The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951, at the Jewish Museum
With its more than 140 photographs–often iconic, always engaging, and mostly taken on the streets of our beloved New York City, through the Depression, the War, and the post-war, ultimately red-baiting, years to follow–the Radical Camera exhibition at the Jewish Museum’s mansion-y home on Fifth Avenue would be a noteworthy addition to the season’s cultural offerings on its artistic merit alone. But add one of the greatest back-stories we’ve heard in a long time, and tell it well, through images and documents and archival footage, and the Jewish Museum’s Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951, becomes one of our favorite museum shows of the year.
The story, which we knew next-to-nothing about before going to the Jewish Museum’s Radical Camera exhibition, is this: in the mid-1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, a group of idealistic young photographers–both amateur and professional, most of them first-generation Americans, many of them Jewish–banded together to form the Photo League. The photo league was a loose collective dedicated to documenting the real lives of real people, in the often-gritty streets of New York City. The political agenda of their work was very definitely of the socialist variety, and their “clubhouse” in Manhattan was an energizing mix of film school, gallery, darkroom, and salon. The Photo Leaguers were pioneers in the urban documentary movement, fanning out all over the city–though Coney Island, Harlem, and the Lower East Side were especially frequent settings–and their commitment to combining composition (usually striking) with narrative (usually compelling) as well as a close affinity for and relationship with their subjects would influence street photography for decades to come.
As is obvious from their work on display in the Jewish Museum’s Radical Camera exhibition, these photographers–Jerome Liebling, Sid Grossman, Lucy Ashjian, Aaron Siskind, Lisette Model, Ruth Orkin, and dozens more–produced many of the most famous images of New York City from that time, and certainly some of the most fascinating, both from an aesthetic as well as historical perspective. And then it all came crashing to an end during the witch hunts of the late 1940s, when the US Justice Department formerly declared the Photo League to be a subversive, and blacklisted the organization in 1947. After a couple of years of fighting back, their designation as a front for the Communist Party finally killed the Photo League for good in 1951. Fortunately for us, not before many years of exceptional photographic work was done… and is now on exhibition at the Jewish Museum’s great Radical Camera show.
The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951, at the Jewish Museum details
The Radical Camera exhibition will be at the Jewish Museum from now through March 25, 2012. The Jewish Museum is located on the corner of 92nd Street and Fifth Avenue, and is open on Saturday through Tuesday from 11:00 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. on Thursday until 8:00 p.m., and on Friday until 4:00 p.m. Closed Wednesdays. For more information about the Radical Camera exhibition, please see the Jewish Museum website, here.
Posted in NYC Events | Tagged Aaron Siskind • Jerome Liebling • Jewish Museum • Jewish Museum New York • Jewish Museum NYC • Lisette Model • Lucy Ashjian • New York's Photo League • Photo League • Ruth Orkin • Sid Grossman • The Jewish Museum • The Radical Camera