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The Jewish Museum
The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-1951
Exhibit showing from November 04, 2011 - March 25, 2012

“The Photo League students take their camera anywhere . . . they want to tell us about New York and some of the people who live there . . . there was almost a sense of desperation in the desire to convey messages of sociological import.”

Beaumont Newhall, 1948

The Development of Photography as Art

​Vintage black-and-white photography fans might be interested in visiting the Jewish Museum in New York City to see a display titled “The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-51” to get a look at a unique New York photographic movement that occurred at a time when most American photographers were recording the drought conditions in the Dust Bowl and other parts of rural America.  In contrast, the members of the Photo League set out to capture the lives of the people and neighborhoods in urban New York instead.

The show is composed of different rooms presenting different themes and subjects including the photographers who inspired the Photo League; the Great Depression, a project called the Harlem Document; World War II; the McCarthy era; and the Photo League itself from the 1940s to the early 1950s. The result is like taking a walk through time as visitors get a look at the different neighborhoods of New York City at the time along with life in other parts of America and abroad.

The Photo League show is also a record of the development of photography as an art form. The exhibits trace black and white photography from the end of Modernism, to the adoption of the hand-held camera, records the rise of popular magazines filled with photographs like Look and Life, and moves the viewer into to a more personal and experimental way of taking photographs.

The Radical Camera exhibit photographs range from objective documentary records with a social mission to works of art reflecting political issues and the photographers’ personal concerns. During the 1930s, the Photo League members debated the political elements in their photographs and argued about what constituted a good photograph.

The New York movement was one of the first to stress the importance of the need for photographers to understand why they were taking the pictures in the first place and that they should try to be aware of the relationships to the subjects in those photographs.

During the first few years of existence as a local New York organization, the Photo League became a combination of photographic school and social club for idealistic amateur and professional photographers. Unfortunately, one of the League’s founding members was blacklisted for being a member of the Communist Party and accused of using the Photo League as a front for Communist meetings at the time.

This resulted in the League becoming one of the tragic casualties of the McCarthy-era witch-hunts and paranoia-based blacklists until the organization’s demise in 1951. Today, it is clear that despite being blacklisted as a Communist organization in 1947, the Photo League had no particular political agenda. What the League did have was an eye for great black and white photographs.
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