The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951

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Date(s) - 21 Nov 2012 until 21 Jan 2013
11:00 AM - 5:00 PM

Contemporary Jewish Museum

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The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936–1951 is the first comprehensive museum survey in three decades of the famed photography group’s work, history, artistic significance, and cultural, social, and political milieu. Drawing from two extensive Photo League museum collections housed at The Jewish Museum in New York City and the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio, the exhibition includes 150 vintage photographs by more than sixty Photo League members.

From 1936 through 1951, the Photo League would mirror monumental shifts in the world starting with the Depression, through World War II, and ending with the Red Scare. Throughout those tumultuous times, its members engaged in lively debate and ongoing experimentation in the streets to propel documentary photography from factual images to a more subjective, poetic reading of life. After just 15 years, the school and salon known as the Photo League would become a casualty of the McCarthy-era blacklists for its leftist leanings, but in that short time its more than 400 members, which included some of the most noted photographers of the mid-twentieth century—Berenice Abbott, Consuelo Kanaga, Lisette Model, Aaron Siskind, Weegee, and many others—would redefine documentary photography and open the way for the next generation of photographers.

The members’ solidarity centered on a belief in the expressive power of the documentary photograph and on a progressive alliance in the 1930s of social activism and art. They rejected the prevailing style of modernism in order to engage the gritty realities of urban life. Leaguers focused on the urban environment, and this meant looking closely at ordinary people. That impulse spurred them to explore their own New York neighborhoods, street by street, camera at the ready.

But the work of the Photo League was more than just social commentary. Members championed a photography that was as much aesthetic as social-minded, and this dual identity defines the League’s progressivism in a unique way. The League was a place where you learned about yourself. One of its leading members and teachers, Sid Grossman, pushed students to discover not only the meaning of their work but also their relationship to it. For many of these predominantly Jewish, working-class and first-generation Americans, New York City was their own story, a place not just to bear witness, but to determine one’s own bearings. This transformative, personalized approach was one of the League’s most innovative and influential contributions to the medium.