Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Snap Judgements: New York's Photo League

by Alastair Johnston

The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936–1951
Yale University Press, edited by Mason Klein and Catherine Evans, 248 pp., with 150 duotones and 76 B&W images.

This book and touring exhibition presents a comprehensive look at a little-known and important American art organization of the mid-twentieth century. Formed in 1936, the Photo League of New York shut down 15 years later during the Red Scare of the McCarthy era. Their parent organization, the Film & Photo League, was formed in 1930 as part of FDR's New Deal to make documentary films. A number of Leftists and Jews were prominent in their ranks. Like the WPA before them these artists had an incredible empathy for their subjects, and believed in art in the service of progressive social activism. The Photo League, led by Paul Strand, Walter Rosenblum and Sid Grossman, broke away from the parent film unit after an unresolved fight over aesthetic versus political approaches to their work. There were some 400 members over the years, and today we recognize the big names of street photography among them: Lisette Model, Weegee, W. Eugene Smith, Berenice Abbott, Lou Stoumen, Aaron Siskind, Jerome Leibling, Dan Weiner, and many others who created a new aesthetic, both in terms of the composition and printing of their work, and in the subject matter.
Lisette Model, "Lower East Side, ca. 1940"

Lewis Hine was obviously a key figure in their formation, in fact he left his archives to the Photo League (and this was the beginning of a nightmare as one unscrupulous member -- Rosenblum -- started printing Hine's negatives and added a studio stamp to the back to make them appear to be vintage prints, as a marketing scam). Hine, like Jacob Riis, pioneered documentary portraits of the grim life of "the other half." Riis was the first to use flash photography to cast light on the seedy all-night dives or hobos' lairs under bridges. Hine snuck into factories to find children tending huge dangerous machines: his work had a major impact on child labor laws in the USA. His oeuvre gave the Photo League permission not to be squeamish and to bare all in their own work. Newly introduced hand-held 35 mm cameras -- also embraced by Paul Strand -- made spontaneous street photography possible and, despite any political agenda, the members were able to incorporate poetry and self-expression into their work.

Marvin E Newman, "Halloween, South Side, 1951"

I had always loved Helen Levitt until I found out she cheated: she had a spy camera that had a mirror in it so she would be facing one way and looking in the viewfinder, as if she were photographing the street, but in reality was taking a picture at 90 degrees of people on the stoop. To me it's important to engage the subject in the photo for a successful image. However there are other, unknown, photographers in here that catch those "Levitt" moments with aplomb and, presumably, without resorting to mirrors. Marvin E Newman's "Halloween, South Side, 1951," is a classic "Levitt" shot, and one that has not been widely published. Quite a few of the Photo League photographers, such as Arthur Leipzig, were interested in children's games. Similarly the caught-on-the-fly moments of Austrian Robert Frank are foreshadowed in the cauldron of the Photo League.

In the case of the WPA photographers, their government-backed mandate was to document the migration of farmers in the Dust Bowl: for the Photo League the poor inhabitants of Harlem in their backyard became the subject of a documentary study from 1936-40.

Vivian Cherry, "Game of Lynching, East Harlem, 1947"

"Game of Lynching," a series by Vivian Cherry (a former dancer who took up photography when she was injured), shows two little white boys holding the arms of an African American youth as part of a very different game. Cherry sent the images to McCall's who rejected them saying they were a little too real for publication and they did not think their readers could empathize or identify with the protagonists. But the rise of the picture press, such as Life, Look and PM magazines, was a great forum for these artists from the Depression through the Second World War and on to the burgeoning Civil Rights struggle. To bolster their ranks the Photo League also got Jack Delano, Arthur Rothstein and John Vachon, three of the great unsung heros of the WPA, as members. (Because Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange are such giants, history has unfairly overlooked the many other talented artists who worked for Roy Stryker in the Farm Security Administration.)

Aaron Siskind, "The Wishing Tree, Harlem, 1937"

Aaron Siskind became a well-known teacher, and as a member of the Photo League he had the idea of the Harlem project: Ten photographers (Max Yavno and Morris Engel included) documented life in the poor black neighborhood of Manhattan and then staged exhibits around New York to show the results. Unfortunately, in Siskind's re-edited version of the project, the images tended to reinforce stereotypes of impoverishment.

Arthur Leipzig, "Ideal Laundry, 1946"

In 1951 the Photo League members were blacklisted for leftist leanings but had already made their mark in paving the way for street photographers. Soon MoMA and other important venues would accept street photography into their exhibitions. After the group was disbanded, Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin turned to cinema and made the wonderful "Little Fugitive" which is available on DVD.

Jerome Leibling, "Butterfly Boy, New York, 1949"

The exhibit is on view through Jan 21 at the Jewish Museum in San Francisco then goes to the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach through April 2013.

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