New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 10 March 21 to 27, 2012

A Short Moment in Time

The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936 - 1951
Harlem Merchant  by Morris Engel. Source:
Morris Engel, "Harlem Merchant"

Photography's connection to history has always moved me. Whether it be dead Civil War soldiers or live Civil Rights marchers, the camera's frozen moments, however skewed, retain for me an unequaled vividness and poignancy. The Photo League, itself a historical phenomenon with a beginning, middle, and end –– and having like much else passed through a period when it seemed merely 'dated'–– has arrived at the point when a more balanced assessment is possible. So it is timely this superb retrospective should be on view at the Jewish Museum.

Connected closely to the settlement house and social work traditions that took root in the great urban cesspools of poverty festering in the latter part of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, photography as social document and protest remained a vital genre up to the Viet Nam War. Then, the sheer glut of images, along with the interfacing of news and entertainment footage on national television, began to raise serious doubts about the efficacy of photography as an agent of social change and its complete reliability as an advocate of the truth.

Unhampered by these latter day reservations, the Photo League was unequivocally dedicated to the belief that documenting and testifying were photography's noblest callings. An especially, if not exclusively, Jewish and urban achievement, the League was closely bound up with the leftist sympathies pervasive during the Great Depression. With such predecessors as Louis Hine and Jacob Riis paving the way, these photographers often saw themselves creating the visual equivalent of the muckraking journalism prominent at that time.

For a 15 year period, from 1936 to 1951 the League functioned as a rite of passage for many American photographers –– even those for whom the documentary style was merely a point of departure. Unsurprisingly therefore, it not so much the presence of stunning work in the show, although there are some absolute gems, but the amazing number of talented people who passed through the League that impresses.

The Wishing Tree by Aaron Siskind. Source:
Aaron Siskind, "The Wishing Tree"

Maybe it was the lure of “talking photography” and the opportunity to meet with others equally passionate about the medium that brought so many into its orbit, or the chance to hear acccomplished masters speak about their work, or the possibility of contributing to group projects that felt timely and significant. Whatever it was, until it was tarred and feathered with J Edgar Hoover's red brush, almost every American photographer of significance –– even Edward Weston whose work could not have been more different ––had some kind of association with the League.

One of the pleasures of the show is discovering the work and the names of many fine photographers, such as Lucy Ashjian and Tosh Matsmoto, who are today virtually unknown. Another is rediscovering the Harlem Document, a collective portrait of the neighborhood, rich in idiosyncratic and historical interest. An archetypal League Project led by Aaron Siskind, the Harlem Document became the focus of controversy for its emphasis on what some Harlem residents felt was its negative take on the community.

Variants of this issue resurface time and again whenever outsiders photograph the communities of others.

Today, however, some sixty years after the demise of the League, it is possible to look at these pictures simply as pictures, reflecting only the vision of the photographers who took them. Once freed of the obligation to present an absolute and universal truth, the photograph is free to be just what it is––a momentary perception transferred and translated through the idiosyncrasies of its medium. As such, the Harlem Documents are full of endless happenstance and detail. Siskind, himself, did wonderful work for the project, as did Morris Engel, Lucy Ashjian, Sid Grossman, Jack Manning, and so many others.

If contemporary art could be said to suffer from an excess of artifice, Photo Leaguers might be said to have suffered from an excess of earnestness. Only a strict and unadorned adherence to the facts was considered ‘pure’. Even a hint of formalism drew criticism as photography in the service of the social good was not to be confused with photography as esthetic pleasure –– a conflict mirrored in almost every modern political period. In the l960's, for example, many artists routinely agonized over the conflicting demands of public service and those of private artistic achievement. Rarely considered an avant garde medium, photography suffered less from these dilemmas than painting, but such moral conundrums were not unknown, and League photographers, such as Harold Corsini were severely chastised by their peers for following a formalist bent. Odd when you think that at least two well known members, Arnold Newman and Aaron Siskind, later became known as masters of visual form.

(This peculiarly American anti-formal bias was never an issue in European photojournalism whose greatest practitioners tended to be far more sophisticated visually. Think Cartier-Bresson, Kertesz, Brandt, et al.)

Ultimately this extensive and well-documented show makes one realize that the League's intended achievement was cumulative. Rather like cathedral builders, members saw themselves as a part of a collective to which anyone with the right tools could contribute. And that also, must have been part of its appeal –– this possibility to contribute to something larger than the personal.

So despite the naiveté of its philosophy and the unevenness of its imagery one envies them a little. How wonderful it must have been to participate in an enterprise conferring such deep and meaningful satisfaction, to do what one loved in the belief it benefitted all.

The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936 - 1951
Curators: Mason Klein and Catherine Evans

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