John Frank Keith’s photographs depict working-class Philadelphians sitting on stoops and standing on sidewalks, facing streetscapes, and facing each other. Despite being a bookkeeper, Keith managed to make time for his interest in photography. He traveled from his home in the Kensington area to parts of South Philadelphia to photograph residents in front of their homes.
Keith photographed community members on the front steps of their urban row homes in a documentary style reminiscent of Lewis Hine but without Hine’s social activism. He built a darkroom on the family house’s roof, where he experimented with night photography. He rarely asked for payment for his pictures, and often gifted them to those he photographed.
The inexpensive camera dictated the distance to the subjects, and the amateur-quality lens was responsible for the slight distortion at the edges. Standing farther away, the blur would have been too great; standing closer, he would have lost all sense of the neighborhood. He rarely changed the essential elements of his photos, just as itinerant photographers did in the nineteenth century. Instead, he focused on the little details that changed: the contrasting colors of his subjects or the difference in a door frame.