Creating a member organization to offer affordable access to specialized equipment, as well as opportunities for classroom study, socializing and creative growth, is a scenario that’s familiar to many contemporary working artists.
In the case of the Photo League, started in 1936 by young Jewish-American photographers Sid Grossman and Sol Libsohn, the effort resulted in a substantial body of images that form a people’s history of a tumultuous era, beginning with the Great Depression and ending with the rise of the Cold War.
Unlike contemporaries under government commission to capture specific subject matter for the Farm Security Administration, its members were self-directed, and focused on the streets and underrepresented populations of New York. They included legends in the field such as Berenice Abbott, Weegee and Aaron Siskind.
With about 300 pictures in its collection, the Columbus Museum of Art has the largest museum holding of images captured by the Photo League. Fittingly, the collection has inspired the institution’s biggest photography show to date, the extraordinary “Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951.”
Presented in collaboration with another major Photo League collector, The Jewish Museum in New York City, “Radical Camera” offers nearly 150 photographs created around and during the league’s lifespan, as well as videos, oral histories and interactive displays.
As co-curator Catherine Evans recalled, when The Jewish Museum considered making its own Photo League acquisition a few years ago, curator Mason Klein visited Columbus to view the local collection.
From there, Evans thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to see what we could do together to take the Photo League out of its pigeonhole? There have only been a few exhibitions and one major book on the subject.”
With this show, the museums have expanded beyond traditional focus on the Photo League’s historic importance, considering its role in the rise of photography as a recognized fine art form and highlighting the modern-day social resonance of its decades-old images.
Ephemera promoting member parties, and items that detail the death of the group by post-war Communist paranoia and FBI infiltration, help recreate the league’s thoroughly compelling narrative.
But the story has nothing on the pictures. Stunningly captured images range from tenement dwellers and crime scenes to kids making games of sidewalk chalk drawings and pretend lynchings, and they possess the power to burn their way onto your irises.