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The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-1951

November 4, 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

In 1936 a group of young, idealistic photographers, most of them Jewish, first-generation Americans, formed an organization in Manhattan called the Photo League. Their solidarity centered on a belief in the expressive power of the documentary photograph and on a progressive alliance in the 1930s of socialist ideas and art. The Radical Camera presents the contested path of the documentary photograph during a tumultuous period that spanned the New Deal reforms of the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War.

Jerome Leibling: Butterfly Boy, New York, 1949
Jerome Liebling, Butterfly Boy,
New York
, 1949

Sid Grossman, Coney Island, c. 1947

Photographing the City
Members rejected the prevailing style of modernism in order to engage the gritty realities of urban life. Leaguers focused on New York, and this meant looking closely at ordinary people. That impulse spurred the group to explore neighborhoods, street by street, camera at the ready.

The League and Its Legacy
A unique complex of school, darkroom, gallery, and salon, the League was also a place where you learned about yourself. One of its leading members was Sid Grossman who pushed students to discover not only the meaning of their work but also their relationship to it. This transformative approach was one of the League’s most innovative and influential contributions to the medium. By its demise in 1951, the League had propelled documentary photography from factual images to more challenging ones--from bearing witness to questioning one’s own bearings in the world.

Mason Klein
Curator, The Jewish Museum, New York

Catherine Evans
Curator, Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

Jack Manning: Elks Parade, Harlem, 1938Jack Manning (American, 1920-2001)
Elks Parade, 1939, from Harlem Document, 1936–40
Gelatin silver print
10 1/16 x 13 in. (25.6 x 33 cm)
The Jewish Museum, New York
Purchase: Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Fund, 2008-95
© Estate of Jack Manning

Jerome Liebling (American, 1924-2011)
Butterfly Boy, New York, 1949
Gelatin silver print
9 1/2 x 9 1/2 in. (24.1 x 24.1 cm)
The Jewish Museum, New York
Purchase: Mimi and Barry J. Alperin Fund, 2008-90

Sid Grossman (American, 1913-1955)
Coney Island, c. 1947
Gelatin silver print
9 3/8 x 7 7/8 in. (23.8 x 20 cm)
The Jewish Museum, New York
Purchase: The Paul Strand Trust for the benefit of Virginia Stevens Gift, 2008-62
© Howard Greenberg Gallery, NYC

The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-1951 has been organized by The Jewish Museum, New York and the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio.

The exhibition is made possible by a major grant from the Phillip and Edith Leonian Foundation, with generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts and Betsy Karel.
National Endowment for the Arts
The Dorot Foundation publications endowment and the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Exhibition Fund also provided important funding.
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