Radical photographers helped shape art into activism

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The daily fee to use the Photo League’s darkroom: 25 cents. The social and artistic impact of the Photo League: priceless.

Between 1936 and 1951, the Photo League arguably was New York City’s premiere photography cooperative and school. There, students and professionals learned the art and science of photojournalism, back when pioneers elsewhere, such as Edward Weston, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Margaret Bourke-White, were perfecting the form.

Turned loose in New York with a 35mm in hand, Photo Leaguers fashioned a hybrid of aesthetics and social conscience in their work. As it happened, most of the Photo League members were Jews.

“Girl on a Swing, Pitt Street,” New York, 1938 photo/walter rosenblum

Now, San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum will present “Radical Camera,” an exhibition of some 150 prints by photographers aligned with the Photo League in its heyday. The exhibit opens Thursday, Oct. 11.

How radical were they? Mason Klein, curator of the Jewish Museum New York, which premiered the exhibition last year, says, “Everyone was to the far left then, smack in the middle of the Great Depression, and there was a need to reveal the conditions under which people lived, particularly in the urban environment of New York.”

Colleen Stockmann, assistant curator at the CJM, calls the exhibition “an opportunity to showcase and celebrate the role of first-generation Jewish Americans in the history of photography, shaping how the documentary photograph took shape as a social activist form.”

“Untitled (Dancing School), 1938,” from Harlem Document, 1936-40 photo/sol prom (solomon fabricant)

Most of the photos on display communicate a powerful social awareness. Rather than shoot the majestic mountains preferred by Ansel Adams, Photo Leaguers most often captured the tired, the poor and the huddled masses.

Led by a charismatic young Jewish photographer, Sid Grossman, the members of the Photo League sought artistic mastery while capturing the grit of the late Depression, war years and early postwar boom.

It’s visible in the images: a young girl standing on a swing with the Williamsburg Bridge glowing in the background; filthy street urchins on a Greenwich Village stoop; fedora-topped African-American kids hanging out on a Harlem street corner; a weary bagel delivery man making his predawn rounds.

“This question of social activism through photography has a strong argument, that it’s an extension of a broader Jewish social activist culture and history,” Stockmann adds.

At the same time, the pictures are uniformly beautiful. Though many of them were amateurs, the photographers had a refined collective eye for light, form, framing and photographic architecture.

“Coney Island,” 1947 photo/sid grossman

Most of the Photo League photographers have died, including Grossman. But not all.

Sonia Handelman Meyer celebrated her 92nd birthday last February. In her early 20s, the New Jersey native prowled the streets of New York as a member of the Photo League.

Several of her prints from the 1940s are on display in “Radical Camera,” including a shot of a sad-eyed Harlem boy, his face obscured by a bandana; one of grim-faced black men at a 1946 anti-lynching rally; and a picture of Holocaust-era Jewish refugees at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

“The workshops I took were eye and mind openers,” Meyer said in an interview conducted via email. “[They] opened up new ways to look around me. I began to wander through the city, seeing everything and everyone with clarity and some understanding. My natural eye and my strong empathy were at work, and I was not thinking as I saw and shot these photographs.”

“Hebrew Immigration Aid Society,” 1946 photo/sonia handelman meyer

Meyer was not raised in a religious home, but says she absorbed plenty of Yiddishkeit. She knew most of her fellow League members were Jewish, though the subject of religion rarely came up.

That didn’t stop them from drawing on their heritage when taking pictures.

“Some of the members shot pictures [in Jewish neighborhoods],” she remembers, “the Lower East Side or parts of Brooklyn. There must have been a kind of innate feeling of common background, but I don’t think it was ever expressed.”

The Photo League became the target of congressional anti-Communist investigations, with individual members blacklisted. The stress caught up with the institution, and by 1951 the Photo League folded. Only a few members went on to enjoy successful careers as professional photographers.

Meyer was not one of them. She married, had children and left photography behind. But even at 92, she has a website dedicated to her work, and she is thrilled the CJM will hang her pictures.

“There has never been another institution like the Photo League,” she says. “The work is a triumphant answer to the accusations made.”

“The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951,”
Oct. 11-Jan. 21 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission Street, S.F. www.thecjm.org

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.