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

May 23, 2012 at

"A stirring show," The New York Times
"Nothing short of splendid," The New York Photo Review
"A long overdue and well-deserved survey," ARTnews

Change the world - one photograph at a time. 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).
Learn More
Download the free The Radical Camera mobile app available in both iPhone and Android versions.

Photo League Videos
Photo League in New York City
Women Photo Leaguers
The Photo League and McCarthyism
Explore In Depth: Art of Concern Symposium
The sixth annual Art of Concern symposium, “Art in the Red Scare,” April 27 - 28, 2012. A dozen nationally recognized scholars and contemporary artists will talk about the ways in which the visual arts negotiated the social and artistic censorship that marked Cold War politics during the McCarthy era. On Friday as part of the symposium we will be showing the new documentary, Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League's New York. Schedule and Art of Concern Tickets here.
The Radical Camera Book
In conjunction with the exhibition The Jewish Museum, Columbus Museum of Art, and Yale University Press co-published The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936 – 1951 by CMA’s William and Sarah Ross Soter Curator of Photography Catherine Evans and Mason Klein with contributions by Maurice Berger, Michael Levy, and Anne Wilkes Tucker. Time magazine extolled the catalogue as a “heavyweight contender” and a “terrific book.” Art in America celebrated the title as one of the top ten art books of 2011, and the New England Book Festival named The Radical Camera its photography art winner. The book, available worldwide, is in the CMA Museum Store.
The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-1951 has been organized by the Columbus Museum of Art and The Jewish Museum, New York. Major support was provided by the Phillip and Edith Leonian Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Limited Brands Foundation.

Friends of the Radical Camera
Elizabeth M. Ross
William and Sarah Ross Soter
John S. and Catherine Chapin Kobacker, in memory of John Nance

Dale and Regina Brown
Sally W. Crane
Bette and Jerome Dare
Donald G. Dunn
Gigi and Sam Fried
James P. Garland and Carol J. Andreae
Sylvia and Robert Goldberg
Cynthia Hengeli
Ted, Matt, Will, and Genevieve Inbusch
Sarah and Dan Kay
The Kridler Family Fund of The Columbus Foundation
George and Nannette Maciejunes
Lee Marks and John C. De Prez, Jr.
Peg Mativi and Donald Dick
Jennifer McNally and Michael Flamm
Puffin Foundation West Ltd.
Peter C. Ross and Lynda G. Loomis
Lenore Schottenstein
Charles and Sharen Turney
Michael and Arlene Weiss

Photo credit: Dan Weiner, Autorama Top Hats, 1950s, Estate of Dan Weiner

October 2015


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