Sid Grossman, Coney Island, c. 1947, gelatin silver print. The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: The Paul Strand Trust for the benefit of Virginia Stevens Gift. © Howard Greenberg Gallery.

If you are interested in history, enjoy vintage black-and-white photographs, or just like a good New York story, make sure to see The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-51, at the Jewish Museum in New York City through March 25.  The show is a highly commendable effort to reclaim a well-deserved spot in art history for a unique New York phenomenon that existed for fifteen years, from 1936 until 1951.

The Photo League, which became one of the casualties of the McCarthy-era witch-hunts and blacklists, was a dynamic combination of school, darkroom, gallery, salon, and social club for idealistic amateur and professional photographers. In the relatively short time it existed, hundreds of photographers participated in the League, many of them first-generation Jewish immigrants. Among these photographers were founding member and visionary teacher Sid Grossman, who was blacklisted for being a member of the Communist Party and tragically accused of using the Photo League as a front for Communist meetings. Other well-known members were co-founders Paul Strand and Berenice Abbot, Walter Rosenblum, Aaron Siskind, Lisette Model, Ida Wyman, Ruth Orkin, and Weegee.

Weegee, Max Is Rushing in the Bagels to a Restaurant on Second Avenue for the Morning Trade, c. 1940, gelatin silver print. The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Joan B. and Richard L. Barovick Family Foundation and Bunny and Jim Weinberg Gifts. © Weegee / International Center of Photography / Getty Images

At the entrance of the show there is a video newsreel made by the Workers Film and Photo League (WFPL) called “Workers Newsreel Unemployment Special.” The video shows protesters at Union Square in 1931 demanding government assistance for the unemployed. The Photo League had its origins in WFPL, which itself originated from a Communist organization in Germany called Workers International Relief (WIR). WIR was a Berlin-based international organization offering support to strikers and their families. Thus, for the first few years of its existence as a local New York organization, the Photo League was driven by the radical political ideals that had defined the two groups from which it had originated. It is now clear, however, that despite being blacklisted as a Communist organization in 1947,  the Photo League had no particular political agenda either at that time or when it disbanded in 1951.

Lisette Model, Lower East Side, c. 1940, gelatin silver print. The Jewish Museum, New York, Gift of Howard Greenberg. © The Lisette Model Foundation, Inc. (1983). Used by permission.

The Photo League came into existence during the Great Depression, when many artists in New York City were Socialist or Communist. Leftist photographers joined the League to document the suffering of the people around them, a form of artistic and political activism. While many photographers were taking jobs recording the terrible conditions in the Dust Bowl and other parts of rural America, Sid Grossman encouraged the members of the Photo League to capture the lives of the people and neighborhoods of New York.

Lee Sievan, Salvation Army Lassie in Front of a Woolworth Store, c. 1940, gelatin silver print. The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Fund. © Estate of Lee Sievan.

All through the 1930s, the Photo League members hotly debated the importance of having political elements in their photographs. At the same time, there was always a lot of discussion about and focus on what constituted a good photograph. Grossman insisted that the photographers he taught understand why they were taking the pictures that they took, and he encouraged them to be aware of their relationship to their subjects.

The Radical Camera traces the development of this consciousness in photography. At the risk of greatly oversimplifying a complex show or the work of the Photo League, the photographs go from being relatively objective documentary records with a social mission and formal clarity to empathetic works of art reflecting the photographers’ personal concerns with respect to aesthetic and political issues.

The show is organized in a roughly chronological way, with rooms focusing on the photographers who inspired the Photo League; the Great Depression and a project called the Harlem Document; World War II; the McCarthy era; the Photo League itself from the mid-1940s to the early 1950s; and the League’s tragic end with a tribute to Sid Grossman.

While wandering through the galleries is like taking a walk through history, it is also a stroll through the different neighborhoods of New York City, and other cities, with glimpses of life in other parts of America and abroad. At the same time, the show is a record of the development of photography as an art form from the end of Modernism, to the arrival of the hand-held camera and the new mobility it afforded, to the rise of weekly magazines filled with photojournalism, like Look and Life, to a new type of more personal and experimental way of making pictures.

Lewis Hine, Steamfitter, 1920, gelatin silver print. Howard Greenberg Gallery.

