'The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-51'
by Sura Wood
The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-51, the latest exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum and one of its most enjoyably edifying to date, amplifies a less recognized chapter in the complex narrative of modern photography, the period when it evolved from an objective documentary record of ordinary people and everyday life – in this case, bearing a covert social message – to an artistic medium that helped pave the way for a new generation of street photographers.
This engrossing exhibition, where one can spend hours and lose track of time, follows the history of the League, a group of young, idealistic American, mostly Jewish photographers whose ranks swelled to 300. While illuminating the development of their work – a fusion of socialist ideas and art – through the socio-political and cultural forces that framed and shaped their values, the show also explores the group's conflicting agendas and contentious internal debates about the role of photography. The more dogmatic members considered shooting a photograph a political act, and worried aesthetics would overpower message; others blurred those boundaries with impunity. Toiling in a photography-rich environment of glossy picture magazines, newspapers and books, a wealth of venues enviable by today's standards, some utilized small, easily concealed 35mm cameras that allowed them to pivot and shoot inequality, poverty and injustice where they stood.
On a nostalgic note, the show's 140 gritty, urban, black & white vintage images, shot by 70 different artists during the 1930s and 40s, are a testament to an all-but-vanished New York City, a not necessarily beautiful metropolis, sometimes harsh, always restless, visually arresting and teeming with life. In Jack Manning's photograph of a sprawling, four-story tenement, every balcony is jam-packed with people who've emerged from cramped quarters to watch the Elks Parade in Harlem. Shooting a dilapidated, overcrowded apartment building obscured by multiple tiers of clotheslines, Consuelo Kanaga's work exudes her leftist activism and compassion for the working class. Alexander Alland offers alternate views of the Brooklyn Bridge: a straight-on depiction as imposing and mysterious as the Giza pyramids rising from the desert, and another taken at a distance from the other side. One's perception of the city depends on your vantage point.
Organized chronologically, Radical starts on the eve of the Depression, and moves through the New Deal, the WWII years that saw an influx of women photographers, the racial tension and tentative rumblings of the civil rights movement, and finally, the Red Scare. The latter led to the League's demise, yet another casualty of McCarthy-era witch-hunts and paranoia. In a plaintive letter to HUAC displayed here, the League, which had been infiltrated by an FBI informant, made a cogent, reasoned appeal to the fanatics who condemned them as a subversive, Communist front organization.
There's colorful background material to absorb, but the real meat of the show is its penetrating images by a collection of photography all-stars that include Berenice Abbott, Aaron Siskind, Weegee and Lisette Model. One of the most innovative and daring of the League's members, Model, who mentored Diane Arbus, was magnetized by people on the fringes whom she memorialized in unsettling portraits she hoped would attain a life of their own, such as "Little Man, Lower East Side" (c. 1940), where a defeated, unshaven man of short stature in a rumpled hat and overcoat pauses to rest from unknown miseries. "Albert-Alberta" (c.1945), a gender-bending picture of a male burlesque performer at Hubert's 42nd St. Flea Circus in Times Square, is closer to the sober, unvarnished approach to transgressive imagery readily associated with the artist. A man divided, he's posed in front of flowery drapery, wearing make-up, a black fishnet bra stretched over one nipple, a man's sock and shoe on one foot, an open-toed high heel on the other with an ankle bracelet on his hairy leg.
With camera at the ready, Weegee was "Johnny-on-the-spot" wherever carnage could be found. He gained a well-deserved reputation as a master of the sensational crime scene, whether it was New York patrolmen fresh from rescuing a baby, or a bloody victim wounded in a bar fight with a rival for the woman whose lap he found himself in at the bitter end. Weegee aka Arthur Fellig is also represented by a romantic nighttime vision of the "Empire State Building" (1945) lit up like a rocket ship, along with several other compelling pictures and a copy of Naked City, a book for which he provided both photos and text. In 1939, Paul Strand, an accomplished professional before he became part of the League, composed a macabre evocation of horror, evil and mass murder rolled into a single photograph. His uncharacteristically explicit and powerful political image of a skeleton tied to a swastika recalls religious iconography of Jesus nailed to the cross.
At a time of tectonic changes, the fervent desire of these photographers was that their images have meaning to the people who saw them. The group may have survived only 15 years, but they left a lasting impression on the medium they helped transform.
The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-51, through Jan. 21, 2013. Info: www.thecjm.org