The Photo League’s socially oriented ethos and lineage can be traced back to the roots of the organization; The Film and Photo League (earlier named the Workers’ Film and Photo League) off of which it had branched was an offshoot of the Workers’ International Relief (WIR). The Film and Photo League (one of many international Workers’ Camera Leagues) and the German and Soviet WIR were all committed to aiding striking workers.
The League is also part of the legacy of late 19th- and early 20th-century photographers Jacob Riis (1849-1914) and, more directly, Lewis Hine and Paul Strand (1890-1976). Riis had blazed a new socially conscious trail for the medium of photography by turning his lens on the hardships of tenement life on New York’s Lower East Side. These photographs were published in How the Other Half Lives (1890). Hine’s photographs of children working in factories, together with his other socially minded efforts, helped effect labor reforms. In addition to being an ideological forebear of the Photo League, Hine was a regular speaker and exhibitor at the League. When he died in 1940, he gave the League all his negatives, and it preserved his legacy by printing portfolios of his work and exhibiting his photographs. Strand, Hine’s student at the Ethical Culture School, went on to become one of the League’s staunchest supporters throughout its tumultuous history, teaching there and serving on its advisory board.
While deeply engaged with political agendas, Hine, Strand, and members of the Film and Photo League were also very much concerned with aesthetic issues. This dual focus carried through to the Photo League, whose members regarded photography as both a social tool and a powerful expressive visual form.
Despite the precedents set by these influential photographers and organizations, the documentary-style approach to photography that would be promoted by the League was not a widespread practice when the League was founded. Other schools at the time were focused on teaching commercial, fashion, or studio photography. But developments in photography, including the advent of the 35 mm handheld camera, which could be taken into the streets and on the move more readily, were bringing about a new visual information era. Photo essays—visual narratives accompanied by limited text—were appearing for the first time in magazines such as Look and Life. Soon the photo-as-document approach would become pervasive in popular media.