The Great Depression
The economic turmoil of the 1930s brought enormous social and political upheaval. In response, the government of President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted massive relief programs known as the New Deal and funded unprecedented art projects that employed artists, making their work accessible to a broad public.
Small hand-held 35mm cameras, introduced in the1920s, enabled a new kind of chance photography, at once casual and purposeful. In this environment, Leaguers were inspired to make inequity and discrimination tangible in their work. But they also championed a photography that was as much aesthetic as social-minded, and this dual identity defines the League’s progressivism in a unique way.
Both impulses were fostered by a picture-hungry world of illustrated magazines, such as Life and Look, newspapers, and books. Suddenly, photographs were ubiquitous in daily life. While the documentary image was still not generally thought of as art, by the end of the decade the form was evolving.
The War Years
The early 1940s witnessed the country’s rapid transition from New Deal recovery to war mobilization. The League rallied around war-related projects and half the membership enlisted. It was at this point that more women became members.
The organization’s newsletter, Photo Notes, provided a forum for an ongoing discussion of the role of photography in a changing political climate. A growing interest in the subjective image, expressing a more personal, even idiosyncratic, point of view, gradually tested the League’s dogmatic conception of the function of documentary photography. League members were becoming more photographically literate and many were beginning to assert their own styles — as in Lisette Model’s charged and unsentimental portraits, Weegee’s sensationalistic crime scenes, and Rosalie Gwathmey’s empowering civil-rights images.
Photo Hunts and Crazy Camera Balls
At League headquarters, Crazy Camera Balls raised funds and fostered a sense of community. Photo Hunts — competitions in which Leaguers scoured the city to complete random, sometimes ludicrous assignments — were legendary.
The Red Scare
Postwar prosperity replaced economic hardship and the threat of global fascism as the turbulent 1940s drew to a close. But in the midst of this new upward mobility, the League was forced to confront its past. With the advent of the Cold War, leftist politics became suspect in America. On December 5, 1947, the U.S. Attorney General publicly blacklisted the Photo League as an organization considered “totalitarian, fascist, communist, or subversive.” Being blacklisted meant more than a damaged reputation: members faced loss of work, criminal investigation, and even imprisonment.
Shocked, the League responded immediately with an open letter: “The Photo League repudiates this irresponsible and reckless smearing of its purposes and its membership. . . spearheaded by the [House] Un-American Activities Committee to stifle progressive thought in every walk of life and to intimidate by threat cultural workers in every field.”
The situation deteriorated further in 1949. During a conspiracy trial of Communist officials, Angela Calomiris, a paid informant of the FBI and a League member, named Sid Grossman as a Communist and the League as a front organization. That the League’s loose association with the radical left was now being exploited revealed how thoroughly the political and social consciousness in America had changed since the New Deal. While progressive issues of class and civil rights still mattered at the League, such subject matter was seen as dangerous in the new conservative climate of a triumphant post-World War II America.
A Center for American Photography
At the time of the blacklisting the League was already moving away from its narrowly political perspective. In 1947 it began to professionalize: Photo Notes was printed rather than mimeographed and aimed to become a serious journal. The League had begun to raise money for a new space and was reshaping itself as a “Center for American Photography,” with the goal of fostering documentary photography as a fine art. Although the documentary impulse continued, the group’s more creative approach to photography was undeniable. Aesthetic concerns now became more central.
In response to the blacklisting the group mounted an exhibition entitled This Is the Photo League, which showcased the diversity and quality of its members’ work. The retrospective opened in December 1948 with photographs by more than ninety past and present members. While it achieved a measure of critical attention, the effort came too late and the political atmosphere was by now far too toxic. Membership and revenues dwindled and the group was ostracized. By1951 the Photo League could no longer sustain itself, and it officially closed its doors, a casualty of the Cold War.
Sid Grossman, the League’s great teacher and mentor, who led the passionate debates about the role of the personal and subjective in the documentary image, was particularly victimized and disillusioned by the blacklist. He resigned in 1949 and retreated from the polemics of Manhattan to the quiet of Provincetown, Massachusetts. There he continued to teach photography and to make art, but his reputation faded.
Shortly before he died in 1955, at age 43, he commented with some irony on a late series of “pictures of birds” he had made in Cape Cod. They were, he acknowledged, scarcely the kind of documentary subject that he would have pursued earlier in life. “Yet this material,” he said, “was quite harmonious with my past history as a photographer, visually and emotionally.” Grossman perhaps felt obliged to explain that these photographs, with their allover pattern of flickering light and agitated movement, drew upon the contemporary language of Abstract Expressionism. More poignantly, the birds’ feeding frenzy suggests the poisonous atmosphere that had finally forced him out of the League.
Too rarely is the League credited for its early, pivotal role in redefining documentary photography. The transmutation of the documentary mode into an experimental, personal vision sees its blossoming in Grossman’s late Provincetown work. It reaches its transcendence in the League’s legacy: the subjective, poetic renderings of social themes that mark the next generation of street photographers.