“The Radical Camera” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

by Monique Delaunay, Editor on 10/16/2012

Including some of the most celebrated photographers of the mid-twentieth century: Berenice Abbott, Consuelo Kanaga, Lisette Model, Aaron Siskind and Weegee, most of whom were first-generation Jewish Americans, New York’s Photo League focused on a world of ordinary people who lived in New York City and its neighborhoods during the Depression. Their work not only exposed issues of class and racial inequality long before the 1960s civil rights explosion, but also revealed a new aesthetic, one shaped by a personal relationship to their urban environment. The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951 organized by The Jewish Museum, New York and the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio and currently on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum is the first comprehensive museum survey in thirty years to reassess the influential group’s history, cultural, political, and artistic significance.

Walter Rosenblum, Girl on a Swing Pitt St., New York 1938

The hand-held 35mm camera introduced in the 1920s enabled more spontaneous photography, eternally capturing the ephemeral moments of popular culture and everyday life. Prior to the formation of the Photo League, a few American photographers would embrace this opportunity to capture that Zeitgeist while also producing work motivated by social and political concerns. These photographers, like Paul Strand whose work is on view in the exhibition, later lectured at the League and served on its advisory board. League members focused on the relationship between urban environment and those people who inhabited it.  During its fifteen-year existence, the Photo League centered on a belief in the power of the documentary photograph and on an alliance popular in the 1930s of social activism and art. Emotionally powerful images of hopeless desolation, especially that of children, among a metropolis bursting with its populace illustrated the perspective of the Photo League.

While the exhibition is not heavily laden with historical artifacts chronicling the League’s reception among popular culture or academia (perhaps because there is so little), several early examples of Photo League images published in popular magazines like Life and Look are on view. Yet, the League’s photography was destined for more than to fill magazines, and offer a looking-glass into everyday lives– its members championed a genre within the medium that was as much social-minded as personally aware. This personalized approach was one of the League’s most innovative and influential contributions to the medium. For many of these working-class photographers, the images of New York City neighborhoods illustrated their story. The exhibition achieves its highest success by making this poignantly apparent. Far from feeling overwhelming, the salon style of over 150 photographs throughout rather ensconces viewers with an profound air of the photographer’s nostalgia and attachment without a loss of reality. Like an exhibition of contemporary artworks, the exhibition does not rely upon archival ephemera to tell the history: visitors may be overcome with an awareness the photographer’s success was derived from so little given to achieve such success, as well as the humble sublimity created with black and white color, and a rudimentary camera.

Louis Stettner, Coming to America

In the last years of the League, postwar prosperity and the threat of global fascism replaced 1930s economic hardship. Anti-Communist sentiment intensified as the Red Scare pervaded the country. On December 5, 1947, the US Attorney General blacklisted the Photo League as an organization considered “totalitarian, fascist, communist, or subversive.” However, the League had already moved away from its political perspective. It began to raise money for a new space and was reshaping itself as a “Center for American Photography” with the goal of fostering documentary photography as a fine art. Although the documentary impulse continued, the group’s more creative approach to photography growed, and the group’s direction changed.

Although short lived, the Photo League’s influence was significant. The change of the documentary mode into an experimental, personal vision fostered what became the hallmarks of the next generations of the New York School. The assertion of the photographer’s identity pioneered by the League continued through in the work of artists such as Diane Arbus and Robert Frank. The larger genre of street photography, exemplified by Garry Winogrand’s ouevre, on view in an upcoming retrospective at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, are in many ways indebted to the Photo League.

 

The Radical Camera at the Contemporary Jewish Museum will be on view through January 21, 2013.

Elizabeth Timberman, Easter Sunday