Find out more about our major exhibition, The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936 – 1951, which opens this Thursday April 19, 2012 in Columbus. We co-organized the exhibition with The Jewish Museum, where it premiered this fall to rave reviews. The New York Times calls The Radical Camera “a stirring show.”
Guided by a belief in the transformative power of photography, the Photo League took to the streets in the 1930s and 1940s to record the effects of poverty, war, racial inequality, and social injustice. Artists in the Photo League were known for capturing sharply revealing, compelling moments from everyday life. Their focus centered on New York City and its vibrant streets – a shoeshine boy, a brass band on a bustling corner, a crowded beach at Coney Island. Many of the images are beautiful, yet harbor strong social commentary on issues of class, race, and opportunity. The Radical Camera exhibition explores the fascinating blend of aesthetics and social activism at the heart of the Photo League.
The innovative contributions of the Photo League during its 15-year existence (1936–1951) were significant. As it grew, the League would mirror monumental shifts in the world starting with the Depression, through World War II and ending with the Red Scare. Born of the worker’s movement, the Photo League was an organization of young, idealistic photographers who believed in documentary photography as an expressive medium and powerful tool for exposing social problems. It was also a school with teachers such as Sid Grossman, who encouraged students to take their cameras to the streets and discover the meaning of their work as well as their relationship to it. The League had a darkroom for printing, published an acclaimed newsletter called Photo Notes, offered exhibition space, and was a place to socialize, especially among first-generation Jewish-Americans.
The first museum exhibition in three decades to comprehensively look at the Photo League, The Radical Camera reveals that the League encouraged a surprisingly broad spectrum of work throughout extraordinarily turbulent times. The organization’s members included some of the most noted photographers of the mid-20th century—W. Eugene Smith, Weegee, Lisette Model, Berenice Abbott and Aaron Siskind, to name a few. The Photo League helped validate photography as a fine art, presenting student work and guest exhibitions by established photographers such as Eugène Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Edward Weston, among others.
These affecting black and white photographs show life as it was lived mostly on the streets, sidewalks and subways of New York. Joy, playfulness, and caprice as well as poverty and hardship are in evidence. In addition to their urban focus, Leaguers photographed in rural America, and during World War II, in Latin America and Europe. The exhibition also addresses the active participation of women who found rare access and recognition at the League. The Radical Camera presents the League within a critical, historical context. Developments in photojournalism were catalyzing a new information era in which photo essays were appearing for the first time in magazines such as Life and Look.
As time went on, its social documentary roots evolved toward a more experimental approach, laying the foundation for the next generation of street photographers. One of the principal themes of the exhibition is how the League fostered a multifaceted and changing identity of documentary photography, and a move toward a more subjective, poetic reading of life.
In 1947, the League came under the pall of McCarthyism and was blacklisted for its alleged involvement with the Communist Party. Ironically, the Photo League had just begun a national campaign to broaden its base as a “Center for American Photography.” Despite the support of Ansel Adams, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, Paul Strand and many other national figures, this vision of a national photography center could not overcome the Red Scare. As paranoia and fear spread, the Photo League was forced to disband in 1951. As ARTnews said in their review, “This long-overdue and well-deserved survey demonstrates the extent to which the Photo League influenced our understanding of documentary photography.”
The exhibition was organized by Catherine Evans, William and Sarah Ross Soter Curator of Photography, Columbus Museum of Art and Mason Klein, Curator of Fine Arts, The Jewish Museum.
Following its CMA presentation, The Radical Camera exhibition will travel to the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, CA (November 15, 2012 – February 24, 2013); and Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, FL (March 16 – June 16, 2013).
Photo: Autorama Top Hats, by Dan Weiner, 1950s, © Estate of Dan Weiner, Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio-Museum Purchase with funds provided by Elizabeth M. Ross, the Derby Fund, John S. and Catherine Chapin Kobacker, and the Friends of the Photo League.