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'Radical Camera' at Jewish Museum Shines Light on Documentary Photography

By Amy Zimmer | November 2, 2011 8:24am | Updated on November 2, 2011 10:42am
Sol Prom's
Sol Prom's "Untitled (Dancing School),"1938, from Harlem Document, 1936–40.
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Estate of Sol Prom

UPPER EAST SIDE — During the economically volatile times of the 1930s, a group of young, idealistic photographers influenced by the workers movement formed the Photo League.

They turned their lenses to the streets and documented everyday scenes and struggles: a girl on a swing on the Lower East Side; kids from a gang known as the "Sullivan Street Midgets;" a man delivering bagels to a Second Avenue restaurant at the crack of dawn; and rows and rows of laundry hanging from tenements.

Their photos are among 150 images included in "The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936–1951," on view from Nov. 4 through March 25, 2012 at the Jewish Museum.

The show, which uses photos from the Jewish Museum's collection and the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio, examines how Photo League photographers — most of whom were first generation Jewish Americans and many of whom were women — redefined documentary photography by melding social commentary with a strong sense of aesthetics.

"The photographer was to learn as much from taking the picture as the picture was to present to the viewer," League member Jerome Liebling said in a video shown in the exhibit.

Their teacher, Sid Grossman, helped push them to create a new kind of documentary photography. It was not simply "content-based," said Catherine Evans, a curator from the Columbus Museum of Art. "Every photo has an aesthetic component."

However, the League was created before photography was seen as a "commodity," before museums considered it a fine art and before galleries collected it, Evans noted, adding that many of the photographers grappled with what they were doing.

"People thought it was this commie, socialist thing about affecting socialist change," Evans said.

"That was partly true. But it really debated what a documentary photograph could be."

Arthur Leipzig, who joined the League in 1948, said in the video: "I would spend my days in the streets shooting. I would spend my nights in the dark room, developing, printing and discussing."

The photographers would have arguments about everything, he continued, including whether photography was an art form.

The leagues' school, darkroom, gallery and salon were originally headquarted at 31 E. 21st St., before moving in 1946 to the penthouse of 30 E. 29th St. It was evicted a year later and relocated to the basement of the Hotel Albert at 23 E. 10th St., where it remained until its closing in 1951.

The League held "Crazy Camera Balls" to raise funds and also build its sense of community, curators said. One flier promoting such a ball called for people to dress up as their favorite photographic image, but not to come as "greased nudes."

The League also held "photo hunts," which were competitions where members "scoured the city to complete random, sometimes ludicrous assignments," according to the exhibit.

Some of the photographers featured in the "The Radical Camera" — like Weegee, Berenice Abbott and Lisette Model — became well-known chroniclers of city life, whose work is now featured in institutions like the Museum of Modern Art.

But many others never found work after their time with the Photo League, which was blacklisted in 1947 by the U.S. Attorney General during the Red Scare for being considered a "subversive" organization.

Though the League had been moving away from its political agenda, membership and revenues declined as the group was ostracized. It could no longer sustain itself, closing in 1951 as a casualty of the Cold War.

"They couldn't get work because they were blacklisted," Evans said, noting that because of the group's downfall, scant comprehensive attention has been given to the League until now.

Grossman resigned in 1949, leaving Manhattan for Provincetown, where he took pictures of birds after pushing so many students to confront political work.

With images of workers striking and protesting bailouts to banks today, the show's connection to current events isn't lost on Evans.

"Now it's in color," she said.