Today I went to the Columbus Museum of Art and viewed “The Radical Camera, a History in Images of New York’s Photo League” exhibit.
Every so often people need to be reminded of the tectonic shifts and the exploding world that photographers can cause with just documenting and forcing everyone to face and truly view their world around them.
This is such the case of what the New York’s Photo League. The Photo League was a cooperative of amateur and professional photographers in New York who banded together around a range of common social and creative causes. Most of the members were first-generation Americans who strongly believed in progressive political and social causes.
The League was active from 1936 to 1951 and included among its members some of the most noted American photographers of the mid-20th century. Their 1936 thru 1951 collection of the most innovative, culturally relevant and influential photographers who took to the streets and showed us life as it had been rarely explored before.
Photographers like Lisette, Model, or Weegee, Avedon, Leipzig, Orkin and Weston and other photographers are genre-defining photojournalists who created stark and unwavering images that offered unique glimpses into a world that until their, groundbreaking work, was infrequently or not even explored by mainstream photography. Instead of posed photos of images by families, the New York’s Photo League documented rampant social change, the great divide between classes, racial issues, and images of New York City in the 40s. By photograph and documenting the uglier side of what life was like to others, these men and women with cameras were soon being labeled as “Communists” by the US government and others of the extreme right wing conservative aspects. In short, we have these artists to thank for the way that photojournalism has evolved today.
In 1947 the League was formally declared subversive and placed on the U.S. Department of Justice blacklist by Attorney General Tom C. Clark. At first the League fought back and mounted an impressive “This Is the Photo League exhibition in 1948”, but after its member and long-time FBI informer Angela Calomiris had testified in May 1949 that the League was a front organization for the Communist Party, the Photo League was finished. Recruitment dried up and old members left, including one of its founders and former president, Paul Strand, as well as Louis Stettner. The League was forced to disband in 1951.
The New York’s Photo League had become a casualty of the Cold War, and the McCarthyism purge or red scare which targeted left wing activists. When the Photo League closed its doors in 1951, after being listed as a subversive organization by the U.S. Attorney General, it had already enjoyed an historic 15 year run, which helped to change the direction of American photography, and counted amongst its members some of the leading photographers of the twentieth century.
In conclusion the New York’s Photo League which had been inaugurated at the height of the Great Depression, the loose knit League turned their cameras on a world that had not been the subject of serious photography before. Freed to shoot quickly and unobtrusively the ordinary life on the streets and in the workplaces of America, many seized the opportunity to document the inequities which hard economic times had brought into stark relief.
The show today does nothing but touch’s us with the nostalgic power of their witness to another age. Times such as when America’s cities were more like extended villages whose social life was still conducted on the stoops, sidewalks, and playgrounds.