The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951

November 4, 2011 - March 25, 2012

The Radical Camera offers a comprehensive look at the Photo League, a group of politically engaged street photographers who captured city life from the end of the Great Depression to the start of the Cold War. Featuring more than 140 works by some of the most noted 20th-century photographers, including Berenice Abbott, Sid Grossman, Lisette Model, Aaron Siskind, Paul Strand, and Weegee.

Jerome Liebling (American, 1924–2011), Butterfly Boy, New York, 1949, gelatin silver print, 9 1/2 x 9 1/2 in. (24.1 x 24.1 cm). The Jewish Museum, New York. Purchase: Mimi and Barry J. Alperin Fund, 2008-90

“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

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.

Photographing the City
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.

Mason Klein, Curator, the Jewish Museum, New York

Catherine Evans, Curator, Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951 has been organized by the Jewish Museum, New York and the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio.
The exhibition is made possible by a major grant from the Phillip and Edith Leonian Foundation, with generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts and Betsy Karel.

 

 
The Dorot Foundation publications endowment and the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Exhibition Fund also provided important funding.
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