One of the most riveting chapters in American photographic history belongs to New York’s Photo League.
It began in 1936 as an outgrowth of the international worker-photo movement, and within a few years its membership swelled to include many of America’s leading photojournalists, as well as a great many aspirants, who, under the League’s tutelage, attained greatness, though not necessarily fame. Their work, which prefigured (and also overlapped with) that of the more celebrated New York School of the ‘60s, is on view in The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951, at the CJM through January 21. For those who think the golden era of American street photography began with Robert Frank, William Klein and Garry Winogrand, this show, organized by the Jewish Museum in New York and the Columbus Museum of Art, will likely serve as a corrective.
At its peak, in 1947, the League had 178 members, and its roster reads like a who’s who of pre- and post-WWII American photography. Paul Strand, Berenice Abbott, Lewis Hine, Arnold Newman, Lisette Model, Helen Levitt, Aaron Siskin, Max Yavno, Louis Stettner, Weegee (Arthur Fellig) and Arthur Leipzig were among the marquee names. But there were others of equal stature who today are barely known, including Vivian Cherry, Lucy Ashjian, Solomon Fabricant (aka Sol Prom), Rosalie Gwathmey, Consuelo Kanaga, Sonia Handelman Meyer and Joe Schwartz to name but a few.
One of the misconceptions this show lays to rest is that League members were blinkered by ideology. They were, for the most part, left-leaning working-class Jews, committed to using the camera as an instrument of social change, but they were equally bent on realizing a personal vision – something the League’s leader, Sid Grossman, stressed with utter conviction while holding firm to his own Communist ideals. The latter, as it happened, led to the League’s demise. After being tagged by the U.S. attorney general in 1947 as a subversive organization, the League, under intense internal and external pressure, dissolved in 1951, despite full-throated attempts to portray itself as a cultural organization. Its official mission was to teach photography and to provide members with cheap photo supplies, not political indoctrination.
The League came of age at a time when photojournalism’s influence on public opinion was at its zenith. As America caromed from the Great Depression to WWII to the Cold War, it supplied newspapers and magazines with images that reflected the times. Labor unrest, urban and rural poverty, racial discrimination, slum conditions and the rise of Fascism in Europe were the subjects, and on these issues members generally agreed – change was desperately needed. Though members worked all over the U.S and in Europe, their focus was on New York City. They disagreed about whether subjective aesthetic choices made for good journalism and whether, conversely, journalistic “objectivity” made for good art. Today, the idea that the two were incompatible seems quaint. But at the time, both photojournalism — and the idea that it could also be art — were in their infancy. In hindsight we can see which side prevailed. It was art. If you arrive half expecting to be bombarded by Soviet-style agit-prop you’ll be floored by the poetry embedded in the most abject images. Seen through the lens of history and recent scholarship, the League’s output ranks among the strongest photojournalistic art of all time. Throw a dart anywhere in this exhibition and you’ll strike greatness.
Consuelo Kanaga’s picture of a five-story ziggurat of laundry lines, strung between tenements, is one of the best images of slum housing ever made. It moves “airing dirty laundry” from metaphor to palpable fact, all without showing a single person. Building stoop and sidewalk dramas, another staple of New York street photography, are also well represented. In this subgenre, I always considered Helen Levitt to be the undisputed master until I saw Joe Schwartz’s Sullivan Midget 2 (Greenwich Village), a 1939 image of teenagers and young boys in front of a building, each lost in their own thoughts. Oddly, despite the remarkable composition, it’s not relationships that lodge in memory; it’s the decrepitude of the housing stock. Kids were merely proxies for larger struggles. Vivian Cherry’s two images of three boys enacting a mock lynching; Robert Disraeli’s violence-tinged image of two girls browsing the window of a knife store; and Arthur Leipzig’s shot of two girls in a doll factory (where the heads, aligned in rows recall the Paris catacombs) are all excellent examples. So, too, are Sonia Handelman Meyer’s and Marvin E. Newman’s portraits of masked children whose innocent play seems freighted with adult concerns.
At other junctures kids are as just kids. Walter Rosenblum’s lyrical image of a girl on a swing framed by the Williamsburg Bridge, and Arthur Leipzig’s high-angle shot of children playing chalk games in Brooklyn are ideology-free documents of urban life as it was then lived. I’d also nominate Sol Libsohn’s picture of people on a tenement stoop, David Robbins’ jam-packed Subway Station from 1944, and Morris Engel’s Surrealist-tinged Shoeshine Boy with Cop, 14th Street, where a tall mirror at the side of the frame allows the photographer to capture action unfolding on both sides of the camera. Such images reflect the circus-like nature of the city, then and now. Grossman, perhaps, captured the electric atmosphere best in his picture of the San Gennaro Festival in Little Italy, which, with it blurred action and high-contrast, look like stills from an Italian Neorealist film. Such images will likely elicit nostalgic reactions from those who recall pre- and mid-century New York. In that regard, I particularly relish storefronts like those pictured in Berenice Abbott’s Gunsmith, 6 Centre Market Place, where a giant icon representing the merchandise is suspended over the sidewalk, presumably for the benefit of those who can’t read English.
One thing that differentiated the League’s output from what preceded it is how its members portrayed the city. By the mid to late ‘30s, paeans to Modernism — like those made by Margaret Bourke-White – had given way to a more jaded view. Rather than express the glories of capitalist ingenuity, League photographers used architectural monuments as backdrops for broken dreams. A heavy-handed, but devastatingly effective, example is Rebecca Lepkoff’s image of a shattered window on South Street. Beyond the broken glass, which occupies the right side of the frame, a group of men huddle on a stoop, while the Woolworth and Chrysler buildings loom in the distance. The picture needs no interpretation. Neither does Weegee’s night shot of the Empire State Building. With lightening bolts overhead and a wind-blown American flag appearing to spill from a nearby building, the feel is foreboding if not apocalyptic.
Pictures from the Harlem Document series are, for me, the show’s highlights. Oddly, a catalog essay by Maurice Berger, a professor at the University of Maryland, blasts it for having been produced almost entirely by white photographers and for promulgating a negative image of the community at a time when its resident photographers were trying to do the opposite by making pictures of its cultural heroes. Indeed, a few images do look as if they could have illustrated How the Other Half Lives, but his charges of “racial tourism” and bias don’t stick. A lot of what we see in this series is youth and glamor bathed in luscious noir-ish light. Sol Prom’s shot of six girls sitting on a bench at the Mary Bruce Dancing School is a knockout. It captures a remarkably candid, neon-lit moment in which three separate, but very intimate, conversations are taking place simultaneously in close quarters. Had you been a fly on the wall, you could have constructed the beginnings of a novel from a scene like this – or, for that matter, from any of a dozen other equally powerful portraits.
Armed with Leicas and street smarts, League photographers captured New York at a time of cataclysmic change, a time during which photography itself was undergoing vast changes in orientation, from activism to individualism to fine art.
–DAVID M. ROTH
“The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951” @ the Contemporary Jewish Museum through January 21, 2013.