Friday, June 8, 2012

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

This vast, eye-popping, deeply informative show, a collaboration between the Columbus Museum of Art and The Jewish Museum, has already been praised by The New York Times, reviewed in ARTNews (April 2012), noted in a National Public Radio blog, and highlighted by Vince Aletti in the New Yorker's "Critic's Notebook" (December 19, 2011). My contribution at this point can only appear weak competition in the genre of encomium. The Radical Camera opened in Columbus in April, so the local print media long ago seized the opportunity to recommend it to Ohio audiences. I am left  to write only about the ideas the show gave me.




Marion Palfi, In the Shadow of the Capitol, 1948, gelatin silver print.  

The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Photography Acquisitions Committee Fund.
  © 1998 Arizona Board of Regents, Center for Creative Photography.

During the 1930s, the New York Photo League formed around the missions of documenting everyday life and identifying social injustice in its many forms. The Photo League work molded our assumptions about black and white documentary photography and, ultimately, about photojournalism in the early days of Look and Life magazines. Members of the League included WeeGee, Lisette Model, W. Eugene Smith, and Aaron Siskind, to whose Harlem Document—a collaboration with  several other white photographers—we still owe many of the most enduring and misleading images of that neighborhood.

As thanks for their radical innovations in photographic subjects, the Photo League was blacklisted in 1947 for alleged Communist activities. The League disbanded under pressure in 1951.

There isn't an image in The Radical Camera that wouldn't move the most obdurate of hearts, save for a very few that were motivated by formal interest. Photos of primarily artistic appeal, though, almost by definition have no people in them. In the context of the League's social mission, whenever a figure is present, even in the most beautiful composition, we necessarily focus on the peopled context first and the aesthetic later. 
Morris Engel, Harlem Merchant, New York, 1937, from Harlem Document, 1936-1940,
gelatin silver print.  Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, Photo League Collection,
 Museum Purchase with funds provided by Elizabeth M. Ross, the Derby fund,
John S. and Catherine Chapin Kobacker, and the Friends of the Photo League.
  © Estate of Morris Engel
  

This Morris Engel photograph from the Harlem Document is a beautiful composition. Do the balance of scales, the symmetry and asymmetry, depend on having a human face in the top central portion? What if a painting with similarly dispersed light were placed in that niche? Or a decorated jug? Is the photo essentially about the man? Or is he one replaceable element, like anything else in the artistic arrangement? 

The most basic fact about documentary photography—the fact that the effective documentarian must render invisible—is that the photo is always trying to persuade the viewer. The photographer wants you to think something you wouldn't have thought before, or to believe it in a heightened degree. The New York Photo League artists were on missions to melt our hearts. Do they get our minds?

The League's idea was to capture the world "as it really is"—as photographers would encounter it on the street. "What really is" comes to us through the artists' personal points of view, however, and those have to be communicated strategically if our attention is to be held at all. Most of us would be quite content never to look at social realities at all. Few willingly look directly at poverty or injustice without some effective persuasion to do so.

How did photography get us to comply in looking at disease, urban poverty, compromised children, and despairing parents? Why do we willingly shuffle, wide-eyed, from print to print in this show, heart-strings yanked by the serial visions of injustice and bitter realities? How, for that matter, did we get to this place, now, where media are now so awash with images of injustices "as they really are" that we beg for respite from the onslaught? Is The Radical Camera so appealing a show because it returns us to the time when documentary images made a difference?

Perhaps it's because those New York Photo Leaguers of the '30s and '40s actually needed to persuade viewers about a novel agenda, that their new subjects were worth attention. These photographers had to develop strategies to engage an audience unused to observing unappealing subjects.




Rosalie Gwathmey, Shout Freedom, Charlotte, North Carolina, c. 1948,

gelatin silver print.  Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, Photo League Collection,
Museum Purchase with funds provided by Elizabeth M. Ross, the Derby fund,
John S. and Catherine Chapin Kobacker, and the Friends of the Photo League.
© Estate of Rosalie Gwathmey / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.



One of the League's most obvious tools, used time and again with an one hundred percent success rate, is ironic juxtaposition. Often, this places pieces of text incongruously in a scene where it is wildly inappropriate or ironic, creating either dark comedy or a moment of embarrassing distress. Rosalie Gwathmey's, Shout Freedom, Charlotte, North Carolina, is composed on the most obvious idea, that this tattered child lives in poverty that will prevent her from enjoying most freedoms the viewer takes for granted. While the child looks directly at the camera, the composition nevertheless eases our guilt by leading the eye to the largest, brightest element, the sign that dominates behind the very dark girl, making her face difficult to see. The irony of the sign creates a bitter humor, but it also gives us somewhere to look besides at the pathetic image of the girl—from whom we'd look away in real life, too. Irony softens the blow and gives us space as we enter this new, troubling territory.
Joe Schwartz, Slums Must Go! May Day Parade, New York, c. 1936,
 gelatin silver print.  Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, Photo League
 Collection, Museum Purchase with funds provided by Elizabeth M. Ross,
 the Derby Fund, John S. and Catherine Chapin Kobacker,
 and the Friends of the Photo League.  © Joe Schwartz.

By contrast, an image in which text is delivered straight, Joe Schwartz's Tenants Union Represented on May Day pictures a tableau of people holding signs naming the evils of the slums. They look like...people holding signs with words. Surely the shawls, plain clothing, and grim expressions signal the poverty of these people. Still, they are standing up for something, rather than looking downtrodden. The lack of irony or emotional contrast makes this a dull picture indeed compared with most others in this show. The visual strategy is to make us feel pity or guilt, but it's hard to feel either for people who address their own plight head on, in so many words.

