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"The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-1951" on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum
Marvin E. Newman, Halloween, South Side, 1951. gelatin silver print. Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, Photo League Collection, Gift of Steven Nordman, New York. Copyright Marvin E. Newman.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- In the streets of Depression-era New York City, a group of young and idealistic documentary photographers, most of them first-generation Jewish Americans, focused their cameras on a world of ordinary people and the everyday. Their work, with titles such as Shoemaker’s Lunch and Salvation Army Lassie in Front of a Woolworth Store, not only exposed issues of class, poverty, racial inequality, and opportunity, but also revealed a new aesthetic shaped by a deeply personal relationship to their urban environment.

After just fifteen years, the school and salon—known as the Photo League—would become a casualty of the McCarthy-era blacklists for leftist leanings. But in that short time its more than 300 members, which included some of the most noted photographers of the mid-twentieth century— Berenice Abbott, Consuelo Kanaga, Lisette Model, Aaron Siskind, Weegee, and many others—would redefine documentary photography and open the way for the next generation of street photographers.

The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-1951 is the first comprehensive museum survey in three decades to reassess the influential group’s history, artistic significance, and cultural, social, and political milieu. Drawing from two great Photo League museum collections, housed at The Jewish Museum in New York City and the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio, the exhibition includes nearly 140 vintage photographs by more than seventy Photo League members. Visitors also are able to view excerpts from the award-winning 1953 film Little Fugitive by League members Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin and a 2011 documentary (Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League’s New York, courtesy Daedalus Productions, Inc.), as well as newsreels and ephemera.

The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936–1951 has been organized by The Jewish Museum, New York and the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio.

History and Influence of the Photo League
Small hand-held 35mm cameras, introduced in the 1920s, enabled a new kind of spontaneous photography, at once casual and purposeful. Prior to the formation of the Photo League, a number of American photographers, such as Lewis Hine and Paul Strand, would embrace this Zeitgeist to produce work motivated by social and political concerns. Hines’s empathic pictures of workers, especially children, were instrumental in changing labor laws in America. Both artists later became influential figures at the Photo League, lecturing, teaching, and serving on its advisory board.

The economic turmoil of the 1930s brought enormous social and political upheaval. In response, the government of President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted massive relief programs known as the New Deal and funded unprecedented art projects that employed artists, making their work accessible to a broad public.

In 1930, the Film and Photo League was founded as an offshoot of Workers International Relief (a leftist German and Russian aid organization), and they produced some of the first social documentary films in America. Over time, quarrels arose among the group’s filmmakers over the relative importance of aesthetic and political values. The still photographers, for their part, did not want their images merely to serve as illustrations to written accounts. These differences proved insurmountable, and in 1936 the photographers broke away to form the Photo League, a unique complex of school, darkroom, gallery, and salon that also served as a place to socialize, especially among first-generation Jewish Americans.

During its fifteen-year existence (1936–1951), the Photo League would mirror monumental shifts in the world starting with the Depression, through World War II, and ending with the Red Scare. Throughout those tumultuous times, its members engaged in lively debate and ongoing experimentation in the streets to propel documentary photography from factual images to a more subjective, poetic reading of life.

The members’ solidarity centered on a belief in the expressive power of the documentary photograph and on a progressive alliance in the 1930s of social activism and art. They rejected the prevailing style of modernism in order to engage the gritty realities of urban life. Leaguers focused on the urban environment, and this meant looking closely at ordinary people. That impulse spurred them to explore their own New York neighborhoods, street by street, camera at the ready.

Their work was fostered by a picture-hungry world of illustrated magazines such as Life (founded in the same year as the League) and Look, newspapers, and books. Suddenly, photographs were ubiquitous in daily life. Several early examples of Photo League images published in these magazines appear in the exhibition.

In the 1930s, Leaguers were inspired to make inequity and discrimination tangible in their work. Tenement facades, shoeshine boys, protests, and portraits of the poor all figured frequently in their work. Often, their empathy was suffused with playfulness and humor as in Eliot Elisofon’s shot of children playing in an empty dirty lot behind a sign that reads “WPA Cleaned This Area … Keep it Clean.” With the Harlem Document project, a group effort led by Aaron Siskind, ten photographers produced dozens of photographs which were shown in a series of exhibitions around New York City. Their goal was to provide evidence of an impoverished community in peril. The political agenda, though well meaning, ultimately produced an incomplete, and in some cases, stereotypical view of Harlem.