The show starts with an area called Precursors that is made up of the WFPL protest video newsreel and several photographs by sociologist and photographer Lewis Hine and his student Paul Strand. Hine is best known for his photographs of construction workers on top of the Empire State Building without any safety equipment. His work as a photojournalist for many different organizations, including the National Child Labor Committee, was a catalyst for social change. Hine’s work was the inspiration for the early form that the Photo League took after breaking away from the WFPL. Having seen that documentary photography could be a powerful tool for social reform, Paul Strand founded the Photo League, together with Berenice Abbot.

Berenice Abbott, Zito’s Bakery, 259 Bleecker Street, 1937, from Changing New York, 1935–39, gelatin silver print. The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Mimi and Barry J. Alperin Fund.

The next area is called The Great Depression and the Harlem Document. It starts out with photographs of storefronts, bridges, vacant lots, tenement buildings and lines of laundry, often taken from a distance and without people. Gradually the photographs become more human, more intimate, and somehow more daring. The Harlem Document was a project intended to document the lives of people living in Harlem. Seen from today’s perspective, some of the photographs of poverty and hardship look uncomfortably stereotypical and superficial, despite the well-meaning intentions of the photographers. Others, like Aaron Siskind’s The Wishing Tree, are more serendipitous images that appear nuanced and feel more genuinely empathetic.

Aaron Siskind, The Wishing Tree, 1937, printed later, from Harlem Document, 1936–40, gelatin silver print. The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Lillian Gordon Bequest. © Aaron Siskind Foundation / Courtesy Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York.

Next is an area called The War Years. With the arrival of World War II came new subject matter: an antiwar demonstration, a political rally, mothers honoring their sons, and sailors out on the town. At this point in time, the members of the Photo League seem to be working more freely and in different directions, focusing on a wider variety of subjects, finding their own personal viewpoints and experimenting with individual approaches and techniques.

Ida Wyman, Spaghetti 25 Cents, New York, 1945, gelatin silver print. The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Photography Acquisitions Committee Fund. © Ida Wyman.

In this area, Ida Wyman’s Spaghetti 25 Cents shows a restaurant window with a sign in one corner reading “Ladies Invited.” The photograph evinces the new freedom that women had gained to dine unaccompanied by men, and alludes generally to the new opportunities for women arising out of the war effort.

Walter Rosenblum, D-Day Rescue, Omaha Beach, 1944, gelatin silver print. Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, Photo League Collection, Museum Purchase with funds provided by Elizabeth M. Ross, the Derby Fund, John S. and Catherine Chapin Kobacker, and the Friends of the Photo League. © Estate of Walter Rosenblum.

And there are also two haunting photographs by decorated war photographer Walter Rosenblum taken in Normandy, one from Omaha Beach on D-Day and one of young German prisoners of war.

The area devoted to photographs taken during the McCarthy era is called The Red Scare. These photographs were taken between 1945 and 1952. Much of the impact of this area of the show has been created by the curators in their careful selection of works, all of which have an underlying darkness. Both before and after the blacklisting of the Photo League, and until the League shut down, its photographers were working under conditions of fear and uncertainty, often with conflicting loyalties. The poisonous atmosphere of danger and paranoia in America is reflected in the photographs.

Marion Palfi, In the Shadow of the Capitol, 1948, gelatin silver print. The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Photography Acquisitions Committee Fund. © 1998 Arizona Board of Regents, Center for Creative Photography.

 

Jerome Liebling, Butterfly Boy, New York, 1949, gelatin silver print. The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Mimi and Barry J. Alperin Fund. © Estate of Jerome Liebling.

There are many photographs of children in this section, and every single photograph has a dark side. There are three young, wary black girls in a dirty alley with the Capitol building in the distance. There is a black girl walking by a large “shout freedom” sign. There is the tiny, intensely vulnerable “butterfly boy” who appears to have no arms. There are two Chinese American children trapped behind the windows of the Ideal Laundry store.  There are photographs of a boy smoking, a boy with closed eyes, a boy wearing a mask over his mouth, and a shoeshine boy being confronted by two policemen. There is a photograph of two girls looking at a window full of big knives and an equally off-putting photograph of two girls looking at a giant rack of doll heads in a doll factory.

Arthur Leipzig, Chalk Games, Prospect Place, Brooklyn, 1950, printed later, gelatin silver print. The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Rictavia Schiff Bequest. © Arthur Leipzig.

 

Ruth Orkin, Boy Jumping into Hudson River, 1948, gelatin silver print. The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Fund. © Estate of Ruth Orkin.