Erika Stone wakes us up to the irony of everyday life in Lower Eastside Facade, a photo in which our expectations, heavily colored by the world of consumer advertising, run directly up against the expectations of the people consumerism leaves behind. Like the blonde in the ad, we only have to look the other way and the reality of washing worn knickers disappears.
Erika Stone, Lower Eastside Facade, 1947, gelatin silver print.  Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, Photo League Collection,
 Museum Purchase with funds provided by Elizabeth M. Ross, the Derby Fund, John S. and Catherine Chapin Kobacker,
 and the Friends of the Photo League.  © Erika Stone.
  
Sol Prom (Solomon Fabricant), Untitled (Dancing School), 1938,
 from Harlem Document
, 1936–40, gelatin silver print.
  The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase:
Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Fund.
Copyright, Estate of Sol Prom.
 
 
Another strategy is to present the unfamiliar or upsetting in a familiar or tolerable guise. Black teens rest gossiping, crammed onto a bench at the Mary Burch Dancing School in Sol Prom's photo from the Harlem Document collection. Prom has cropped the image to make it appear that they exist in all the space there is, as if it were the artificial space of a stage set. The curtain has just gone up, and here they are, in medias res for the first scene. Who will enter on the narrow skirt to disrupt their good spirits? Prom also knows that he has behind this picture the force of our acquaintance with Degas ballerinas preparing themselves for the stage. We will not see this simply as a group of working class girls; we will see the dramatic potential of the scene, and the usual romantic tropes of nubile young dancers. Will the young dancers of art history make the audience for this image empathetic? Or will it make us squirm?

Arthur Leipzig similarly connects with drama in "Chalk Games," a scene of boys playing in the street. By capturing their games from an interesting point of view, above them, they are framed amidst the drawings as dancers moving among the markings on a stage. This stage is defined by the parked cars and the edges they have drawn. What a passer-by might see as a bunch of rowdy kids at the limits of control Leipzig has transformed into urban theater, conferring sense and innocence on a scene people might otherwise lower their heads and  scurry past.
Arthur Leipzig, Chalk Games, Prospect Place, Brooklyn, 1950, printed later, gelatin silver print. 
The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Rictavia Schiff Bequest.  © Arthur Leipzig.

Many of the Photo League images insure that the viewer is more than an audience to drama, but even becomes part of an action. How can we not turn our heads to the right, like everyone else in Lucy Ashjian's Untitled (Group in Front of Ambulance)? We are the only ones who aren't seeing the emergency, and we have to be fascinated, wondering what causes their reactions, and how a woman with a baby feels about possibly seeing blood and guts. Just how lurid is the scene? Here are ordinary people, exposed—and vulnerable—to the accidents of life, just like we are. We are out of the frame too: We relate to the people in the picture, but also to the victim—the only other person who, like us, is out of the frame and alive to misfortune in the moment.
Lucy Ashjian, Untitled (Group in Front of Ambulance), c. 1938,
 from
Harlem Document
, 1936–40, gelatin silver print.  Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio,
 Photo League Collection, Museum Purchase with funds provided by Elizabeth M. Ross,
 the Derby Fund, John S. and Catherine Chapin Kobacker,
and the Friends of the Photo League.  © Estate of Lucy Ashjian.
 

Ultimately, though, nothing captures the empathy of the viewer like a person who looks us in the eye. Among the most important subjects for the Photo League were children and children's welfare. Time and again they delivered pictures that stop our hearts by capturing the innocent directness, curiosity, and fearless scrutiny of children. The first picture in this article is a marvelous example; the photo below is another. These, as so many others, reveal the  children of the city living among squalor, dangers, and the ambiguous benefits of premature independence. The "hard-edged" photos often evoke compassionate responses that can sometimes bleed into the sentimental. These images effectively inform us about terrible conditions, but most of all, they move us.

In 2012, I know that I can't tolerate the gaze of every marginalized child pictured in the press. I can't bear to look at all the pictures from the theaters of war in our cities or in poppy fields abroad. I'm crushed by too many images of the world "as it really is" and I willingly avoid them. Since the New York Photo League's demise, the world has succumbed to non-stop advertising and news that harden us to visual persuasion and permit us simply to tune it out. 


Arthur Leipzig, Ideal Laundry, 1946, gelatin silver print.  The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Esther Leah Ritz Bequest.
  © Arthur Leipzig.
The Radical Camera gives me this consolation, though: Looking at even a few great photographs—in this collection, or among the Pulitzer Prize winners from year to year—will impress the mind with the images that matter. These are the ones so artful and committed that we can't escape their impact. The children in the window of Leipzig's Ideal Laundry  are with me to stay, along with the complicated emotions they evoke. I would know these children anywhere. In fact, try as I may to avoid them, I see them  every day.

***
The Radical Camera opened at The Jewish Museum, New York, in 2011. It closes at the Columbus Museum of Art on September 9, 2012 and moves next to the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from October 11 through January 21, 2013. The show finishes its tour at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, running from March 15 through June 15, 2013.

2 comments:

  1. I'd like to comment on what was said about people being in the pictures. What do they add? When I see a human face in the picture, I immediately wonder what their story is. A still life is static. There is no story behind a pear or a vase of flowers. A human being has a history they bring to the composition, giving it an added dimension.

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  2. Looks like a wonderful show. Thanks for bringing it to my attenton.

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