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Working Glass

A Jewish Museum exhibit on the New York Photo League shows how its photographers fetishized poverty for the sake of propaganda

Alice Gregory
November 14, 2011

If there’s one thing an amateur photographer loves it’s a suffering stranger—the poorer, the better. Eyes should be vacant and clothes should be tattered. Overworked, single mothers are good, as are children, especially when they are all alone.

William Dean Howells defined realism as “nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material”—which is what the amateur photographer believes himself to be capturing when he takes a picture of personal distress. Inevitably though, he is attempting something more—and more slippery—than the truthful treatment of his material: He believes that his subject is symbolic of the grand scale of human suffering and that it is his responsibility to exalt it.

While snapping a picture can easily be construed as an objective reproduction of a pre-existing reality, photographers can’t help but edit the world. And the only thing more boring than amateur photography is obsolete propaganda, especially if it is praising the dignity of the working class. Individual hardship—but not death or all-out disaster—is difficult to care about too much after the fact; bygone squalor doesn’t seem worth our present-day tears. To age gracefully, documentary photographs must have artistic value in addition to historical value, and all too often one currency subsumes the other.

“The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951,” which opened at the Jewish Museum last Friday, captures better than any art exhibition I can remember the ways in which the propagandistic impulse both propels and stifles creativity. Mason Klein of the Jewish Museum and Catherine Evans of the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio have curated an exhibition that privileges the Photo League’s history more than its artistic legacy. It’s a little didactic: The photos are hung in mostly chronological order, the wall text is dry but information-rich, and the seven galleries are labeled with the expository concision of a high-school textbook (“Introduction and Precursors,” “The Great Depression,” etc.). It’s arguable that such pedantry is necessary: Though the Photo League launched tens of world-class careers, the organization itself is hardly remembered today.

Founded in 1936 by self-taught photographers Sol Libsohn and Sid Grossman, the Photo League was an indirect descendent of the Workers’ International Relief, a Berlin-based adjunct of the Communist International established to alleviate famine in the Soviet Union. First and foremost, the League’s purpose was pedagogical: Its various Eastside headquarters gave students inexpensive access to a darkroom, along with a gallery to exhibit their work. Classes and lectures were held in on-site salons. When it opened, the Photo League was the only non-commercial photography school in America, and photography itself wasn’t yet quite considered a valid art form. (The Museum of Modern Art didn’t open a photography department until 1940.) Two coinciding developments enabled and inspired the League’s novice photographers: the relatively recent introduction of small, handheld 35mm cameras, and the new ubiquity of illustrated magazines like Look and Life. The League thrived for over a decade before being declared subversive in 1947 by Attorney General Tom C. Clark and placed on the U.S. Department of Justice blacklist. By 1951, it was completely dissolved.

The League’s members were mostly young, first-generation Jewish immigrants, and their goal was to record, through pictures, the daily activity of life in Manhattan. Aesthetically, the Photo League was to photography what the Ashcan School was to painting: Its members’ subjects were the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. They took pictures of Lower East Side tenements instead of Fifth Avenue townhouses; men carrying bagels, not fine cigars.

The work on display in “The Radical Camera”—culled from the two museums’ permanent collections—is bafflingly varied in both its content and its quality, which makes sense only when you remember that the Photo League was a school, after all. The work appears admirably ambitious and earnest, if not hugely satisfying—you can see the members navigating the ethics of a new medium: Does formal composition mar truth? Are purely objective pictures even interesting to look at? Stoop scenes are bracketed by brass bands; portraits of architectural landmarks hang in galleries with portraits of rambunctious children—some seem scheming for our pity, others casual to the point of aesthetic negligence. The joyful and glamorous images are tokens, included, it would seem, only for the contrast they provide.

The League, with its roots in Communism and Depression-era radicalism (the photographers called themselves “workers”), produced photographs that served more as evidence for the virtue of their reformist politics than as actual artworks. There are exceptions of course: For every roomful of forgettable cityscapes, there are a few truly stunning compositions (Ruth Orkin’s “Boy Jumping Into Hudson River” is one; Arthur Leipzig’s “Ideal Laundry” is another), but if you were to take the body of work as some sort of sociological record, you’d get a pretty grim view of the city.

Of course a grim view of Manhattan in the 1930s, in the grip of the Great Depression, isn’t all that shocking or radical. The trouble comes when you realize the effect has been created cumulatively, by the simple multiplication of images, and not through the power of works of particular artistic merit. It’s difficult to walk through the show and not suspect the photographers of having selected for sorrow en masse.

“There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera,” Susan Sontag famously wrote in “On Photography.” Here it’s a coercive aggression whereby almost every person in every portrait is symptomatic of vague subjugation—there’s little humor, and almost no sexuality. “There was a sense at the time—this almost magical belief—that if you took a picture of oppression, you were somehow doing something to alleviate it or fight against it,” Luc Sante told me over the phone last week. “It leads to a lot of really dull work.”

Isn’t it possible, if not probable, that the youth in Rae Russel’s “Young Boy and Fire Hydrant” is looking down not because he is sad, but because he is anything else (tired, curious about the stain on his shirt, maybe even about to blink)? Lisette Model’s “Lower East Side” depicts a grizzled man in tweed so cartoonishly hobo-like that he could have been shot by Diane Arbus. Perhaps he’s just back from a grueling day on the job, where he is subject to dangerous working conditions and a draconian boss. Perhaps. Or maybe he’s squinting into the distance in search of his wife? Maybe he’s annoyed at a friend who is running late. The point is: We don’t know anything about these people, and the mere fact of the League’s political prescription taints the photographs’ powers of description.

In 1938, a group of League photographers, led by a 21-year-old Lower East Sider named Walter Rosenblum, spent six months photographing a stretch of Pitt Street: men at a flea market, boys playing on sidewalks, a group of women cooing at a baby. The most striking image is by Rosenbaum. It’s of a young girl, dressed in white, swinging at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge. She’s suspended at the very crest of her arch, and the perspective is such that she’s the same size as the visible part of the tower. The Pitt Street series is one of the few Photo League projects that doesn’t reek of righteousness or reduce its subjects to the lone fact of their hardship. It’s no coincidence that the neighborhood was Rosenbaum’s own.

I walked down to that same stretch of Pitt Street one day last week. I was working in a coffee shop nearby and wanted a break; I thought I’d see if the blocks looked familiar. They did. The neighborhood is more Dominican than Jewish now, but it’s still a photo student’s dream. The Williamsburg Bridge casts dramatic shadows, and the street is almost as wide as a boulevard. Look south, and you can see the squat silhouettes of two twin Rosenwach water tanks. The blocks are littered (sometimes literally) with specious visual metaphors: empty bottles of Bacardi Arctic Grape in the gutters and a restaurant that serves something called “Big Party,” which only costs $1. As I was walking around last Thursday at 11 a.m., the only two people I saw were a mother and her small daughter, who wore a polyester carnation in her hair. The scene looked to me desolate in that way we’ve all been trained to see as tragic. But I was being a bad realist, not only not truthful but ignoring reality. Why should there have been anyone out and about at 11 a.m.? People have jobs.

The Photo League is more than just a bygone New York institution or casualty of McCarthyism. The New York School was born of it, and many artists affiliated with the League, such as Helen Levitt, Robert Frank, and Arthur Leipzig, went on to have celebrated careers. But as the League photographers tried—and often failed—to negotiate the boundary between their political obligations and their creative ambitions they produced a lot of facile poeticism. I suspect the real legacy of the Photo League, though, was to anticipate the historical course of our reaction to documentary photography—the sympathy that sours so quickly into antipathy.

Alice Gregory is a writer living in Brooklyn.

Alice Gregory is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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