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The Radical Camera

December 25, 2011

The Jewish Museum (New York) and the Columbus Museum of Art have put together what sounds like a very interesting photography exhibit:  The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951.

It is reviewed in the New York Times, which tells something of the history of New York’s Photo League:

One of many artistic casualties of the McCarthy-era blacklists was the Photo League, a New York school and salon for amateur and professional photographers. Progressive in its politics and uncompromising in its aesthetics, the league was the place to be if you had a hand-held 35-millimeter camera and a left-leaning social conscience — and particularly if you believed, to borrow a bit of contemporary parlance, that photography was fine art for the 99 percent….

The Photo League had roots in the workers’ movement, though by the 1950s it was hardly the political center the blacklist made it out to be. The league evolved from an organization called Workers International Relief, founded in 1930, which produced an illustrated journal that was modeled on European Communist weeklies like The Worker’s Illustrated Newspaper.

By 1933 this coterie had started to focus on moviemaking and rechristened itself the Workers Film and Photo League, turning out Depression-era newsreels like the one excerpted at the beginning of “Radical Camera.”

Titled “Workers Newsreel Unemployment Special,” the film shows protesters gathering in Union Square to demand government assistance for the jobless. These timely visuals are accompanied by even timelier text: “In the richest country in the world, two billion dollars of relief for the bankers and industrialists … but no help for the unemployed.”

In 1936, the group’s photographers split off from its filmmakers, and the Photo League was born. But the social-documentary impulse of the group’s earlier incarnations remained….

By [1945] the league was a fully functioning school and exhibition space. It was also a social organization, a place where young men and women (many of them first-generation Jewish-Americans) could mingle at lectures and parties. It held popular “photo hunts,” sending members all over the city on wacky assignments, and fund-raisers called “Crazy Camera Balls.” (A cheerful flier for one of these reads, “Come dressed as your favorite photograph!”)

Just a few years later, though — on Dec. 5, 1947, to be precise — the league appeared on a list of organizations considered “totalitarian, fascist, communist or subversive” by the United States Attorney General. It responded with an open letter and a 1948 retrospective exhibition, “This is the Photo League.” But it was dealt a fatal blow during a 1949 trial of alleged Communist Party officials, when a league member turned F.B.I. informant called the Photo League a Communist front and singled out its leading teacher, Sid Grossman, as a party recruiter.

Membership became too dangerous. Newspapers and magazines snubbed league-affiliated photographers; photojournalists couldn’t get passports. In 1951, the Photo League closed its doors….

Here are some photographs from the exhibition:

Marvin E. Newman, “Halloween, South Side” (1951)

may day
Jerome Liebling, “May Day” (1948)

harlam merchant

Morris Engel, “Harlem Merchant” (1937)

shoemaker's lunch
Bernard Cole, “Shoemaker’s Lunch” (1944)

easter day
Elizabeth Timberman, “Easter Sunday” (1944)

shout freedom
Rosalie Gwathmey, “Shout Freedom” (1948)

Ida Wyman, “Spaghetti 25 Cents” (1945)

I’m not certain that I will be able to attend this exhibition in person, but on Tuesday, Yale University Press is releasing the catalogue of the exhibit (currently priced on Amazon at $31.50.)  Many more of the photographs are available online from the exhibit’s “artist” page.

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