Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Radical Camera

Art arguably provides the most accurate and prescient window on society available to us. Sociologist Robert Nisbet once wrote that writers like Dickens offered the most insightful portraits of the a society's dynamic and collective psyche.

The invention of the camera provided another eye - more literal, but in the hands of some gifted and socially aware artists, no less poetic. And just as radical in the sense of its power to expose the abuses of power. (GW)

Artists Equipped With a Social Conscience

By Karen Rosenberg
New York Times
December 22, 2011

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.

Its members — among them Berenice Abbott, Aaron Siskind and Weegee — are now reunited in “The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League 1936-1951” at the Jewish Museum. This stirring show traces the group’s history through some 145 vintage photographs.

A collaboration between the Jewish Museum and the Columbus Museum of Art, which both have extensive holdings of Photo League work, “Radical Camera” was organized by the team of Mason Klein (from the Jewish Museum) and Catherine Evans (from the Columbus Museum).

The exhibition is, in some ways, as unwieldy as its subject. The curators have a lot to say about documentary photography in general, which went through a kind of growth spurt between the Depression and the Cold War, nurtured by an explosion of photojournalism in magazines like Life and Look.

They deserve a lot of credit, though, for capturing the breadth and spirit of the league. There are some big names in “Radical Camera,” but the show’s best moments involve lesser-known talents like Lucy Ashjian, Jerome Liebling and Sid Grossman.

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; many early Photo League members modeled themselves on Lewis Hine and Paul Strand, represented in the show by Strand’s famous “Wall Street” (1915) and Hine’s heartstring-tugging shot of a Washington newsboy (1912).

Some, like Arthur Rothstein and Sid Grossman, traveled to the Dust Bowl to photograph its ravaged farming communities. But many others found plentiful subject matter close to home: in Lower East Side tenements, along the Third Avenue El and on Coney Island.

They brought empathy, but also humor, to their urban vignettes. In a shot by Eliot Elisofon, children scamper around an empty lot behind a sign that reads “WPA Cleaned This Area ... Keep it Clean.” And in Morris Engel’s “Women on the Beach, Coney Island,” an ill-fitting bathing suit is front and center.

Sometimes they fell prey to stereotypes, as in the four-year group project “Harlem Document” (1936-40), spearheaded by Mr. Siskind and published in Look.” It provided ample, but often superficial, evidence of poverty and dangerous living conditions — for example in Jack Manning’s shot of fire escapes teeming with residents during an Elks Parade. Mr. Siskind later acknowledged: “Our study was definitely distorted. We didn’t give a complete picture of Harlem.”

Other Photo League efforts, though, reveal a deep connection to a neighborhood. In Walter Rosenblum’s look at life along Pitt Street on the Lower East Side (his own childhood haunt), you can tell that he identifies with the youngsters in his frame: the girl on a swing set under the Williamsburg Bridge, or the boys making chalk drawings in the shadows of tenements.

Rosenblum later went to work as a combat photographer, and the show includes one of his shots from Omaha Beach on D-Day. Back in New York, many of the League’s women found new opportunities — albeit temporary ones — during the war. A 1945 image by Ida Wyman, who became the first female photo printer at Acme Newspictures, shows the front of an Italian restaurant near her office; a sign reads “Ladies Invited.”

By this point 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.

Mr. Grossman fled to Provincetown, Mass. The photographs he made there, nearly abstract overhead shots of birds on water, make a rather depressing coda to “Radical Camera.” But the show’s overall message is an uplifting one, epitomized by Mr. Grossman’s earlier photograph “Coney Island” (1947): a boisterous, gang’s-all-here group portrait.

“The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951” continues through March 25 at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue, at 92nd Street, Manhattan; (212) 423-3200,


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