Sixty years ago this week, the Photo League fell victim to Cold War witch hunts and blacklists, closing its doors after 15 intense years of trailblazing – and sometimes hell-raising – documentary photography. From unabashedly leftist roots, the group influenced a generation of photographers who transformed the documentary tradition, elevating it to heady aesthetic heights.
Yet with the accusations leveled against the group and Sid Grossman, one of its founders and legendary teachers, the narrative, such as it is known, was a flawed tale.
“They’ve been erased by history,” said Mason Klein, curator at the Jewish Museum in New York. “They’re just considered a bunch of old leftists, and that is not a fair charge. The influence Mr. Grossman had on the variety of work being done at the league is something unappreciated.”
Mr. Klein has helped correct that narrative, co-curating a show opening Friday at the museum titled “The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951.” The exhibition, which runs through March 25, is a collaboration with the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio, whose collection also has dozens of vintage prints by members of the league. As a whole, the show takes the viewer from overtly political images that decry poverty, racism and violence to more nuanced observations of postwar American life. It also shows a vibrant photographic milieu where women, including Berenice Abbott andLisette Model, were influential members.
“It covers those tumultuous decades of the first part of the 20th century,” said Catherine Evans, photography curator at the Columbus Museum, “from the late ’30s through World War II and the Cold War, as the country shifted from one direction to the extreme opposite direction. And the Photo League was in the middle of that shifting story.”
Given its origins during 1930s New York, it would have been difficult to escape political inclinations. The league had its origins in the Workers Film and Photo League, which itself had come from Workers International Relief. The show’s hefty catalog described it as a “leftist Red Cross” for strikers.
“Of course there was that Socialist, Communist fervor of the 1930s that possessed many young artists in New York City,” Mr. Klein said. “Because of the Depression, there was a need to tell the story of suffering.”
But instead of traveling to rural America to find the faces of need, the league – and Grossman – encouraged its members to look in New York, where many of them had grown up as children of immigrants.
“First-generation Americans wanted to look at themselves as subjects for the first time,” Mr. Klein said. “The city had a large Jewish presence. Since two million of the city’s seven million residents were Jewish, they were well-suited to interpret that story. But the narrative we’re also trying to tell is how the goal of documentary photography went from being somewhat objective – as it needed to be to bear witness to suffering and inequality – to developing an aesthetically considered work of art.”
And for members of the league, such considerations were not far from their minds, even in the early years.
“They literally quarreled in the ’30s about how much to emphasize politics in their subjects,” Mr. Klein said. “But there was always this understanding that photography was a constant. What constituted a good photograph was always discussed.”
Sonia Handelman Meyer, 91, joined the league in 1943, after hearing about it while working in Puerto Rico for the Army Signal Corps. She took courses with Grossman, who was famous for long workshops that dragged on into the morning hours.
“You had to bring your work,” she said. “And if you didn’t he wouldn’t pay attention to you or he’d tell you to get out. He was rough. He was very demanding. He was very wonderful.”
Chief among the demands of Grossman, who died in 1955, was an insistence that photographers had to understand why they were taking pictures and how they related to the subject in the viewfinder.
Ms. Handelman Meyer said those lessons changed her.
“When you go out on the street and you see things, they don’t seem to have an impact,” she said. “But after you begin to work with a camera and have the discussions we had in class, you see details. Faces, buildings and streets seem to have much more significance. Maybe that could have happened without the workshop. But in some way what he taught us made an impression on me and many more of his students.”
It also made an impression on the government, whose investigation of Grossman’s political leanings brought the league into question. In 1947, the United States attorney general placed the league on a list of subversive groups. This came at a time when the group was itself evolving, and embracing a more modern style that would influence the coming generation of photographers, like Robert Frank. And while some members no doubt had belonged to or sympathized with the Communist Party, others were apolitical.
Big names rallied to the league’s side, lending their reputation and work in support. But it did not ease the pressure from Washington. A paid F.B.I. informant accused Grossman of being a Communist and the league of being a front.
“It got to be too much,” said Ms. Handelman Meyer, who was the group’s secretary when it was declared subversive. “They were blacklisting people. There were photographers who could not get their passports for overseas jobs. Little by little, it dissolved. It’s tragic, because there has never been another organization like the Photo League. It was such a time of fear and disgust.”
Yet the group’s transformation – of its members and their art – is reflected in the show, where the images detail that growth.
“As these 20-somethings became a little more skilled, they went from their little neighborhood to realizing what their cameras could lead them to,” Mr. Klein said. “They went from bearing witness to losing their bearings, and determining for themselves how they wanted to see the world.”
The league’s influence on those who followed was evident later in the decade, when Robert Frank debuted “The Americans.” So, too, was the legacy of its undoing.
“When Robert Frank and that generation of the New York School emerged and were validated by the art world, they had to distance themselves from politics,” Mr. Klein said. “Art and politics had to be separate.”
On Wednesday morning, George Zimbel, 82, got up before dawn and jotted down in his notebook a thought that had come to him while visiting New York for the opening of the show, which includes a photo he took in 1951. He wrote about John Ebstel, who had taught him the painstaking art of printing at the league.
“Everybody is concentrating on the political aspect of this,” he said. “But what I wrote in my notebook this morning was what I got from John Ebstel – a respect for the image. A beautiful image. He kept you at it.”
Mr. Zimbel kept at it through his long career. “I threw away a lot of paper,” he joked. But at an advance visit to the show Tuesday night, he found that shared love and concern for the image front and center. “It was amazing to see so much at one time; it really made me shaky,” he said. “It was emotional, in a good sense.”
Just as amazing – and not in a good sense – is how far photography has gone.
“I think the humanism of the Photo League was amazing, and that’s lost now,” he said. “Contemporary art and the scene have now pushed people where they’re afraid to photograph on the street. They’re afraid to use people, except as objects in an image. That is such a tragedy. People are the most interesting things on earth.”