One of the first photographs you encounter in this show is Berenice Abbott’s “Zito’s Bakery, 259 Bleecker Street” (1937). Abbott was working on a large project entitled “Changing New York” for the Federal Arts Project; it would ultimately produce more than 300 photographs of building and streetscapes, captured at a moment when the city was imagining its future more than preserving its past. Abbott was also becoming increasingly involved in the small but dedicated group of socially and political active photographers known as the Photo League, which had just formed a year earlier.
“Zito’s Bakery, 259 Bleecker Street” presents more than a simple visual record of the bakery; its sideway perspective offers an encounter with the storefront. The window is heaped with loaves of bread, arranged and layered with a certain precision. On the sidewalk just below the window, wicker baskets sit stacked with a casual concern, spreading beyond the frame, calling us to imagine that the scene continues outside our view. But it is the shadowy figure of the woman’s face, just beyond the bread in the darkened interior of the bakery, that centers this photograph. She looks slightly amused as she stares out at Abbott’s camera. Around her circulate the bakery’s window signs, the stacks of bread, and the reflections of signs across the street. The photograph presents a scene of presence and reflection that, like the larger project of “Changing New York,” evokes a reality of the city that was fleeting.
“The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951.” Through March 25. The Jewish Museum, New York. April 19 through September 9. The Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus. October 11 through January 21, 2013. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. February 9 through April 21, 2013. The Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach.
Such scenes of alluring documentary images dominate this show, a retrospective of the New York Photo League’s 15-year history from the Depression to the Cold War. The group started as the Film and Photo League, an offshoot of the Workers’ International Relief that was part of the Communist Party. This association inspired an early group of young filmmakers and photographers who were dedicated to using art and images to improve the social conditions of workers and the poor. By the mid 1930s, however, disputes over the effectiveness of photography led to a split. The group’s filmmakers felt that photography was merely a tool of documentation and that film had greater potential to bring about political and social change. The photographers broke apart and formed the Photo League in 1936. Its members would continue to explore and define the creativity of documentary work for the rest of its history.
Housed in a small space in Chelsea, the League brought together an engaged and energetic group of photographers who experimented with cameras. There was space for dark rooms, and exhibitions, and photography classes led by Sid Grossman, who fostered the work of the organization and defined its aesthetic and political focus until its demise in 1951, when it fell victim to McCarthyism. Its mission of documenting the changing urban experiences and illuminating the lives of the poor would come to be viewed in the panicked fever of the Red Scare as too un-American.
But the legacy of the Photo League is evidenced in the constellation of photographers who developed their craft within the supportive environment of the League during the 1930s and ’40s. Photographers such as Abbott, Aaron Siskind, W. Eugene Smith, Lisette Model, and, to a lesser extent, Arthur Ferling (aka Weegee) each furthered their craft through Photo League projects, exhibitions, and classes. It was also a hub for small shows of guest photographers such as Henri Cartier Bresson and Edward Weston. The League was unique in its active support of female photographers such as Model and the lesser known Lucy Ashjian, Sonia Handelman Meyer, and Vivian Cherry. One Weegee image of Model captures her in a room full of men, standing stiff and precise in profile, aiming her camera in one hand, while in her other hand a small mesh bag bulging with flashbulbs swings from her wrist.
The history of the League has receded from our collective psyche, despite its influence on documentary photography as the field developed in the ’30s. While we may easily recognize the migrant workers of Dorothea Lange’s Oklahoma or the tenant farmers of Walker Evans’ Alabama, we know little about the Harlem streets of Jerome Liebling, whose photograph “Butterfly Boy” (1949) is but one of many in this show that features children caught in play or poverty. The show contains a number of images of children, teenagers, and young adults whose lives, captured and framed amidst the stark social conditions, offer a kind of symbolism of the era. Think of Lewis Hines’ images of child factory workers in the early 20th century or Jacob Riis’s tenement children in the 1890s, and you can see how the Photo League was building on a tradition that turned the camera toward the young to illuminate social ills.
The 1930s were the era of images. The decade saw the emergence of such weekly illustrated magazines as Look and a slew of confessional and true crime stories. Henry Luce, the publisher of Time, bought Life in 1936 and turned the monthly journal into a glossy and stylized weekly that would allow readers, as his proposal for the revamped magazine announced, “to see life, to see the world, to eyewitness great events.”
“Members of the Photo League,” writes Micheal Lesy in his excellent catalogue essay about the era’s expanding magazine industry, “tried to find their way and their place in this altered landscape” of visual realism, “intent on bearing witness to what they saw, close at hand.” The Photo League recognized the power of images to shape our understanding of the world, and turned their cameras to scenes that more often went unnoticed. It even produced its own magazine.
“Radical Camera” begins with Lewis Hines’ photographs of child laborers in the early part of the century. His iconic image “Steamfitter” (1920) captures a sinewy worker dwarfed by the hard-edged rotaries of a machine he attends, his body and arms bent toward the extended wrench he works with dirtied hands. It is an image of labor that captures a kind of heroic harmony between the worker and machine. Hines’ images are followed by more expansive industrial landscapes done in the 1920s and ’30s by his student Paul Strand. And from these few images we arrive at Abbott’s bakery with its quiet street life that mixes the commercial and human. In this sense, the show sets the Photo League within a longer history of social photography stretching back to the late 19th century.