The work of the Photo League was more than just social commentary. Members championed a photography that was as much aesthetic as social-minded, and this dual identity defines the League’s progressivism in a unique way. The League was a place where you learned about yourself. One of its leading members and teachers, Sid Grossman, pushed students to discover not only the meaning of their work but also their relationship to it. For many of these working-class photographers, New York City was their own story, a place not just to bear witness, but to determine one’s own bearings. Works such as Walter Rosenblum’s images of children and life along Pitt Street on the Lower East Side (where he grew up) clearly illustrate the photographer’s personal sense of identification with his subjects—boys making chalk drawings in the street, a girl on a swing set under the Manhattan Bridge. This transformative, personalized approach was one of the League’s most innovative and influential contributions to the medium.

In addition to their urban focus, Leaguers began to spread out, photographing in rural America and Latin America, and, with the country’s rapid transition from New Deal recovery to war mobilization in the early 1940s, in Europe as well. The League rallied around war-related projects and half the membership enlisted. More women then became members, and the exhibition highlights the work of many, such as Vivian Cherry and Sonia Handelman Meyer, who found rare access and recognition at the League.

At League headquarters, Crazy Camera Balls raised funds and fostered a sense of community. Photo Hunts—competitions in which Leaguers scoured the city to complete random, sometimes ludicrous assignments—were legendary. The sense of purpose and energy was palpable. League members were becoming more photographically literate and many were beginning to assert their own styles—as in Lisette Model’s charged and unsentimental portraits, Weegee’s sensationalistic crime scenes, and Rosalie Gwathmey’s empowering civil-rights images.

Postwar prosperity replaced economic hardship and the threat of global fascism as the turbulent 1940s drew to a close. But in the midst of this new upward mobility, the League was forced to confront its past. With the advent of the Cold War, anti-Communist sentiment intensified as the Red Scare gripped the nation and leftist politics became suspect. On December 5, 1947, the US Attorney General blacklisted the Photo League as an organization considered “totalitarian, fascist, communist, or subversive.” Being blacklisted meant more than a damaged reputation: members faced loss of work, criminal investigation, and even imprisonment.

Shocked, the League responded immediately with an open letter: “The Photo League repudiates this irresponsible and reckless smearing of its purposes and its membership . . . spearheaded by the [House] Un-American Activities Committee to stifle progressive thought in every walk of life and to intimidate by threat cultural workers in every field.”

The situation deteriorated further in 1949. During a conspiracy trial of Communist officials, Angela Calomiris, a paid informant of the FBI and a League member, named Sid Grossman as a Communist and the League as a front organization. That the League’s loose association with the radical left was now being exploited revealed how thoroughly the political and social consciousness in America had changed since the New Deal. While progressive issues of class and civil rights still mattered at the League, such subject matter was seen as dangerous in the new conservative climate of a triumphant post-World War II America.

However, the League had already moved away from its narrowly political perspective. In 1947 it began to professionalize: its acclaimed newsletter Photo Notes was printed rather than mimeographed and aimed to become a serious journal. The League had begun to raise money for a new space and was reshaping itself as a “Center for American Photography” with the goal of fostering documentary photography as a fine art. Although the documentary impulse continued, the group’s more creative approach to photography was undeniable.

This vision of a national photography center, however, would not be able to overcome the Red Scare despite the support of Ansel Adams, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, Paul Strand, and many other national figures. Membership and revenues dwindled and the group was ostracized. Sid Grossman, the League’s great teacher and mentor, was particularly victimized and disillusioned by the blacklist. Unable to find work in New York, he resigned in 1949 and retreated to Massachusetts, where his reputation faded. By 1951 the Photo League could no longer sustain itself, and it officially closed its doors, a casualty of the Red Scare.

Although short lived, the Photo League’s influence was significant. The transmutation of the documentary mode into an experimental, personal vision anticipated and fostered what became the hallmarks of the famous next generations of the New York School. The sense of artistic “presentness” and the assertion of the photographer’s identity in the work of artists such as Diane Arbus, Louis Faurer, Helen Levitt, and Robert Frank are, in many ways, the legacy of the Photo League.

The exhibition was organized by Mason Klein, Curator of Fine Arts, The Jewish Museum, New York, and Catherine Evans, William and Sarah Ross Soter Curator of Photography, Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio.

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