‘The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951’
Tue, 09/06/2011
Clockwise from top: The evocative work of Alexander Alland, Sid Grossman, Rebecca Lepkoff and Bernard Cole.
Clockwise from top: The evocative work of Alexander Alland, Sid Grossman, Rebecca Lepkoff and Bernard Cole.

With 150 photographs from such luminaries as Paul Strand, Weegee and Lisette Model, The Jewish Museum will soon host one of the most impressive exhibits of urban photography in history. The exhibit focuses on photographers who were associated with The Photo League, a radical collective that housed a school, a darkroom, a gallery and a salon in Manhattan between 1936 and 1951, and was, above all, driven by a deep social consciousness as well as a refined appreciation of art.

Paintings, and drawings and films too, by The Photo League was founded by Sol Libsohn and Sid Grossman, Jewish New Yorkers with deep socialist roots. But the group’s origins can actually be traced to the communist Workers International Relief group in Berlin, which created a New York branch of a photography group that would become The Photo League in 1936. The League was transformed, however, by the sundry artists who were associated with it from the mid-1930s on; many of them would become icons of both photojournalism and fine art. Richard Avedon and Robert Frank, both Jews, were members, as were grittier but no less artful photographers like Helen Levitt and Arthur Fellig — the latter of whom would earn the name “Weegee” for his knack for arriving at crime scenes even before the police did.

Since so many of the league’s artists were Jewish, The Jewish Museum’s mission is to show why that mattered. With Mason Klein as curator, the case will likely be made clearly and cogently. Klein’s exhibit last year on Man Ray showed how even elusive Jewish identities have a subtle but significant way of making their way into one’s art. More broadly, the exhibit will show how the entire ethic of The Photo League — from its aesthetic ideals, to its moral scruples — influenced the modern art photography scene that would come shortly after it, the so-called New York School.

“The Radical Camera” opens Nov. 4 and runs through March 25, 2012 at The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave. at 92nd St. (212) 423-3200.

‘Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race’

At The Museum Of Jewish Heritage

 The Nazis hardly invented eugenics, the notion that races could be genetically improved. But they took the notion several ghastly steps further with experimentation that involved the killing of human beings. This fall, the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust puts on a provocative exhibit that traces the origins of the eugenics movement to Darwinian notions of “survival of the fittest,” and follows it through to the Nazis’ extreme exploitation of the idea, and onto present-day biomedical ethical questions.

“Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race” shows how, by the 1920s, even the United States was widely practicing sterilization to prevent the spread of inheritable diseases. That raises its own ethical questions — which the exhibit also points out, noting the corollaries to today’s debates abougt pre-natal testing. But the exhibit shows how the Nazis reached the nadir of moral depravity by believing they could engineer a single master race.

Driven by the idea that the Aryan race was superior, the Nazi regime, beginning in 1933, began a ruthless campaign of scientific experimentation and so-called racial hygiene programs meant to convince ethnic Germans that Jews, Roma, gays and the mentally and physical handicapped were threats to the German nation. The exhibit includes many of the artifacts from this campaign. On view are posters and pamphlets that urged Germans to screen their lovers for pseudo-scientific genetic flaws, and told them to avoid marrying them if they had one. There are calipers used by German anthropologists to measure the skulls of different races, as well as instruments used for sterilization. Then there are pictures of the tests being performed, many of them disturbing.

But the exhibit’s personal artifacts — from the pocket watches and brooches recovered by some of the victims, to personal testimonies heard throughout the exhibit, to rosary beads — help draw the viewer into the real-life stories behind the horror. It promises to be a uniquely terrifying exhibit, as well as an ethically challenging one.

“Deadly Medicine” opens on Sept. 15 and runs through Jan. 7, 2012 at The Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, 36 Battery Pl. (646) 437-4200.

‘Shai Kremer: Fallen Empires’

At the Julie Saul Gallery

The art of Shai Kremer, an Israeli photographer, does not hide its politics. In 2008, his widely shown series “Infected Landscape” focused on the ravages of war on Israeli and Arab lands. The series was as elegiac as it was admonishing. It lulled viewers in with its seemingly pure images of olives trees and ancient biblical sites, but then, when it had them close, assaulted them with the brutal realities of maintaining a state in such a contested place. Security cameras peaked through centuries-old ruins; a shot of a sun-kissed Israeli city was taken through the frame of a bombed-out Arab home.

This fall Kremer’s new exhibit, “Fallen Empires,” continues in that tradition at the venerable Julie Saul Gallery in September. This time Kremer creates a narrative around the folly of imperial rule in the holy city, leading up to the current Israeli state. There are images of ancient Roman ruins, followed by Turkish ones, then photographs of the ruins left by the Christian crusaders.

Then, there is Israel today. Kremer is clear about what he thinks this trajectory portends; on his website, he writes: “The recycling of these spaces, from one conqueror to the next, shows how most empires tried to conquer and rule this land, with one similar outcome: they eventually failed.”

Kremer still splits his time between Israel and New York; he graduated only a few years ago from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. Already, his work has been on view at every major Israeli museum, as well as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Tate Modern, and the San Francisco MoMA. Make what you will of his politics. In any case, you’ll have plenty of time to decide—his art will be with us for a long time.

“Shai Kremer: Fallen Empires, 7 Sept. 8-Oct. 15 at the Julie Saul Gallery, 535 W. 22nd St. (212) 627-2410.