The Photo League students take their camera anywhere . . . they want to tell us about New York and some of the people who live there . . . there was almost a sense of desperation in the desire to convey messages of sociological import.”
Beaumont Newhall, 1948
Via The Jewish Museum
In 1936 a group of young, idealistic photographers, most of them Jewish, first-generation Americans, formed an organization in Manhattan called the Photo League. Their solidarity centered on a belief in the expressive power of the documentary photograph and on a progressive alliance in the 1930s of socialist ideas and art. The Radical Camera presents the contested path of the documentary photograph during a tumultuous period that spanned the New Deal reforms of the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War.
Sid Grossman, Coney Island, c. 1947
Jerome Liebling, Butterfly Boy,
New York, 1949
Members rejected the prevailing style of modernism in order to engage the gritty realities of urban life. Leaguers focused on New York, and this meant looking closely at ordinary people. That impulse spurred the group to explore neighborhoods, street by street, camera at the ready.
The League and Its Legacy
A unique complex of school, darkroom, gallery, and salon, the League was also a place where you learned about yourself. One of its leading members was Sid Grossman who pushed students to discover not only the meaning of their work but also their relationship to it. This transformative approach was one of the League’s most innovative and influential contributions to the medium. By its demise in 1951, the League had propelled documentary photography from factual images to more challenging ones--from bearing witness to questioning one’s own bearings in the world.
Curator, The Jewish Museum, New York
Curator, Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio