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



The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936–1951

October 11, 2012–January 21, 2013

San Francisco, CA, August 29, 2012 —In the streets of Depression-era New York City, a group of young and idealistic documentary photographers, most of them first-generation Jewish Americans, focused their cameras on a world of ordinary people and the everyday. Their work, with titles such as Shoemaker’s Lunch and Salvation Army Lassie in Front of a Woolworth Store, not only exposed issues of class, poverty, racial inequality, and opportunity, but also revealed a new aesthetic shaped by a deeply personal relationship to their urban environment.

After just fifteen years, the school and salon—known as the Photo League—would become a casualty of the McCarthy-era blacklists for leftist leanings. But in that short time its more than 300 members, which included some of the most noted photographers of the mid-twentieth century— Berenice Abbott, Consuelo Kanaga, Lisette Model, Aaron Siskind, Weegee, and many others—would redefine documentary photography and open the way for the next generation of street photographers.

The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-1951 is the first comprehensive museum survey in three decades to reassess the influential group’s history, artistic significance, and cultural, social, and political milieu. Drawing from two great Photo League museum collections, housed at The Jewish Museum in New York City and the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio, the exhibition includes nearly 140 vintage photographs by more than seventy Photo League members. Visitors will also be able to view excerpts from the award-winning 1953 film Little Fugitive by League members Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin and a 2011 documentary (Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League’s New York, courtesy Daedalus Productions, Inc.), as well as newsreels and ephemera.

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.

History and Influence of the Photo League

Small hand-held 35mm cameras, introduced in the 1920s, enabled a new kind of spontaneous photography, at once casual and purposeful. Prior to the formation of the Photo League, a number of American photographers, such as Lewis Hine and Paul Strand, would embrace this Zeitgeist to produce work motivated by social and political concerns. Hines’s empathic pictures of workers, especially children, were instrumental in changing labor laws in America. Both artists later became influential figures at the Photo League, lecturing, teaching, and serving on its advisory board.

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.

In 1930, the Film and Photo League was founded as an offshoot of Workers International Relief (a leftist German and Russian aid organization), and they produced some of the first social documentary films in America. Over time, quarrels arose among the group’s filmmakers over the relative importance of aesthetic and political values. The still photographers, for their part, did not want their images merely to serve as illustrations to written accounts. These differences proved insurmountable, and in 1936 the photographers broke away to form the Photo League, a unique complex of school, darkroom, gallery, and salon that also served as a place to socialize, especially among first-generation Jewish Americans.

During its fifteen-year existence (1936–1951), the Photo League would mirror monumental shifts in the world starting with the Depression, through World War II, and ending with the Red Scare. Throughout those tumultuous times, its members engaged in lively debate and ongoing experimentation in the streets to propel documentary photography from factual images to a more subjective, poetic reading of life.

The members’ solidarity centered on a belief in the expressive power of the documentary photograph and on a progressive alliance in the  1930s of social activism and art. They rejected the prevailing style of modernism in order to engage the gritty realities of urban life. Leaguers focused on the urban environment, and this meant looking closely at ordinary people. That impulse spurred them to explore their own New York neighborhoods, street by street, camera at the ready.

Their work was fostered by a picture-hungry world of illustrated magazines such as Life (founded in the same year as the League) and Look, newspapers, and books. Suddenly, photographs were ubiquitous in daily life. Several early examples of Photo League images published in these magazines appear in the exhibition.

In the 1930s, Leaguers were inspired to make inequity and discrimination tangible in their work. Tenement facades, shoeshine boys, protests, and portraits of the poor all figured frequently in their work. Often, their empathy was suffused with playfulness and humor as in Eliot Elisofon’s shot of children playing in an empty dirty lot behind a sign that reads “WPA Cleaned This Area … Keep it Clean.” With the Harlem Document project, a group effort led by Aaron Siskind, ten photographers produced dozens of photographs which were shown in a series of exhibitions around New York City. Their goal was to provide evidence of an impoverished community in peril.  The political agenda, though well meaning, ultimately produced an incomplete, and in some cases, stereotypical view of Harlem.

The work of the Photo League was more than just social commentary. Members championed a photography that was as much aesthetic as social-minded, and this dual identity defines the League’s progressivism in a unique way. The League was a place where you learned about yourself. One of its leading members and teachers, Sid Grossman, pushed students to discover not only the meaning of their work but also their relationship to it. For many of these working-class photographers, New York City was their own story, a place not just to bear witness, but to determine one’s own bearings. Works such as Walter Rosenblum’s images of children and life along Pitt Street on the Lower East Side (where he grew up) clearly illustrate the photographer’s personal sense of identification with his subjects—boys making chalk drawings in the street, a girl on a swing set under the Manhattan Bridge. This transformative, personalized approach was one of the League’s most innovative and influential contributions to the medium.

In addition to their urban focus, Leaguers began to spread out, photographing in rural America and Latin America, and, with the country’s rapid transition from New Deal recovery to war mobilization in the early 1940s, in Europe as well. The League rallied around war-related projects and half the membership enlisted. More women then became members, and the exhibition highlights the work of many, such as Vivian Cherry and Sonia Handelman Meyer, who found rare access and recognition at the League.

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 sense of purpose and energy was palpable. 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.

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, anti-Communist sentiment intensified as the Red Scare gripped the nation and leftist politics became suspect. On December 5, 1947, the US Attorney General 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.

However, the League had already moved away from its narrowly political perspective. In 1947 it began to professionalize: its acclaimed newsletter 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.

This vision of a national photography center, however, would not be able to overcome the Red Scare despite the support of Ansel Adams, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, Paul Strand, and many other national figures. Membership and revenues dwindled and the group was ostracized. Sid Grossman, the League’s great teacher and mentor, was particularly victimized and disillusioned by the blacklist. Unable to find work in New York, he resigned in 1949 and retreated to Massachusetts, where his reputation faded. By 1951 the Photo League could no longer sustain itself, and it officially closed its doors, a casualty of the Red Scare.

Although short lived, the Photo League’s influence was significant. The transmutation of the documentary mode into an experimental, personal vision anticipated and fostered what became the hallmarks of the famous next generations of the New York School. The sense of artistic “presentness” and the assertion of the photographer’s identity in the work of artists such as Diane Arbus, Louis Faurer, Helen Levitt, and Robert Frank are, in many ways, the legacy of the Photo League.

The exhibition was organized by Mason Klein, Curator of Fine Arts, The Jewish Museum, New York, and Catherine Evans, William and Sarah Ross Soter Curator of Photography, Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio. 

Teen Art Connect Photography

In conjunction with the exhibition, fourteen interns in the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM)’s Teen Art Connect program worked with Emilio Bañuelos, an editorial photographer and educator based in California and Jalisco, Mexico, to create a collective photographic portrait of San Francisco. True to the mission of the Photo League, the young photographers were encouraged to find their unique voice and capture their own vision. Their sincere and distinct efforts are on display near the entrance to The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936–1951, offering a glimpse into the city that the youth navigate every day.

Exhibition Catalog

In conjunction with the exhibition, The Jewish Museum, Columbus Museum of Art, and Yale University Press have co-published The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936–1951 by curators Mason Klein and Catherine Evans with contributions by Maurice Berger, Michael Lesy, and Anne Wilkes Tucker. The 248-page catalogue includes 150 duotones and 76 black-and-white illustrations. It has won numerous awards including the 2011 New England Book Festival Photography/Art category, bronze medal for the 2012 ForeWord Book of the Year Award for Photography, Honorable Mention for the 2012 Exhibition Catalogue Award from the Dedalus Foundation, and runner up for the 2012 San Francisco Book Festival award for Photography and Art. The clothbound book will be available through the Museum Store for $50.

  • 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.  
  • The Contemporary Jewish Museum presentation is made possible with the Lead Support of the Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies Foundation of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund. Major support is provided by Nellie and Max Levchin. Supporting sponsors include  the Lisa and John Pritzker Family Fund, the Jim Joseph Foundation, Denise Garone and Stuart Kogod, Joyce Linker, and Randee and Joseph Seiger.

The SFphotohunt

In conjunction with The Radical Camera, the Contemporary Jewish Museum launches its own contemporary Photo Hunt in tribute to the Photo League’s now legendary competitions. Starting on September 27, two weeks in advance of the exhibition’s opening, the Museum will kick off the first of eight bi-weekly Photo Hunt challenges, inviting the public to use their phones and cameras to take pictures on themes inspired by San Francisco and the exhibition.

The public can upload images to Instagram (tagged #Sfphotohunt and the challenge hashtag) or email them to the Museum ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ) once the theme is announced on the Museum’s website at and social media channels. All photos will be featured online and select submissions will be projected in a public space in the Museum.

The project will culminate with a Photo Hunt Party on Sunday, January 13, 2013, in the mold of the original Photo League events. A scavenger hunt takes place from 12–3pm during which participants will be given a photo challenge and go out into the city to fulfill the original Photo Hunt’s judging criteria: “Ideas count most. Technique, secondary.”  From 3–5pm, the Museum hosts a public celebration where the best photos of the day and from the entire project will be selected by a jury of local photographers and friends of photography: both digital and traditional. Prizes will include camera phone gear and more.



 Conversations with Artists 

Rachel Schreiber and Martin Berger Discuss Photography and Social Justice

Thursday, Nov 1 | 6:30–8pm

Free with Museum admission ($5 after 5pm); advance tickets encouraged

Rachel Schreiber uses photography to explore the stories of individuals often marginalized by society.  Using her installation “Site Reading” in California Dreaming: Jewish Life in the Bay Area from the Gold Rush to the Present as a jumping off point, Schreiber and University of California, Santa Cruz Professor Martin Berger discuss photography and social justice—issues central to the work in The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League 1936–1951. Schreiber and Berger examine the intersection of people and place and discuss how documenting changing local landscapes through photography can tell not just the story of a place, but also the history of the people who inhabited it. 

Everyday as History: Selections from Lost Landscapes of San Francisco by Rick Prelinger

Thursday, Nov 15 | 6:30–8pm

Free for Members; $10 General (includes Museum admission); advance tickets encouraged

Rick Prelinger searches out archival film, home movies, political reels, and other celluloid remnants to splice together long-unseen film footage of San Francisco and then invites the audience to be the soundtrack—to identify places and events, to ask questions, and to talk with one another as the film unfolds.

This program highlights the first six years of Lost Landscapes, focusing on home movies shot by citizen filmmakers and footage of San Francisco’s social and political struggles, spanning 1910–1970. Prelinger will briefly talk about the process of creating the Lost Landscape series.

Ordinary Miracles:  The Photo League’s New York (2005, 75 min, not rated)

Sunday, Dec 16 | 2–4pm

Free with Museum admission; advance reservations encouraged

Filmmaker Nina Rosenblum’s mother and father were both members of the New York Photo League and her father Walter Rosenblum’s work is featured prominently in the exhibition. In this West Coast premiere, learn more about the lives and work of members of the Photo League.  The film includes original footage shot for the WPA as well as later-in-life interviews. Co-directed and produced by award-winning filmmakers Rosenbaum and Daniel V. Allentuck.  Screening followed by a discussion with the filmmakers and an audience Q&A. Co-presented by Lehrhaus Judaica.


BUILT: Film Screening and Photo Launch Party


Thursday, Oct 4 | 6–8pm 

Free (teens only)

 This teen-only event features two short films: Freeflow, a film about parkour, the physical art of navigating through obstacles by climbing, vaulting, and rolling; and An Oasis on the Hill, a film about a village that was built as an experiment to unite a community of Jews and Arabs. Screening followed by the unveiling of photographs created by over sixty San Francisco teens participating in Citizen Film’s project, BUILT. Experience how these photographers artistically reinterpret the laws for building a Sukkah, a temporary shelter for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Presented in collaboration with the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and Citizen Film.

Teen Soiree: Radical Camera

Tuesday, Nov 20 | 7–9pm 

Free (teens only)

This all-teen soiree showcases photography from the pioneers of street photography in New York City during the 1940s, to today’s teen photographers in the Bay Area. Come dressed to impress for this festive affair hosted by the Museum’s Teen Art Connect interns. Vote for your favorite photos from teen entries in the CJM’s mobile photography contest, #SFPhotohunt. And don’t forget your dancing shoes.  The evening includes free swing dance lessons!


Drop-In Art-Making

Sundays, October 14, 21, & 28, 2012: Photographic Creations | 1–3pm

FREE with regular admission

 Have fun with photos while exploring black and white creations. Inspired by the exhibition, explore the choices photographers make by selecting your favorite detail from an urban photo and transforming it into your own artwork using a variety of fine art materials.  

 About the Contemporary Jewish Museum

With the opening of its new building on June 8, 2008, the Contemporary Jewish Museum ushered in a new chapter in its twenty-plus year history of engaging audiences and artists in exploring contemporary perspectives on Jewish culture, history, art, and ideas. The facility, designed by internationally renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, is a lively center where people of all ages and backgrounds can gather to experience art, share diverse perspectives, and engage in hands-on activities. Inspired by the Hebrew phrase “L’Chaim” (To Life), the building is a physical embodiment of the CJM’s mission to bring together tradition and innovation in an exploration of the Jewish experience in the twenty-first century.

Major support for the Contemporary Jewish Museum comes from the Koret and Taube Foundations, who are the Lead Supporters of the 2012/13 exhibition season. The Museum also thanks the Jim Joseph Foundation for its major support of innovative strategies for educating and engaging audiences in Jewish learning. Additional major support is provided by the Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies Foundation of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund; Bank of America; Institute of Museum and Library Services; Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund; Columbia Foundation; Walter and Elise Haas Fund; Gaia Fund; The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation; Osterweis Capital Management; The Skirball Foundation; Target; and the Alexander M. and June L. Maisin Foundation of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund. The Museum also receives major support from the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties.

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General Information

The Museum is open daily (except Wednesday) 11am–5pm and Thursday, 1–8pm. Museum admission is $12 for adults, $10 for students and senior citizens with a valid ID, and $5 on Thursdays after 5pm. Youth 18 and under always get in free. For general information on the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the public may visit the Museum’s web site at or call 415.655.7800. The Contemporary Jewish Museum is located at 736 Mission Street (between Third & Fourth streets), San Francisco.


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