NEW YORK (Reuters) - Compelling portraits of everyday life drawn from the streets of New York City form the heart of a new exhibit opening on Friday at The Jewish Museum.
“The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951,” recognizes the role that the League played in the evolution of the documentary photograph,
The organization of young, idealistic photographers saw documentary photography as both an art form and a way to argue for social justice.
“The documentary photograph changed as a result of the really great teaching that distinguished the League in the form of (photographer) Sid Grossman who pushed his students to discover the meaning of their work, but also their relationship to it,” said Mason Klein, curator at The Jewish Museum. “That helped their work become more subjective and more poetic.”
The League’s photographers captured public and private moments: tenement balconies full of people angling for a good view of a passing parade, a woman gazing at a Bleecker Street bakery window, a solitary walker on the Brooklyn Bridge, swing dancers in Harlem. Some images are beautiful; some stark. Many comment subtly on class, race, and disparities of opportunity.
The League’s darkroom, exhibition space, and its acclaimed newsletter “Photo Notes” all drew photographers together in a space where they could socialize and exchange ideas.
Women actively participated in the League where they found rare access and recognition.
“We were interested in the synergy of the League, that critical mass of artistry that resulted from the Photo League’s panoply of activities,” said Catherine Evans, William and Sarah Ross Curator of Photography at the Columbus Museum of Art, which collaborated with The Jewish Museum on the exhibit.
Photographers Lewis Hine, Berenice Abbott and Paul Strand were mentors to the League while the younger generation included Grossman, Morris Engel, Arthur Leipzig, Lisette Model, Ruth Orkin, Walter Rosenblum, Aaron Siskind, W. Eugene Smith, Weegee, 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 Anne Wilkes Tucker, photography curator at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in an essay in the exhibition’s catalog.
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,” Klein said.
“The subsequent generation of photographers was sort of apolitical,” he said. “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 through March 25, 2012 and will then travel to the Columbus Museum of Art, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, and the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Editing by Patricia Reaney