These were typical days for the keen shutterbugs behind the New York Photo League: Hit the five boroughs and train a lens on shoeshine boys, immigrant fathers with children in freezing weather and the working-class commuting in subway cars. During the 1930s and '40s, the league's members were young, Jewish and mostly New Yorkers, all united in the unparalleled power of the photograph as an agent of sociopolitical change.
"It was photography for and by the 99 percent," says Catherine Evans, curator of photography at Ohio's Columbus Museum of Art, who along with curator Mason Klein of New York's Jewish Museum assembled "The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-1951," which will open Thursday, March 14, at the Norton Museum of Art. "Save the hats and coats they wore, the images could have been ripped from current headlines in terms of banks failing and the Great Depression. These black-and-white pictures were taken mostly by people you've never seen or heard of."
The Photo League, a school- and salon-style group for eager photographers practicing progressive politics, was founded in 1936 by friends Sid Grossman and Sol Libsohn, and was spun off from Great Depression-era workers' movements and partly staffed by "card-carrying Communist" members, Evans says. Lensmen and lenswomen, including Paul Strand, Aaron Siskind, Lisette Model, Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin and, to a much-lesser-extent, Ansel Adams, would shoot their documentary-style photography to capture the stark realities of everyday, blue-collar life.
"It wasn't all doom and gloom. It was a multilayered, dynamic group, and they absolutely met all the time. They did photo hunts, camera balls, dances and parties. It was very spirited," says Evans of the league, first headquartered in Lower Manhattan in the mid-'30s. Evans wrote a 248-page, same-titled chronology of the group, which will be on display at the Norton alongside league ephemera such as a weekly bulletin called "Photo Notes," syllabi and membership cards.
The league's images documented the working class and the disenfranchised, each shot filled with empathy and humor, including Bernard Cole's "Shoemaker's Lunch," a 1944 portrait of a cobbler relaxing with a Kaiser-roll sandwich and fruit. Jerome Liebling's "Butterfly Boy" from 1949 is more whimsical, capturing the split second when a boy's overcoat flaps open to resemble wings.
The images continued until the New York Photo League's abrupt end in 1951. The league, not quite the hotbed of Communism the red-baiting defenders of McCarthyism made it out to be, was trounced, and its members blacklisted. Most fell into obscurity. What did survive, however, was the league's new school of photojournalism, nurtured into mainstream popularity by magazines such as Life and Look.
"The blacklisting was the final nail in the coffin," Evans says. "A lot of the photographers were apolitical and just wanted to show the breadth and nuances of the social documentary narrative."
The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-1951
When: March 14-June 16 (original league members Sonia Handelman Meyer, Marvin Newman and Ida Wyman will speak at a panel discussion 3 p.m. Saturday, March 16)
Where: Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach
Contact: 561-832-5196 or Norton.org