 

Vivian Cherry, Game of Lynching, East Harlem, 1947, gelatin silver print. The Jewish Museum, New York, Gift of the Artist. © Vivian Cherry.

Even the photographs of children at play are disturbing given the political climate of the time. In Arthur Leipzig’s Chalk Games a group of boys energetically play among chalk drawings depicting the American flag, a cowboy, and a submarine, as well as other more innocent and mysterious symbols. In Ruth Orkin’s Boy Jumping into Hudson River, the game of jumping looks dangerous and the position of the boy’s body is tense, as if it is meant to terrify. And in Vivian Cherry’s two upsetting photographs, both called Game of Lynching, East Harlem, several boys are pretending to lynch a black boy.

The next area of the show is called A Center for American Photography. Right before the Photo League was blacklisted, the members had redefined its mission as: to “contribute to the growth of individual artists and to the community.” They had also decided to change the League’s name to A Center for American Photography to reflect this new purpose and goal. And they had even started a renovation project to improve the appearance of the League’s headquarters and upgraded the design of its newsletter to look more professional. In this area of the show, there is information about the last five years of the Photo League, its decline and demise. There are also photographs from roughly the same time period as The Red Scare.

Ruth Orkin, Times Square, from Astor Hotel, 1950, gelatin silver print. The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Fund. © Estate of Ruth Orkin.

The photographs in A Center for American Photography are very personal and diverse. They are still street photographs, but they are very different in subject and style from the early photographs from the 1930s. There are several photographs composed of hats, and the tops and backs of heads. Ruth Orkin’s Times Square, from Astor Hotel is an interesting example of an increasingly abstract approach to photography.

Marvin E. Newman, Halloween, South Side, 1951, gelatin silver print. The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Photography Acquisitions Committee Fund. © Marvin E. Newman.

There are also blurred photographs depicting motion, photographs taken from extreme angles, and images cropped in unusual ways. In Marvin E. Newman’s Halloween, South Side, the monstrous oddity of the masked girl is framed  in the tense circular composition of the picture in which the black girl’s face is slightly blurred, the white girl’s face is struck with terror and most of the boy’s face is outside of the frame. And in Sid Grossman’s Coney Island, a group of teenagers form a circle with their bodies, and look directly down into the tilted camera, confronting its presence with mocking stares.

The show ends with an area called Coda, a tribute to Sid Grossman. It consists of one photograph, a glass case with a book and a photograph of Grossman teaching, and a documentary film about the Photo League. Grossman was forced out of the Photo League in 1949, and died in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 1955, at age 42.

Despite its sad ending, The Radical Camera is a wonderful, thought-provoking, and uplifting show. It is worth seeing, if only for the historical details found in the one hundred and fifty photographs from seventy-three different photographers.

The story of the group of idealistic New York photographers whose work helped to develop street photography into an art form has never been told in such detail and with such inclusiveness before. The Radical Camera shows the many small, but important, changes that took place in photography in America between the 1930s and the 1950s that eventually led to the photographs of the New York School. It remembers many fine photographers who have been more or less overlooked by history because of the fear and censorship that was prevalent at the time. And, finally, it gives Sid Grossman credit for being a passionate artist, a visionary photographer and a deeply influential teacher.

The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-51 is a collaboration between the Jewish Museum and the Columbus Museum of Art, both of which have extensive collections of work by members of the Photo League. It opened in New York and can be seen at the Jewish Museum through March 25, 2012. It will travel to Columbus, San Francisco, and West Palm Beach.

The Jewish Museum
1109 5th Ave (at 92nd St.)
New York City
Through March 25, 2012

Columbus Museum of Art
Columbus, Ohio
April 19–September 9, 2012

Contemporary Jewish Museum
San Francisco
November 15, 2012, to February 24, 2013

Norton Museum of Art
West Palm Beach (early 2013)


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  • Lastest Pictures Of Relief Projects Of The Great Depression News | reliefdepression.com March 29, 2012 at 12:26 am

    […] The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-51 The show is organized in a roughly chronological way, with rooms focusing on the photographers who inspired the Photo League; the Great Depression and a project called the Harlem Document; World War II; the McCarthy era; the Photo League itself from … Read more on Women’s Voices for Change […]

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  • quintessence March 6, 2012 at 7:08 am

    Wow – looks like a fabulous exhibit!! Thank you Suzanne!!

    Reply