Tag Archives: Darkroom Gallery

The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League

A game of hopscotch. A toothpaste ad. Filthy slums. This, for better or worse, was New York life in the 1930s. Many looked but few saw until the Photo League—a pioneering group of young, idealistic documentary photographers—captured that life with cameras.

The Manhattan-based League, which incorporated a school, darkroom, gallery and salon, was the first institution of its kind when it was founded in 1936 says Mason Klein, curator of fine arts at The Jewish Museum, which is currently presenting “The Radical Camera,” an exhibition in collaboration with the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio. “There was nothing like the Photo League, where people could exhibit their work, students alongside their mentors, be taught a kind of history of photography and start understanding what the meaning of the photograph might be.”

Many of its founding members, including Sid Grossman, Sol Libsohn and Aaron Siskind, were first-generation Jewish immigrants with progressive, left-wing sensibilities. “They were very conscious of neighborhoods and communities,” says Klein. “I think it was very natural for Jews to form an egalitarian group and understand that the ordinary citizen of the urban scene was as much a valid subject as any for photography.”

The League thrived for fifteen years, generating projects like the Harlem Document, a collaborative effort by ten photographers to document the living conditions in poor black neighborhoods. It also fostered the careers of notable photographers such as Lisette Model, Weegee and Rosalie Gwathmey.

Despite its progressive agenda, the League’s mission was far from simplistic. Founder Grossman, who was just 23 when the group started, encouraged its members to look beyond documentary and question their relationship with the image. “Sid taught people to challenge their habitual ways of seeing the world,” says Klein. “A more poetic and metaphoric expression of how one saw the world was what Sid wanted from his students.” Under Grossman’s guidance, the League’s young muckrakers became artists.

By the 1940s, the League had turned away from its narrow political focus, capturing the squalor and splendor of everyday New York. The country was moving in the other direction, however, zeroing in on those suspected of harboring leftist sympathies. On December 5, 1947, the U.S. Attorney General blacklisted the League as “totalitarian, fascist, communist or subversive.” In 1951, it closed its doors forever.

The League’s reputation has never truly recovered, says Klein. “They were condemned to a kind of ideological shelving and, I think, unfairly treated by history. We’re trying to rectify that with this show, because they really were always about pushing the photograph and understanding it as art.”

The Radical Camera is on display at The Jewish Museum in New York through March 25. 

Sonia van Gilder Cooke is a reporter in TIME’s London Bureau. Follow her on Twitter at @svangildercooke.

2011 Looking Back and Looking Forward

In memoriam, Riley Smithson Steinway 1998-2011

Looking Back
I think it’s important to take stock at the end of each year–to celebrate and be grateful for successes, to understand failures, and to set goals for the future. I feel particularly grateful this year. I was offered wonderful opportunities, got to travel to a variety of photo related events around the US and in China, and most importantly, am very appreciative that I can create work in a community that is incredibly supportive and communicative.

First, I want to thank the galleries and photographers that supported my curatorial efforts with the exhibitions Redefining Hollywood at the Factory Gallery and later at the Analog Salon in Los Angeles, and Summertime Exhibition at the Duncan Miller Projects in Santa Monica.

I am also appreciative for the opportunites to juror exhibitions and competitions: the Center for Fine Art Photography’s Dreams Exhibition, the Downtown: Incomplete LA exhibition at the Terrell Moore Gallery, Critical Mass 2011, and the upcoming Imagination exhibition at the A Smith Gallery in Texas and the I Spy:Camera Phone Photography at the Kiernan Gallery in Virginia. I am also thrilled to have attended Photolucida as an artist this year, and Review LA and Filter Photo Festival as a reviewer.

Thank you to the gallerists, directors, and editors for giving me the opportunity to share my work: Crista Dix from Wall Space Gallery, Valerie and Vicenc Boned from Galeria Tagomago, Jennifer Schwartz from the Jennifer Schwartz Gallery, Elizabeth Barragan and Kathleen Mahoney-Cobb from Finch & Ada, Dan Miller from the Duncan Miller Gallery, Jason Landry from The Panoptican Gallery, Daniel Cooney from the Emerging Artist’s Auction, The Darkroom Gallery, The Soho Photo Gallery, Ann Jastrab the Rayko Photo Gallery, the Honor Fraser Gallery, Melanie and Michelle Craven from the Tilt Gallery, Elizabeth Houston from Hous Projects, Liz Gordon from The Loft at Liz’s, Julia Dean from the Julia Dean Gallery, Amber Terranova from PDN, and more.

Teaching is a big part of my life and I want to extend a huge thank you to my AMAZING students in Los Angeles that I have worked with at the Julia Dean Photo Workshops over the years, and to my students in the virtual world–they continue to enrich my life and I am so proud of their accomplishments. It was a pleasure teaching workshops in Chicago and Colorado this year, and I look forward to my first experience at the Santa Fe Workshops in March, where I am teaching The Big Picture.

And lastly, thank YOU, the wonderful Lenscratch readers who remain curious and excited about looking at all kinds of photography. There are some changes afoot with the blogzine, so keep an eye out.

Some highlights?

It was an amazing year, one of those years where wonderful things happened when I was least expecting them. And I thought I’d have time lots of time to make new work…hmmm!

The cover of PDN and recognition for my workshop teaching…

Having my image on the cover, tickets, posters of the Photo Off Festival in Paris…this image was featured on the sides of buses and on posters around the city…

Traveling to China…

Looking Forward

My continuing goal is to make more time to create work. In order to do that, it means less time down the rabbit hole of Facebook and Twitter and social media outlets.

I want to get a book or two out into the world.

I want to explore more conceptual work and push traditional boundaries a bit.

To close,
I would love to hear from you–things you would like to see on Lenscratch, subjects you would like to see explored, or any ideas you want to pass my way.

I wish you all a very very happy, healthly, prosperous, and productive 2012! Be sure to visit the Favorite Photographs of 2011 Lenscratch Exhibition tomorrow!