Taking Pictures That Matter: 'The Radical Camera' of New York's Photo League
In 1936, a group of young New York photographers established the Photo League under the premise that "photography has tremendous social value," which could edify the photographer as much as the eventual viewer. In an in-depth exhibition of the League's work, The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-1951, organized by the Jewish Museum of New York and the Columbus Museum of Art, fills a long narrow space on the second floor of the Contemporary Jewish Museum with over 150 black and white photographs.
Founded by Sid Grossman and Sol Libsohn, the League was a school, darkroom, gallery, and salon. It offered classes in the mechanics of photography, coinciding perfectly with the emergence of portable 35mm cameras. In addition to those just learning the craft, the Photo League boasted a hearty membership of professional photojournalists and freelance photographers. In fact, the Photo League's member list reads like a who's-who of 20th-century photographers: Aaron Siskind, Berenice Abbot, Weegee, Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, Lucy Ashjian, Arthur Leipzig, the list goes on and on. In the Contemporary Jewish Museum's installation, well-known and unknown names mingle in a chronological display of the League's interests, accomplishments, and ultimate downfall.
Arthur Leipzig, Chalk Games, Prospect Place, Brooklyn, 1950, The Jewish Museum, New York.
The photographs cover every imaginable slice of urban (and sometimes rural) life, shifting over the years from "bearing witness to questioning one's own bearings" behind the lens. Repeated imagery includes eerily unaccompanied children, isolated people dwarfed by architecture, and crowds intent on escaping their conditions -- whether by sunbathing at Coney Island or holding protest posters in a rally to end slum living.
One grouping devoted to Great Depression-era photographs includes two intimate interior shots that stand out beside the streets, storefronts, and other outdoor spaces depicted around them. Eliot Elisofon's Child Bride, Age 15, Memphis, Tennessee and Jack Delano's Interior of New FSA Client Edward Gont's Home, Dameron, Maryland both exemplify the Photo League edict of getting close to one's subject, heightening the perceived loneliness of their impoverished lives.
Eliot Elisofon, Child Bride, Age 15, Memphis, Tennessee, c. 1940; Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, Photo League Collection.
In "The War Years," a vitrine contains documentation of Weegee's first gallery exhibition, Murder Is My Business, hosted by the Photo League in 1941. This view into the League's interior shows wrinkly prints pinned to dingy boards below hand-lettered headings reading "MURDER" and "MORE MURDER." Weegee's exhibition is surprisingly low-budget -- a far cry from his 2012 show at the International Center of Photography. Suddenly Photo League members are in front of the camera themselves, humanizing them, adding a personal dimension to their surrounding photographs. In images from Photo Hunt parties and Crazy Camera Balls, the camaraderie between League members is evident. The parties look tremendously fun.
Walter Rosenblum, Girl on a Swing, New York, 1938, The Jewish Museum, New York.
This makes the final chapter of the Photo League story all the more unfortunate. In 1947, the US Attorney General blacklisted the Photo League in a catch-all condemnation as "totalitarian, fascist, communist, or subversive." A paid FBI informant and member of the League labeled Sid Grossman a Communist and the League as a front. The League rallied against the accusations. For a group dedicated to documentary photography, the blacklisting was perplexing and disheartening. How could it be subversive to photograph reality, to photograph the things and people the photographers themselves truly cared about? The first featured quote in the exhibition is inextricably tied to this question. According to Lisette Model, "The thing that shocks me and which I really try to change is the lukewarmness, the indifference, the kind of taking pictures that really doesn't matter..."
Arthur Leipzig, Ideal Laundry, 1946 The Jewish Museum, New York.
In this vein, the Contemporary Jewish Museum attempts to transcend the historical focus of The Radical Camera via #SFphotohunt, a challenge-based interactive photography contest. Participants email or hashtag their photos to submit responses to various prompts, the first of which was #SecretSpaces. Featured photos are on view at the exhibition's entrance, with real-life prizes up for grabs. As Kathryn Jaller, the museum's New Media Coordinator pointed out: photographs of urban spaces look much the same now as they did in the era of the Photo League. What The Radical Camera offers viewers is a renewed awareness of the power of documentary images and a desire to imbue personal photographs with a sense of social conscience -- a desire to take pictures that matter.
The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-1951 is on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum through January 21, 2013. For more information, visit thecjm.org.
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