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The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936 — 1951

Mar 16, 2013 3:00pm - 5:00pm

The Norton Museum of Art’s newest special exhibition,  The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936 – 1951, is a formidable survey of the League’s history, and its artistic, cultural, social, and political significance. Opening March 14 and on view through June 16, 2013, this striking exhibition includes nearly 150 vintage photographs from Photo League collections at the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, and The Jewish Museum in New York City.

League members Sonia Handelman Meyer, Marvin Newman, and Ida Wyman will participate in a panel discussion at 3 p.m. Saturday, March 16, 2013 at the Museum. Assistant Director Charles Stainback will serve as moderator. The program is free with Museum admission.

The exhibition is organized by Mason Klein, Curator of Fine Arts at The Jewish Museum and Catherine Evans, the William and Sarah Ross Soter Curator of Photography of the Columbus Museum of Art. It premiered in at The Jewish Museum in 2011 to rave reviews. The New York Times called The Radical Camera a “stirring show,” and the New York Photo Review hailed it as “nothing short of splendid.” The New Yorker named the exhibition one of the top 10 photography exhibitions of 2011. The Norton is the final venue on the exhibition’s tour.

The exhibition explores the fascinating blend of aesthetics and social activism at the heart of the Photo League. League members were known for capturing sharply revealing, compelling moments from everyday life. The League focused 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 organization’s members included some of the most noted photographers of the mid-20th century—W. Eugene Smith, Weegee (Arthur Fellig), Lisette Model, Berenice Abbott and Aaron Siskind, to name a few.  

The innovative contributions of the Photo League during its 15-year existence (1936–1951) were significant. As it grew, the League mirrored 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, first-generation American photographers, most of them Jewish, 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.

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 and playfulness as well as poverty and hardship are in evidence.  

In addition to their urban focus, “Leaguers” photographed rural America, and during World War II, took their cameras to 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.

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.

The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951has been organized by The Jewish Museum, New York, and the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio. Major support was provided by the Phillip and Edith Leonian Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Limited Brands Foundation.
 


 

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