Born in the Williamsburgh section of Brooklyn, New York, Joe grew up in the poverty of the Brooklyn slums. His parents, Rose Mandel and Samuel Schwartz, were immigrants from Poland and Romania. From 1929-1933 he attended Alexander Hamilton High School, where he concentrated on commercial art, and began experimenting with an inexpensive camera. Soon after he became an activist, engaged in street politics, and became interested in proving the high value of the "have-nots". He knew that his life's work would be in photography, depicting the condition of the poor and downtrodden. After a short stint at the Pratt Institute where he learned the fundamentals of art composition, he attained a job at Haloid Paper Co. where he learned lithography.
In 1936 his friend Dave Robbins led him to join the Photo League. He and the legendary Photo League (Sid Grossman was President and Eugene Smith, Dorthea Lange, and Margaret Bourke-White were among the members) shared a commitment to portraying the lives of America's working people in their urban environment, and these commitments often extended to the realistic portrayal of African-Americans as well. Joe wanted to illustrate the truth through his photography. He let his camera speak for him to show the social and economic injustice of the times.
In 1939 Joe married modern dancer, Anne Palley.
In 1943 he joined the Marine Corps on the staff of Leatherneck Magazine, where he served in the 5th Division as a combat photographer on Iwo Jima from D-day until the end of the campaign. During his enlistment, his wartime photos were used in Bell Telephone's advertisements, the Iwo Jima edition of 5th Division "Spearhead" magazine, and in the weekly publication of "International Events", before being honorably discharged from San Leandro Hospital.
In 1946, Joe moved his family into the Kingsboro housing Project; a well- integrated block of apartments in Brooklyn where he was elected president of the tenets union, continuing his political activism.
In 1953 Joe graduated from Fred Archer's School of Photography under the G.I. Bill. Through the 1960's and 1970's he worked for Western Litho Co., Clement's, Pacific Press, Synanon House (photographic section) and started his own business entitled "Magic Color." Through the 1970's and 1980's Joe's work was featured in publications such as: Photographic Quarterly, KPFK FOLIO, Independent Publishing Fund of the Americas, Claremont, California Newspaper "Courier", Catalogue "The Photo League", Aperture Magazine and book "Jacob Lawrence, Paintings and Sculpture". In 1990 Joe began working on his book, Folk Photography - "Poem's I've Never Written" (contains 150 photos, 213 pages) and in 2000 he set up a digital in-home studio and published the long-awaited book.
In 1985 Joe moved to Atascadero, California in order to be closer to his daughter Paula Motlo's growing family, Grandchildren Damian Motlo and Sheena Motlo.
In 1990 Joe began working on his book, Folk Photography - "Poem's I've Never Written" (contains over 300 photos; 213 pages) and in 2000 he set up a digital in-home studio and published the long-awaited book.
On March 16, 2013, at 99 years old, Joe passed away in Atascadero, California.
He has been recognized worldwide for his astonishing ability to capture interracial harmony. A collection of Joe's work will soon reside in The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Smithsonian's 19th museum which will open on the National Mall in Washington DC in 2015. Joe was interviewed by the Smithsonian as a part of the Archives of the American Art's Oral History Interviews of American Photographers Project which started in 1958 to document the history of visual arts in the United States.
Recent honors include: