THE RADICAL CAMERA: NEW YORK’S PHOTO LEAGUE 1936-51 is a must-see show for anyone who is attracted to street photography. On view at The Jewish Museum until March 25, this important exhibit traces the development of documentary photographs as a powerful medium that we now take for granted. Quite simply, the Photo League members showed life as it was lived on the streets. Their pictures are a vivid record of city life; and the story of the Photo League reflects the mind-set in this country from the Depression through World War II to the Red Scare of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s.
Included in the more than 140 vintage images are brilliant pictures by League members, most of who were first-generation Americans with eastern and middle-European ancestry. Photographers Lewis Hine, Berenice Abbott and Paul Strand were mentors while the younger generation included Sid Grossman, Morris Engel, Arthur Leipzig, Lisette Model, Ruth Orkin, Walter Rosenblum, Aaron Siskind, W. Eugene Smith, and Arthur Fellig, the infamous Weegee.
These great photographers opened the eyes of the world to social problems in the United States and they paid dearly for their commitment when League was officially blacklisted. According to Mason Klein, exhibition co-curator and Curator at The Jewish Museum, “A mixture of passion and disillusionment characterizes the Photo League’s growth, which led photographers away from objective documentary images and toward more subjective, poetic readings of life.”
The League was born out of the Depression and the need to promote reform. Technological changes, including the popularity of hand-held cameras and magazines that provided showcases for photography, showed that documentary photography could be an expressive medium and powerful tool. This view was antithesis of what had been popular —staged portrait photography. The Photo League laid bare the suffering and prejudice that had separated the rich from the poor in the early part of the 20thcentury.
Photographers captured the essence of street life in New York. One example of their work that is highlighted in The Radical Camera show is The Harlem Project, 1936-1940. This was the League’s group effort, intended as an advocate for improvement. Led by Aaron Siskind, its ten photographers who contributed their work included Morris Engel and Max Yavno. While not shocking depictions of poverty, they are at their essence, unhappy pictures. There was clearly an agenda, and it backfired. After they were shown at the League, the works were gathered in a book of photos, Harlem Document, with commentary by the black writer, Michael Carver. The book which was not published, but on May 21, 1940, Look ran the pictures. The editorial copy didn’t sugarcoat the images, which dwelled on the joyless living conditions. The images and the text were, like the Photo League, a product of prewar liberalism underwritten by the New Deal. In 1981, fifty-one of the photographs were published as Harlem Document: Photographs 1932-1940 by Aaron Siskind (Matrix Publications). The forward was written by Gordon Parks, who described the pictures as “a mirror of my own past.”
Everything changed with Pearl Harbor. Social relevance took a backseat to patriotism. My country, right or wrong. Many of the League’s finest male photographers enlisted and brought the day-to-day tribulations of GI life back home in pictures that appeared on the covers of Life, Look, Yank and other popular magazines. Among the images is the work of Walter Rosenblum, one of most decorated WW II photographers, who recorded the invasion of Normandy in 1944.
Not all the League’s World War II photos were taken on the battlefield, or for that matter, the home front. Taken in 1946 in Shanghai, Arthur Rothstein’s photo, Refugees Looking at List of Survivors, is a great documentary achievement. It is not only aesthetically appealing, it captures the tension of the moment. During the war, more than 18,000 Jews fled to China, one of the few countries that didn’t limit immigration or require visas or passports. Refugees lived in a one square mile area, the Shanghai Ghetto.
With men away, the war opened up opportunities for women photographers who found recognition and asserted their own style. On the walls of the Museum are uncompromising portraits by Lisette Model and empowering civil rights images of Rosalie Gwathmey.
Weegee and his genre are in a class of their own and get a great deal of wall space at the Jewish Museum. There is even a first edition of his famous 1945 book, Naked City. Weegee—who took his name after his seemingly uncanny ability to arrive in a split-second at the scene of a crime in time to capture the horrors of its aftermath. Weegee was famous during his lifetime. He had his own exhibition “Murder is my Business,” at the Photo League in 1941.
