“The Radical Camera,” a History in Images of New York’s Photo League

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.

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7 Responses to ““The Radical Camera,” a History in Images of New York’s Photo League”

  1. microdot Says:

    First, I want to affirm my love of photography and my fascination with the historical and psychic connections and insights into the past old photos give us. I was familiar with the Photo League, but I didn’t know the entire story of the subversion by the anti red hysteria Witch Hunt in the 40’s that destroyed it. Why are we being forced to replay a hack version of this sorry kangaroo trial by the Tea Brains today?
    We know now how the manipulated political farce of the Red Scare was used to destroy progressives in the 40’s and 50’s…but we haven’t seemed to have remembered the lesson and it’s being replayed over and over again.
    My wife is a photographer and learned her craft at the Photo Club founded by Edward Steichen around 1920. They still are located at Broadway and 14th Street on Union Square In NYC.
    I have to admit, I am not a very good photographer. I like to take pictures, but they seem to be a kind of note book for my memory…more personal reference than art. I do use them as a source for my graphic work….My wife looks at my photos sometimes and says, “what is this about? why did you take this picture? What is the subject?” Only I know.

  2. Northwest Ohio Native Says:

    A picture is worth a thousand words? Sure is. And I agree that there is a similar witch hunt today. It scares me that we don’t seem to learn from history.

  3. Engineer of Knowledge Says:

    Hello Microdot and NON,
    You have gotten the main message from this posting. Your statement, “Why are we being forced to replay a hack version of this sorry kangaroo trial by the Tea Brains today?”

    Because we are in a constant repeating loop of this mindless crap attacking and ridiculing what some don’t understand. Like Colbert stated in one of his comedy pieces, “As we all know, Truth and Facts have a Liberal bias.”

    I ask, “How can the photo of the three little girls in a candid moment be promoting communist influences?” The girl in the foreground is trying to investigate and comprehend for herself what is going on; the girl in the background with the defensive posture that I am sure is emulating unconsciously one I am sure she has seen her mother take when confronted by the suspicious and unfamiliar. It was real life at that moment.

    Take the photo of the older black man with his sidewalk storefront in Harlem…..why was this “Communist Propaganda” instead of the “Capitalist Entrepreneurial Spirit?” Because this last scenario did not fit into their nihilistic attack on these photographers who were only showing real life at the time.

    The two Chinese children standing in the window of their parent’s laundry store. The innocence of toddlers watching the day of their world play out before them as they stand there observing. Once again promoting a communist agenda?!?! Bull Shit!! It was nothing more than probably a brother and sister one year apart of toddler’s ages in China Town, New York.

    Just as NON has said there is a similar witch hunt today. I had spent about two hour viewing and reflecting on this “The Radical Camera” exhibit and when I was done, I knew I wanted a set of my cameras and will bring them back after I get home by the end of this month. (The first time since I got out here in June). By the time I walked out of the Museum, I was motivated.

    Last night I did the Short North Art Craw in downtown Columbus last night I would have loved to capture some of the mass migrating movement and energy I saw last night. There were many of good photos to be taken for future documentation.

    I saw young women asking for signatures as solidarity against the Republican’s National Platform Policy of “The War Against Women.” I saw young people under a “Democratic National Committee” sign looking to sign up people to vote in this next National Election…..it instilled me with hope for our future.

    I hope to be more productive in the future documenting, recording, and writing about my life here in Columbus, Ohio. As I know my home state of Maryland will go for President Obama, maybe my concentration efforts here in Ohio may swing a few new votes for Middle Class promotion and sanity for the quality of life we all once had.

  4. personallines Says:

    It was Lewis Hines’ photography back in 1907 onward that ultimately led to child labor revisions. Some of the photos were staged, but they brought to the forefront that children, especially poor children shouldn’t be pawns in industry.

    Led by the NCLC efforts, it was many years before both federal and state laws recognized the rights of children!

  5. Engineer of Knowledge Says:

    Hello Personallines,
    Good to have you stop by and I appreciate your comment as it was very much worth mentioning. I especially liked your comment, “children, especially poor children shouldn’t be pawns in industry.” Very Well Stated!!

    My Grandfather was a Union Coal Miner from the Fairmont, WV area and my father grew up in a little coal mining town. Even I have seen in my life time the “Owe Your Soul To The Company Store” Non-Union Mines depressive standards of life when I was a child.

    You go on to say, “Led by the NCLC efforts, it was many years before both federal and state laws recognized the rights of children!” I am of the mind that many photographers in cities around the U.S. should take up their camera once again and shove in the face the photos documenting life during this current Depression. Maybe then in due time will our voting Working Middle Class public realize that their quality of life has been sacrificed to placate the 1%ers for too long.

    Thank you and please stop by again.

  6. Dog Gone Says:

    I am shocked, although I probably shouldn’t be, that the right is trying to rehab the image of Joe McCarthy and to justify his witch hunts.

    We have former presidential candidate Nut Gingrich claiming that the red scare did some damage, sure, but it was good because it turned up real communists.

    Um, NO. We had the FBI turn up a handful of agents working for the Soviet Union, on the Manhattan project, who may or may not have given the soviets anything useful. That included Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and their brother in law.

    But mostly, the security on the project was effective; we weren’t in any danger, and the crap about our government being infiltrated by traitors was bullshit. That the red scare started under Truman, who was a democrat, and worsened under Eisenhower, who was in general a pretty level headed president, should be one of the more alarming aspects of the red scare. They didn’t do enough to try stop it, or at least counterbalance it.

    It is worth noting that the Birchers claimed Ike and his brother were commies. They also claimed flouridating water was a commie plot to control our brains instead of keep us from getting cavities in our mouth.

    And we have the Soviet Union trying to do their version of revisionist history in attempting to restore the reputation of Stalin, who deserves to be enshrined with Hitler as one of the worst dictators and mass killers of all time.

    We need photos like this, because they are real and true and factual, and they push back against the radicals who want to twist how we see the world into sick, ugly ways.

  7. Engineer Of Knowledge Says:

    Hello Dog Gone,
    I would also note that the Father of the Koch Brothers was one of the founders of the Birch Society….so we are hearing the same old crap today as we did back then…..Nothing Has Changed.

    I agree, we need photos like this and especially more so today than as before.

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