New York Photographers Get Radical

Article excerpt

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"The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-1951" is a formidable survey of the group's history, artistic significance, and cultural, social, and political milieu. The exhibition showcases nearly 150 vintage photographs.

Artists in the Photo League were known for capturing sharply revealing and compelling moments from everyday life. Their focus centered on New York City and its vibrant streets--a shoeshine boy, a brass band on a bustling corner, a crowded beach at Coney Island. Many of the images are beautiful, yet harbor strong social commentary on issues of class, race, and opportunity. The exhibition explores the fascinating blend of aesthetics and social activism at the heart of the Photo League.

The innovative contributions of the Photo League during its 15-year existence were significant. As it grew, the League would mirror monumental shifts in the world- starting with the Depression, going through World War II, and ending with the Red Scare.

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Born of the worker's movement, it was an organizaltion of young, idealistic photographers who believed in documentary photography as an expressive medium and powerful tool for exposing social problems. It also was a school with teachers such as Sid Grossman, who encouraged students to take their cameras to the streets and discover the meaning of their work as well as their relationship to it. The League had a darkroom for printing, published an acclaimed newsletter called Photo Notes, offered exhibition space, and was a place to socialize, especially among firstgeneration Jewish-Americans.

The first museum exhibition in three decades to look at the Photo League comprehensively, 'q-he Radical Camera" reveals that the League encouraged a surprisingly broad spectrum of work throughout extraordinarily turbulent times. The organization's members included some of the most noted photographers of the mid 20th century--W. Eugene Smith, Weegee, Lisette Model, Berenice Abbott, and Aaron Siskind, to name a few.The Photo League helped validate photography as a fine art, presenting student work and guest exhibitions by established photographers like Eugene Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Edward Weston, among others.

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These affecting black-and-white photographs show life as it was lived mostly on the streets, sidewalks, and subways of New York. Joy, playfulness, and caprice as well as poverty and hardship are in evidence. …