Not all these images hold what we might call a lyrical quality. Some photographs tend less toward the poetic and more toward the documentary, such as Joe Schwartz “Tenants Union Represented on May Day” (c. 1940). The image presents a small group of protestors holding signs inscribed with the words “Poverty” and “Crime” and “Disease” in a precise and bold font, each standing still for the camera. There is Rolf Tietgen’s untitled 1938 photograph of a disheveled and soiled man asleep in the threshold of a decrepit doorway, the harsh afternoon light washing both with a certain unforgiving force. Such images present a clear view of the photographer’s documentary motive. It is a kind of reality without reflection and differs from so many other photographs here that strive toward a layered photography, with connotative meanings that reach beyond the scene at hand. As the wall text informs us, many in the Photo League strove to create “a photography that was as much aesthetic as socially minded.” This mixing of aesthetics and documentary risks turning poverty into poetry and workers into types, presenting the marginal as models of lyrical contemplation. These photographs avoid such moves, though, by presenting and framing scenes that appear immediate and of the moment. More important, these images engage us not so much in how they make the commonplace beautiful, but more in how they turn these everyday scenes into framed moments to witness. This is the difference between images we admire and images that call us to take notice, to be attentive. Images that ask something from us.
In her essay “Photography at the Crossroads” Abbott relates her ideas of photography as a kind of imaginative realism. “The photograph,” she wrote, “may be presented as finely and artistically as you will; but to merit serious consideration, must be directly connected with the world we live in.” She concludes with a consideration of the photograph’s purpose to capture the everyday moment: “Today, we are confronted with reality on the vastest scale mankind has known. Some people are still unaware that reality contains unparalleled beauties. The fantastic and unexpected, the ever-changing and renewing is nowhere so exemplified as in real life itself. Once we understand this, it exercises a dynamic compulsion on us, and a photo-document is born.”
As so much of the work in this show indicates, this effort to capture reality rests on turning the camera’s lens toward those realms that appear so utterly unfamiliar and so outside the flood of glossy “great event” images in the popular illustrated weeklies. Consider “In the Shadow of the Capital” (1948) by Marion Palfi. It frames in long view a back alley of Washington, D.C., its potholes and trash-strewn stone pavement surrounding three small girls who look our way. The alley dead-ends in a clump of trees, the white dome of the U.S. Capitol looming beyond.
The radical camera that the show gestures toward presents such scenes of street life, of alleys and tenements, of Coney Island afternoons and burlesque evenings, of Harlem streets and Southside neighborhoods, as a record of absence. Each image is a kind of an assertion of what was left out of the era’s dominant visual archive. To define these images that balance the aesthetic with social documentary realism as lyrical would be a mistake, for they don’t so much turn the margins of society into a beautiful photograph, as most photography does. Rather, the best of these images turn the marginal into something to be photographed, bringing these children, and tenement residents, these city dwellers of Harlem and the Lower East Side into the competing visual reality of the times. If there is a flaw in this show, it is that it doesn’t sample for us the images of “great events” that filled Look and Life. This juxtaposition between the glossy weeklies and the Photo League’s more contemplative scenes of urban poverty would have illuminated how radical these cameras and this work really were.
One section in the show, “Harlem Document, 1936—1940,” presents a selection of images from a dedicated League project to capture the life and community of Harlem, with a motive to show the intersections of racism and poverty. Harlem played host to a nightlife filled with white slummers from the more affluent parts of the city, who ventured uptown to the jazz clubs and dance halls. The image of Harlem was itself a contestable one that straddled the popular imaginings and the local realities.
But the project ultimately failed in rendering the complexities of Harlem, and many Harlem leaders eventually refused participation in the project. “Our study,” Siskind later wrote, “was definitely distorted. We didn’t give a complete picture of Harlem. There were a lot of wonderful things going on in Harlem and we never showed most of them.” Turning Harlem into a symbol of poverty and discontent, and leaving out so much of the vibrancy of the neighborhood pointed to the very fragility that photography can have in distorting the reality it seeks to expose.
The Photo League tried to adapt to the changed political and social landscape of the post-war years, renaming itself the Center for American Photography and turning more toward photography that reflected aesthetic experimentation. But the shadow of the League’s earlier connection to the American Communist Party and its frank focus on poverty and workers loomed large in the McCarthy frenzy of the late 1940s. The organization and Sid Grossman, who had furthered the work of the Photo League from its beginning, were blacklisted. By 1951, the organization was closed and, as curator Mason Klein notes in his catalog essay, “[b]oth the institution and the individual were victims of bias and persecution, which have persisted to this day in the form of a kind of prejudicial blind spot” to the work of the Photo League. While many of the photographers associated with the League went on to work for the highly popular illustrated weeklies, the demise of the Photo League represented not simply a casualty of the post-war Red Scare but also points to the political tensions that raged over the image of the nation in the post-war era.
Grossman left New York in 1951 and moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he continued to teach and practice photography, though his subject matter turned more toward nature and experiments with light; a coda to the show leaves us with these later photographs made before his early death in 1955. But just before he left New York, he affirmed his continued belief in photography’s social importance in an exchange with Lissett Model. Grossman argued: “I don’t believe there are any appreciable number of photographers in any sense, and particularly this is so for Life or any of the magazines . . . They don’t speak through their pictures. They tell us what we already know.”
The compelling aspect of many photographs in this show and the history of the Photo League they tell rests in the idea that documentary photography shows us scenes beyond the familiar, beyond grand stories and great moments. The demise of the Photo League is not only another chapter in the history of the Red Scare, but also reveals how contestable documenting reality can be. The show reminds us that even the best documentary photography is as much about the subject of the image as it is about the person behind the camera.
• 14 March 2012