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Oh, for the Days When the Government Underwrote Radical Art

Mike Newton Mar 2, 2012

“The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936–1951”

The Jewish Museum

1109 Fifth Ave.

Through March 25


Our story begins: folks gather in Union Square to demand assistance and recompense for the unemployed, but they’re assailed by the media and arrested by police. No, this footage isn’t from an Occupy Wall Street-inspired protest — it’s from a 1931 film on view at the Jewish Museum’s “The Radical Camera,” an exhibition that details the New York Photo League’s efforts to document working class life from 1936 to 1951.

“Workers Newsreel Unemployment Special” plays on a loop at the entrance of the show and is a product of the explicitly communist Film and Photo League, a group created by the Berlin-based Workers International Relief in 1930. The film highlights the sort of agitprop that the group abandoned when it split in 1936 into two groups — Frontier Films and the Photo League.

This break, however, didn’t mean that the group abandoned politics altogether. As with many artistic and cultural organizations of the era, the Photo League received funding from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Projects Administration to document American life. For members of the league — primarily Jews from immigrant families with a penchant for social justice — this meant protests and parades, struggling workers and catch-as-catch-can kids’ games, Lower East Side slums and hot Harlem parties, clattering el trains and Coney Island strolls. The Photo League was out to forge an expansive and beautiful sort of documentary photography — balancing aesthetics with plaintive social relevance. By all accounts, it succeeded.

“The Radical Camera” is comprehensive but not overwhelming, evoking a bygone era of New York City. (While looking at Sy Kettelson’s 1949 photo of an ad-festooned subway car, one viewer remarked: “This is the subway that I remember.”) The Photo League counted some of the 20th century’s legendary photographers among its ranks (or as affiliated friends), including Paul Strand, Aaron Siskind and Lisette Model. But some of the best photos in the show come from less revered names — works that embody the league’s dualistic ethos, balancing face-front social realism with an unfussy formal elegance. Lucy Ashjian’s 1938 Harlem street scene shows the immediate wake of an accident: a small crowd with all eyes massed upon something located outside of the frame. We learn nothing about the accident itself, but the picture speaks volumes on the sunlit, stoic New York street life of the Depression era. Similarly, Dan Weiner’s 1949 photo of the laying of the cornerstone of the U.N. building turns away from the (assumed) spectacle, capturing instead a group of ordinary looking men, gazing out and bearing historical witness. Weegee’s flash-lit 1940 photo of a Second Avenue bagel-pusher is both eerie and affectionate. Morris Engel’s 1947 14th Street photo shows movie marquees, shop awnings, police and a befuddled shoeshine boy — a layered pastiche of New York power relations. And then, there’s Vivian Cherry’s disquieting 1947 photo of a Black boy playing with his friends, arms pulled to either side, eyes cast down. He’s pretending to get lynched.

The end of the 1940s, of course, meant the Cold War, and the Photo League, a group of leftist artists and activists, fared about as well as you might expect under McCarthyism. The group was publicly blacklisted, lost funding and was even infiltrated by an FBI spy. Toward the end, the league shifted away from political themes and its work tended toward semi-abstraction. This approach yielded some wonderful pictures (like Leon Levinstein’s undated photo of a close-cropped, off-kilter crowd scene), but the earnest beauty of these shots tragically lacked the political relevance of the group’s previous work. The group called it quits in 1951.

The Photo League’s work is classic and old-fashioned, but it’s not stuffy. It’s retained a good bit of its in-the-moment incipience. With the advent of the handheld 35-millimeter camera, the League’s work was cutting-edge, made by people new to photography (many of them in their early to mid-20s). The League also functioned as a meeting place for novice and up-and-coming photographers alike, offering classes, hosting parties and featuring a low-cost darkroom.

In the present, photographic technology has undergone a profound democratization — cameras are everywhere — yet when it comes to achieving a similar level of government-funded, socially engaged photography, a vacuum exists. As far as the arts are concerned, our culture often seems stuck in a Cold War stalemate (can you imagine federal money going to a group of communist-affiliated, Jewish 20-somethings to take pictures of New York City?). Make no mistake: amid the glut of websites like Flickr and Tumblr there are great photographs by politically engaged artists, but how often do you see groups of photographers committed to both aesthetics and social justice, with a supportive government recognizing (and underwriting) the cultural importance of creative, progressive documentary art? Oh, well — maybe next crisis.



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