Mel Rosenthal was born in the South Bronx and grew up in the 1940's and 50's, close to the neighborhood where he made the photographs in his book, In the South Bronx of America. He attended P.S. 88, P.S. 28 (run by Hunter College), J.H.S. 22, and Taft High School, all in the South Bronx. Positive experiences at City College of New York fostered in Mel alternative ways of looking at the world. He received a P.h.D. in English Literature and American Studies from the University of Connecticut. His thesis was on the effect of alienation on American writers. He taught at Vassar College and the University of Connecticut before taking a journey of self-exploration to Africa.
In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Mel learned photography by working as a medical photographer at the University Hospital. Part of his job involved photographing with Paolo Freire, a Brazilian linguist who was directing a UNESCO sponsored literacy project to teach people how to read and write by allowing them to discover the power of words and images. Mel's experiences in Africa ignited a passion for the documentary image and its uses and from that time on he has been a photographer.
Mel's South Bronx portrait project, his first sustained work, grew out of his teaching work at Empire State College in the South Bronx in the 1970's. When many South Bronx residents were driven out of their homes by fires and fled to their native Puerto Rico, Mel and writer John Brentlinger produced a documentary book in 1989 -- Villa Sin Miedo !Presente! -- about a successful land rescue community on the island. His project, Refuge, a touring exhibition of photographs with accompanying text by Jack Salzman, also has its roots in the South Bronx and is a record of the New Americans living in New York State and their experiences pursuing the American Dream.
Mel's work most often focuses on how changing social conditions influence individuals. He is known for his work in Nicaragua, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Vietnam. He was one of the founders of the Triage Project (a collective of photographers, doctors and writers documenting homelessness and the health care crisis in New York City) and of Impact Visuals, a collective photography agency. His work is represented by Image Works, an editorial photo agency.
Mel is Distinguished Professor of Art at SUNY/Empire State College, where he teaches photography and directs the college's photography program in New York City. He is the photography editor of culturefront, the magazine of the New York Council for the Humanities, and has been awarded fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.