and eventually set up his own studio. As political unrest gripped Turkey, Alland fled yet again, this time to New York. He arrived almost penniless at Ellis Island in 1923, and began to seek out a life and community with other Russian émigrés.
In 1930 Alland married Alexandra Mamlet, who was also Russian and Jewish. While expecting their first child, and with the economic uncertainty of the depression, the couple moved from Greenwich Village to Passaic, New Jersey, to live with Alexandra's parents. From 1933 to 1936 the Allands lived in the Mohegan Colony, a utopian community of political radicals and artists at the foot of Lake Mohegan in New York's Westchester County. In this creative atmosphere Alland was able to set up a darkroom and refine his photographic skills. When the family returned to Greenwich Village in 1936, Alland began to generate an income from his art.
Beginning in 1936, Alland supervised the Photo-Mural Section of the Federal Art Project. He installed photo-murals at the Newark Public Library (1936) and at the Riker's Island Penitentiary library (1937). The Newark mural, in particular, employed collage in order to present a multitude of images in each panel. Neither of these murals remain. This experience prepared him to work as a technical advisor for the National Youth Administration photo-mural at the 1939 World's Fair, a massive work of 16 by 56 feet. Alland was then invited by the American Artists' Congress to teach photography and photo-mural techniques at the American Artists' School in New York.
Also in 1939, Alland provided the photographs to accompany Felix Reisenberg's text in Portrait of New York(New York: The Macmillan Company), a documentary-style book meant to coincide with the opening of the World's Fair. The book purported to document the city's problems as well as its achievements. Alland's deep feeling for his subjects, residents from all over the city, was evident despite his much-lauded stylistic restraint. This photography assignment piqued his interest in New York City's ethnic groups and multitude of living conditions. The book also generated public interest in Alland's work and led to several exhibitions and purchases of his work. The Museum of Modern Art bought one photo from the book and exhibited several others in the 1941 exhibit "Images of Freedom." Several of the images were also exhibited at the New York Public Library.
Spurred on by his success, and convinced of the educational uses of photography, Alland set out to photograph several series of ethnic groups. He began by traveling to the Virgin Islands. Alland studied the history of the islands and befriended his subjects as much as possible. The result was considered to be an empathetic portrayal of the poverty of the island's residents. The photographs were exhibited as "The Social Scene in the Virgin Islands" at the New School and the Schomburg Collection in Harlem during 1940. While Alland never achieved his goal of publishing the Virgin Islands pictures, they at least led to a commission from Life magazine to photograph several ethnic groups in New York City. The resulting two series of photographs, of Russian Gypsies on the Lower East Side and of African American Jews in Harlem, (both included in this collection) cemented Alland's reputation as a documentary photographer sympathetic to the social life of immigrant, minority, and impoverished communities. These photographs were exhibited widely throughout 1941. "Royal Order of Ethiopian Hebrews of New York" was shown at the New School, the Lower East Side's Educational Alliance, and the Jewish Center in Forest Hills, Queens. "The Children of Romany" was seen at the Museum of the City of New York.
From 1941 to 1944, Alland served as photo editor of Common Ground, a new publication of the Common Council of American Unity. Common Ground emphasized issues of immigration and acculturation, as well as social justice and equality, thought to be especially important during the years of World War II. Alland produced photo montages for the magazine with his own images, as well as those from other photographers, including those of the Farm Security Administration. In addition to this job, Alland had to take other work in order to keep his family solvent; he took commercial photographs and produced filmstrips for an advertising agency and an engineering firm throughout the 1940s. The Common Ground experience, however, led to Alland's first book as a sole author, American Counterpoint (New York: The John Day Company, 1943), which consisted solely of Alland's photographs of ethnic Americans. In the text of that book Alland claimed, "I have tried to show clearly and distinctly the differences and the similarity among Americans of many national and racial backgrounds: differences in the physical appearance, customs, and cultural backgrounds; similarity in the desire for happiness, prosperity, and liberty that we all hold as an American ideal" (p. 147). This statement would serve as his driving ideal for many years. American Counterpoint proved extremely popular; the first edition sold out within weeks. The book inspired another exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, entitled "Harlem's Children in Wartime: American Counterpoint."
