WEEKEND EDITION

Radical Camera: The Photo League’s Left-Leaning Lens

| November 3, 2011 1:35 PM video
Where: The Jewish Museum
Opening: Nov. 4, 2011
Closing: Mar. 25, 2012
Price: $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, $7.50 for students, free for children and members 
Photo courtesy The Jewish Museum.

There are photographs we acknowledge for their aesthetic value. And there are images that shake us, provoke our emotions and compel us to question our roles in the world. Much of the visual language of modern photography can be traced back to a band of young photographers who captured New York in tumultuous times, starting with the Great Depression and ending with the so-called Red Scare.

The New York Photo League was a cooperative of radical photographers, born out of the labor movement, who were determined to use their cameras as a tool for social change. The League’s members included noted mid-20th century photographers such as Weegee, W. Eugene Smith, Aaron Siskind, Bernice Abbott and Ruth Orkin. But in 1951, after the U.S. Attorney General publicly blacklisted the Photo League for its left-leaning roots, the group disappeared.

A new exhibition, The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936 – 1951, and a documentary film, “Ordinary Miracles, The Photo League’s New York,” examine the back story of the Photo League.

MetroFocus spoke with the exhibit’s curator Mason Klein and filmmaker Nina Rosenblum about the League’s past and its current impact on art and politics.

The above photograph, Untitled (Tenements, New York), c. 1937, is by Consuelo Kanaga. She began lecturing at the New York Photo League in 1938. Photo courtesy of The Jewish Museum.

Q: You said the New York Photo League has been largely ignored by historians. Why do you think this is?

MK: They’ve been dealt a harsh hand of fate. During the Red Scare, the Photo League’s early beginnings as a communist press were dredged up. Ironically, at the time, the group had already started to reshape itself as a “Center for American Photography,” with the goal of fostering documentary photography as a fine art. It’s important to show how their work played a role in photography’s shift from objective, bearing witness, to a more subjective understanding of the world.

NR: Some of it still has to do with the impact of the FBI blacklisting the Photo League; people were really scared and didn’t know how to portray them as a collective. My father, Walter Rosenblum, was a member of the Photo League league and my mother, Naomi Rosenblum, is a photography historian and has written extensively about their work. We could piece together a narrative, but there’s never been a definitive text on the Photo League.

We organized a reunion for the Photo Leaguers who were still with us in 1999. We filmed the gathering and that experience became the basis for our documentary. It was 12 years of work, on-and-off, during which we interviewed more than 50 surviving members and gathered around 350 images. We wanted to tell the story of the Photo League from the members’ point of view, as opposed to the critics or historians, so we went back the source.

Q: What is the relationship between the New York Photo League and documentary practice?

MK: I think the 1930s was a burgeoning moment in the history of photography. Small hand-held 35 mm cameras had just been introduced and people wanted to know how others were living. Life magazine was first published in 1936, the same year the Photo League formed, and Look was founded a year later. Members of the Photo League were the first photographers to look closely at ordinary people — shop keepers, street musicians, laborers and children. They were impelled to learn and then educate people about the severity of the Great Depression. As the Photo League evolved, the members adopted a more creative approach to documentary photography. They were concerned with the aesthetics, such as light, composition and framing, in addition to content. Photojournalism is no longer separate from art, there is always that overlap.

“A photograph is as personal as a name, a fingerprint, a kiss. It concerns me intimately and passionately,” said Photo League photographer Sid Grossman. Above is his photograph "Coney Island," c. 1947. Photo courtesy of The Jewish Museum.

NR: I think documentary is a response to the need to visualize the working class in a new culture of media and information, corresponding to the era of mass democracy.

Members of the Photo League started shooting labor unrests and strikes, but that felt limiting, not that it wasn’t important. The Leaguers fought for a broader audience to connect with their images. They didn’t want their photos to be seen only once in a newspaper or a magazine, they wanted to have a lasting impact on humanity.

During WWII, when all of the men went overseas, they served as conflict photographers. In the film, we show some of the pictures they made of the soldiers at rest, in their daily lives, as well as combat.
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“Ordinary Miracles, The Photo League’s New York,” co-directed by Nina Rosenblum and Daniel Allentuck, is the first documentary devoted to the Photo League. The film reexamines the members’ dedication to social justice and their legacy in the world of documentary photography and modern art.

Q: How did the New York Photo League influence social reform?

CK: The leaguers were very much inspired by Lewis Hine, whose images of workers, especially children, were instrumental in changing labor laws in the United States. In a sense, the Photo Leaguers were sociologists, exploring urban neighborhoods, block by block. They would spend months in one community, photographing people at work and in their homes in order to create poetic renderings of the social and economic conditions of the time.

"Butterfly Boy," by Jerome Liebling, was taken in New York in 1949. Photo courtesy of the Jewish Museum.

However, the “Harlem Document,” which was probably their most famous project, became very controversial. The photographers’ political agenda was well meaning, but their images imposed a stereotypical view of the Harlem community.

Q: Is there a space for contemporary photographers to serve a similar role in the political landscape?

NR: I think there are so many parallels between the Photo League’s mission to use photography for social change and the movements happening around the world today. The Photo League started in the depths of the Depression and many of the members were very poor and working class. Anytime a person puts something on paper, it’s no longer objective, there is always a point of view. But if you’re working for an established media organization, it’s always going to come down to which side of the struggle are you on.

  • Kathryn

    Thanks for a reminder about a wonderful organization and the power of photojournalism.
    …worth 1000 words…

  • James Roy Graham

    For Nina Rosenblum: Re The Photo League, I thought I might mention that there was a reunion of The League about 1977 at The New School. I knew Gene Smith at the time and took what I like to think is one of the last public portraits. I also have a reportage group shot that might be of some interest.

    • Dean Kotula

      James Roy Graham, please contact me.

  • http://www.theoaklandcriminallawyer.com/ Dennis Roberts

    It is so wonderful that you did this.  I saw the show in NYC just before it closed in March.  Arnold Eagle (the beautiful photo of the Third Avenue El) was my uncle and I have many of his photographs.  I am so glad the Photo League artists are finally being recognized.  Towards the end of his life Arnold taught a course for film makers at The New School.  

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