The Radical Camera is a wonderful glimpse into New York history. There are flyers and photos of popular Photo League wartime events. Crazy Camera Balls were organized to raise money. For Halloween 1948, guests were invited to “Come dressed as your favorite photograph.” Photo Hunts were another popular wartime activity. Photographers vied for the most obscure, ridiculous, fantastic shots, which were judged by senior members. The League was also a school open to professional and amateur photographers. A catalog from the early 1940’s indicates that novices could take 12 sessions for $15. The advisory board included Berenice Abbott, Margaret Bourke-White and Paul Strand.
The League’s loose association with the radical left, including many Communists, came back to haunt it as its exploration of class and civil rights was seen as dangerous in postwar America. A December 5, 1947 front-page story in The New York Times: “90 Groups, Schools Named on U.S. List as Being Disloyal” proved the beginning of the end for the New York Photo League. The treacherous back-story is that in 1942, the FBI recruited a League member, Angela Calomaris, as an undercover agent to infiltrate the Communist party. She photographed party members who were also in the Photo League, eventually naming Sid Grossman as a Communist. In 1949, HUAC (House on Un-American Activities Committee) named the Photo League as a front organization for Communism. Red Masquerade, Colomaris’ book documenting her adventures, is on display.
As a result of the blacklist, the group was evicted from its headquarters at 31 East 21st Street in 1948 and moved to the basement of the Hotel Albert at 23 East Tenth Street, where it remained until it closed in 1951. The new space was the venue for a large exhibit, “This Is The Photo League,“ featuring the work of 90 past and present members. The group made a concerted effort to re-brand itself as A Center for American Photography, emphasizing documentary work, and Photo Notes became an influential publication.
Some of the best images in the exhibit are postwar pictures that include Chalk Games by Arthur Lepzig. Taken in 1950 it is a bird’s-eye view of street life. Ruth Orkin’s Boy Jumping into Hudson Riverfrom 1948 captures the daredevil aspect of being a street kid in a city where each neighborhood gang had its own turf. Over sixty years old, this photo captures an aspect of New York childhood that is unthinkable today.
Documentation of social injustice remained a Photo League theme. Lynchings in the South led to rallies in Madison Square Park in 1946 that were photographed by Sonia Handelmam Meyer. Another member Marian Palfi went to The Georgia town where locals were acquitted of a 1949 lynching after a one-day trial. Her book of photos There Is No More Time was never published. Sometimes the resistance was exposing the truth was sadly overwhelming, Rosalie Gwathemey’s husband, painter Robert was harassed by the FBI and after the League was blacklisted in 1951, she stopped making photos and destroyed many negatives.
Many photographers found a new phenomenon to capture in postwar America, as prosperity upstaged the social consciousness. The Photo League closed its doors in 1951, but not before members produced some indelible images.
A poster for the Jewish Museum exhibition, Woman at Perfume Counter 1948, is was taken by Dan Weiner, who was acutely aware that a magazines were now promoting the voyeuristic kind of journalism that is pervasive today. His picture, At the Ceremonies for the Laying of the United Nations Building’s Cornerstone, taken in 1949, spotlights a gang of photographers and newsreel truck. His Autorama Top Hats, circa1950, points to the prosperity of the car-crazy 1950s. Weiner was not alone. Two of the exhibition final pictures, Sy Kattelson’s Untitled photo of Subway car advertisements from 1949 and Arnold Eagle’s Car Passing Car from 1950 spotlight the luxurious sides of postwar life that would become the social norm.
The show also included clips from Little Fugitive. The 1953 feature film, made Engel and Orkin, who were married, translates the Photo League’s documentary sensibility to film. Nominated for an Academy Award, Little Fugitive, shot without sound, tells the story of a seven-year-old boy who spends a day alone at Jones Beach. It’s a superb finale to this important exhibit about an artistic collaborative that changed the course of modern photography.
Coming after Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore, presented in September, The Radical Camera, which was organized with the Columbus Museum of Art, is yet another outstanding exhibit at The Jewish Museum on 92ndStreet and Fifth Avenue.