Over the course of the war Alland's ideas about the social value of photography, as well as about the need and vehicles for social change, shifted away from those of the other editors of Common Ground. In addition, he felt their editorial stance was inadequately anti-fascist. There was luckily plenty of room in the world of leftist publications for Alland's work. After World War II, he became the director of Pictures for Democracy, a picture agency for the Council Against Intolerance in America. The Council was engaged in propagandistic products promoting tolerance and unity in America. In 1945, Alland collaborated with the Council's founder James Waterman Wise on The Springfield Plan (New York: The Viking Press), a book highlighting the benefits of school integration in Springfield, Massachusetts. Controversy surrounded the book; both segregationists and anti-Communists found reason to complain (one photo showed a class of children learning about Russia.) Alland and Wise planned a larger project focusing on integration efforts nationwide, but failed to find a publisher willing to undertake a controversial issue. Alland's next book project was much more sedate. He and his wife Alexandra collaborated on photographs to illustrate the children's book My Dog Rinty (New York: The Viking Press, 1946), a story about a Harlem boy and his mischievous dog. The dog photographed in the book actually belonged to Alland.
While active on his own as a photographer and editor, Alland began to collect the work of other photographers. He focused on acquiring older negatives (mainly glass plate) and reprinting them. In 1939, the Russell Sage Foundation hired Alland to print Lewis Hine's negatives of Ellis Island and child labor conditions. A few years later, Alland fortuitously acquired over 2000 negatives of Robert Bracklow (now PR 008, the Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection at the New-York Historical Society), thus effectively rescuing that photographer's work. He also bought many negative and prints from the heirs of Jessie Tarbox Beals, an early photo journalist (some of these are represented in the N-YHS' Jessie Tarbox Beals Photograph Collection, PR 004.) His interest in Beals' photographs of slums may have led Alland to study the work of Jacob Riis. In 1946, Alland tracked down glass negatives taken by Jacob Riis, and reprinted and publicized Riis' own photographic work. (Copy prints of these images form PR 059, the Jacob A. Riis Reference Photograph Collection at the New-York Historical Society.) In 1947, Alland's prints of Riis' work were exhibited at the Museum of the City of New York in "The Battle With the Slum 1887-1897."
In a changing political climate, Alexander Alland's left leaning political and professional activities increasingly became a hindrance. In 1949, he received an unsatisfactory background check at the military engineering firm at which he worked in order to pay the bills. The Alland family subsequently moved upstate to North Salem, where Alland eventually turned his love of collecting into a career, opening an antique shop he called the Emporium for Old Fashioned Things. He continued to be active in photography, mounting a solo show, "New York City and its People in the 30's," at the North Salem Gallery in 1981.
Later in his life, Alland also began to write about photography, specifically the collections he had salvaged from anonymity. In 1974, he published Jacob Riis, Photographer and Citizen (Millerton, N.Y.: Aperture), a critical study that viewed Riis' photography as important as his muckraking skills. In 1978, Alland wrote Jessie Tarbox Beals, First Woman News Photographer (New York: Camera/Graphic Press), the first biography of Beals. That same year saw the publication of Heinrich Tonnies, Cartes-de-visite Photographer Extraordinaire (New York: Camera/Graphic Press), in which Alland wrote an essay about the Danish photographer whose negatives he had discovered in the 1940s. Alland later contributed an essay on Robert Bracklow for the New-York Historical Society's exhibition of that photographer's work in 1983.
Alexander Alland died in 1989. A posthumous exhibit of his work entitled "The Committed Eye: Alexander Alland's Photography," was held at the Museum of the City of New York in 1991. "Points of View, New York in the 1930s," a 1994 exhibit at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York, also included Alland's photos.