Photographers Taking It To The Streets

Jewish Museum’s ‘Radical Camera’ show highlights the pioneering work of the N.Y. Photo League.

11/08/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
Photo Galleria: 

The juxtaposition in the photograph, like the contrast between the makeshift encampment at Zuccotti Park and the soaring tower of Goldman Sachs’ headquarters, is glaring. On a gritty street on the Lower East Side, the two sides of a tenement building tell a tale of haves and have-nots, the 1 percent and the 99. In Erika Stone’s striking black-and-white photo, a family’s gray underthings hang limply on a clothesline, framed by the tenement’s fading brick, while on the adjoining wall a well-coiffed and full-lipped blonde in an advertisement gazes sexily upward, a boxy ring on her finger and a sleek watch on her wrist.

Stone’s arresting photo, “Lower East Side Façade,” is one of a number of powerful images from the 1930s and ’40s in the new Jewish Museum show, “The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951.” The show’s timing, hitting as it does when the Great Depression and its aftermath seem very much in the air because of the Occupy Wall Street movement sweeping the nation, gives it an added jolt. And you can just imagine Photo League members like Sid Grossman, Bernard Cole and Ida Wyman walking the streets of the city shooting the pop-up tents and scruffy occupants of Zuccotti Park, and those on unemployment lines and those pasting “Out of Business” signs on their storefronts — all victims of the Great Recession.

The Photo League, a group of bold picture makers who set out to radically upend how images and the subjects of those images were presented, was in existence only for a short time, from the mid-’30s to the early ’50s. But its photographers, who saw a sense of social justice in their work, have had a lasting impact on the way we see the urban landscape, as well as on the poignancy images can have when times are hard.

“The Radical Camera” show traces the League through its artistic output in a mostly chronological display of work created during a tumultuous time. We see images from the eras of the Great Depression, the Second World War, and finally the Cold War. The show opens with excerpts of a 1931 newsreel produced by the Film and Photo League, an offshoot of the left-wing Workers International Relief; setting the tone for the entire exhibit, it reveals crowds massing and protesting in Lower Manhattan, and the echoes of today’s Occupy protests is unmistakable. Five years later, the photography wing broke away to form its own group.

The rise of magazines in the ’30s meant that there was a larger market for pictures, and thanks to the advent of the handheld camera, photographers could take to the streets along with their fellow city dwellers and document action as it happened without the old-fashioned cumbersome photography shoot setup. Photo League members did just that, chronicling everyday life in New York as well as in select other places. Working close to the ground at all times, these photographers lived by an artistic ethos of trying to make pictures that mattered. A quote from Lisette Model, a League member, hangs on a gallery wall and captures the aesthetic: “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.”

It seemed to be a shot across the bow at modernism, the art world’s predominant style at the time, which to some seemed out of touch with the reality of everyday life. The modernist style was captured in a recent Jewish Museum show featuring the works of the Jewish surrealist Man Ray.

In contrast to Man Ray is Photo League founder Sid Grossman, whose work is as realistic as Ray’s is surrealistic. Grossman had served in Panama with the Air Force Public Relations Section and had also traveled to photograph union organizers and farmers in the Dust Bowl states of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri. Though Grossman believed in taking documentary-style pictures, he understood the appeal and the power of subjective photography, a method he experimented with on his Midwestern trip. This dichotomy of approaches to taking pictures was constant fodder for Photo League discussion as members debated over aesthetic versus objective images. As a leader in the League, Grossman both encouraged the League’s social mindedness and supported League members’ individual styles.

Using New York City as a classroom and harnessing the attitude that photography is important and capable of fostering change, The Photo League served a number of roles for its members. It provided classes, a darkroom and an open space for debate and discussion about photography that was akin to a salon; it housed gallery space and featured lectures and presentations in addition to publishing a newsletter that acted as its own medium for individual expression. The League also provided a socialization through its Photo Hunt contests that sent members around the city in search of creative images, and its Crazy Camera Balls, which served as fundraisers to supplement the League’s meager dues. 

League members shot in New York City streets, on the subways and around town. They are best known for selecting everyday people for their photographs and capturing them doing what they would be doing even if there weren’t a camera in front of them: going to work, taking dance lessons, going to the beach. A shoemaker, light bathing his cherubic face, is shot having lunch at his worktable; a boy is caught trudging down a snow-filled Lower East Side street lugging a tire past a wall plastered with posters of Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire in “Gentleman’s Agreement,” about anti-Semitism in the workplace — the contrast is jarring; the Brooklyn Bridge is shown as dark clouds gather, its elegant latticework and cathedral arches grace notes against the coming storm.

One section of the exhibit focuses on the Harlem Document, a project meant to advocate on behalf of the neighborhood; in the end it failed, distorting the neighborhood’s troubles. However, the idea that a group of photographers cared to focus on Harlem is of interest, and the League’s large number of Jewish members committed to social justice may be the reason. As the show’s co-curator Mason Klein notes, “The ability to study the insular life of neighborhoods and to observe urban spaces was what Jews, perhaps better than any other segment of the population at that time, were equipped to do.”

The League was also unique for the relatively high percentage of women who participated, held high-level positions, and whose work is prized alongside that of their male counterparts here. Co-curator Catherine Evans of the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio writes in her catalogue essay that, “Photography seems to have been a medium particularly welcoming of women — perhaps because it was new and not burdened with centuries of tradition.”

Sadly, a League member who was actually a paid FBI informant, accused Grossman of using the League as a front organization for his communist ties. Grossman in particular was harassed more than others; his informant did not fail to mention his Austrian-Jewish background to authorities. Grossman absented himself to the quiet of Provincetown, Mass., where he taught and practiced photography until his death in 1955 at the age of 43. The League was publicly blacklisted and eventually forced to shutter.

The deterioration of the Photo League came at a critical time. Just prior to its denunciation, it had reached its peak membership, and the organization was attempting to restyle itself as the Center for American Photography. It had hoped this new center would elevate documentary photography to the place of fine art. But given the venomous atmosphere in McCarthy-era American society, the goal would have to wait.

“The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo Leauge, 1936-1951” runs at The Jewish Museum, Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street, through March 25, 2012. For details, call (212) 423-3200.

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