The Radical Camera: NY’s Photo League

New York's Photo League, photos of New York City 1936-1951, street photography, the Great Depression,Joe SchwartzNew York's Photo League, photos of New York City 1936-1951, street photography, Erika StoneNew York's Photo League, photos of New York City 1936-1951, street photography, great depression, WWII, Harlem, Lower East SideClick to enlarge

What a great surprise to walk into the Jewish Museum a week ago, not knowing what I was about to see, and experience one of the best photography shows I’ve seen in a long time. The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951 is a must-see for any lover of New York City, or of street photography in general. Some of the photos were familiar, but most were new to me. From the moment you enter the gallery, the parallels with the present are evident in the opening short film showing protesters in Union Square demanding unemployment assistance. It’s the 99% almost 80 years earlier. Of course, the contrasts are striking as well: these protesters look hungry, poor, all dressed in suits and skirts, and no one is smiling. There are no bed-ins or fun t-shirts as in the 1960s and today; clearly it was a different time, but it’s hard not to compare.

Apart from the protests and the poverty, the streets themselves also, in some cases, look exactly the same and in others are hard to recognize. It’s truly fascinating to look at every detail of each photo. Add to that, that the Photo League – a group of amateur and professional photographers who were politically progressive, believed in photography as an instrument for social change, and were later blacklisted during the McCarthy Era – leased 2,600 sq. feet of space in our very own building’s basement in the late 1940s as their gathering space, makes it all the more close to home.

One of the projects by the Photo League, and led by photographer Aaron Siskind, was the Harlem Document, an in-depth photographic overview of the black community. It made me smile to read that they collected ‘dozens’ of photos over several months of shooting; definitely not the digital age of today.

All photos are from The Jewish Museum’s website and The Financial Times. From top to bottom and left to right:
Joe Schwartz, Slums Must Go! May Day Parade, New York, c. 1936. ©Joe Schwartz
Erika Stone, Lower Eastside Facade, 1947. ©Erika Stone
Ruth Orkin, Times Square, from Astor Hotel, 1950. ©Estate of Ruth Orkin
Aaron Siskind, The Wishing Tree, 1937. ©Aaron Siskind Foundation / Courtesy Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York
Ida Wyman, Spaghetti 25 Cents, New York, 1945. ©Ida Wyman
Ruth Orkin, Boy Jumping into Hudson River, 1948. ©Estate of Ruth Orkin
Morris Huberland, Union Square, New York, c. 1942. ©Estate of Morris Huberland / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Arthur Leipzig, Ideal Laundry, 1946. ©Arthur Leipzig
Weegee (Arthur Fellig) Max is Rushing in the Bagels to a Restaurant on Secont Avenue for the Morning Trade, c.1940 ©Weegee

On a different note, don’t you think the bagels-on-a-string delivery method has great potential for a comeback in a contemporary health code compliant version?

If you’re in NYC, I highly recommend this exhibit which will be at the Jewish Museum through March 25th, 2012.

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