A new exhibition dubbed "The Radical Camera" collects photos from the Photo League, a group of young, idealistic photographers, most of them Jewish Americans, formed in 1936. The exhibit showcases photos of New York from this era.
A new exhibition, called ‘The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951’, recognises the role that an organisation of young, idealistic snappers played in seeing documentary photography as both an art form and a way to argue for social justice.
These compelling portraits of everyday life between 1936 and 1951 drawn from the streets of New York City have been newly released as part of an exhibit opening on at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan, New York.
Their solidarity centred on a belief in the expressive power of the documentary photograph and on a progressive alliance in the 1930s of socialist ideas and art. The Radical Camera presents the contested path of the documentary photograph during a tumultuous period that spanned the New Deal reforms of the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War.
Members rejected the prevailing style of modernism in order to engage the gritty realities of urban life. Leaguers focused on New York, and this meant looking closely at ordinary people. That impulse spurred the group to explore neighbourhoods, street by street, camera at the ready.
A unique complex of school, darkroom, gallery, and salon, the League was also a place where you learned about yourself. One of its leading members was Sid Grossman who pushed students to discover not only the meaning of their work but also their relationship to it. This transformative approach was one of the League’s most innovative and influential contributions to the medium. By its demise in 1951, the League had propelled documentary photography from factual images to more challenging ones—from bearing witness to questioning one’s own bearings in the world.
The photographers captured public and private moments, such as tenement balconies full of people angling for a good view of a passing parade, a woman gazing at a Bleecker Street bakery window and swing dancers in Harlem.
Photographers Lewis Hine, Berenice Abbott and Paul Strand were mentors to the league while the younger generation included Mr Grossman, Morris Engel, Arthur Leipzig, Lisette Model, Ruth Sorkin, Walter Rosenblum, Aaron Siskind, W. Eugene Smith and many others.
The decade and a half of The Photo League’s existence spanned the Great Depression, The New Deal, World War Two and, finally, the ‘Red Scare’ hunt for domestic Communists to which the League fell victim.
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 League categorically denied the accusation in press releases, meetings, petitions, letters, articles, and even an exhibition – and for a while, the disclaimers worked, writes Houston photography curator Anne Wilkes Tucker in an essay in the exhibition’s catalogue.
But as the blacklisting grew in intensity and reach, membership declined. The League dissolved on October 30, 1951.
‘Fear killed The Photo League,’ said Howard Greenberg, owner of a gallery bearing his name and an early collector and dealer of Photo League work. The blacklisting affected The Photo League even after it was disbanded.
‘At least partly because of the suppression after the blacklisting, the significant role the League – and its teacher Sid Grossman – played in the evolution of the documentary photograph has not been fully recognized,’ Mr Klein said.
‘The subsequent generation of photographers was sort of apolitical. They were turned off to that idea of the documentary photograph as a political statement. And they were validated by the art world.’
The exhibit runs until March 25, 2012 and will then travel to other U.S. cities.
The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street
New York, NY 10128
Saturday through Tuesday
11:00am – 5:45pm
Wednesday – Closed
Thursday – 11:00am – 8:00pm
Friday – 11:00am – 4:00pm
Visit www.thejewishmuseum.org for more information.