Seeing “The Radical Camera,” the small landmark gem of a photography exhibition that originated at the Jewish Museum in New York and is now at Ohio’s Columbus Museum of Art—and set to travel to San Francisco and West Palm Beach—a thought might occur to you that is still, in certain circles, unutterable. The esthetic of American social realism, especially when it was fueled by Marxist fires, had it right.

The exhibition displays the work of New York’s Photo League, founded in 1936, a group of impassioned young artists that had among its members men and women who either belonged to the Communist Party or were enthusiastic fellow travelers. The prophetic and the esthetic power of the work they produced was inextricably bound up with their communist convictions.

Formed in the depths of the Depression, the Photo League was an offshoot of the Film and Photo League, which had been organized by Workers’ International Relief. WIR was in direct contact with Moscow and might even have been one of the many Soviet front organizations in the West at the time. But the League had been created as one of WIR’s so-called Workers’ Camera Leagues, groups meant to help laborers on strike and their families. The idealistic young photographers who flocked to the league, most of them the children of working-class Jewish immigrant parents, channeled this sense of crisis and solidarity through their own narrow material circumstances into their work.

If revolution was in their minds at all, their instrument of political change was not the bomb but the handheld Leica 35 mm. The appearance of the Leica in the marketplace in the mid-1920s was a cultural development on a par with the invention of the printing press. It seems safe to say that without the Leica’s universal witnessing, the great social movements of the 1920s and 1930s, and the expanding enfranchisement of more and more people after World War II, would have waited longer to occur. Perhaps it is not entirely fanciful to think that the senseless slaughter of the First World War might have ended sooner had the men in the trenches been armed with Leicas as well as machine guns.

The easy availability of the Leica had two simultaneous consequences. It destroyed, as Walter Benjamin famously observed about the camera in general, the authority of art. And the portable mechanical miracle exalted the authority of the simple fact. It became more difficult for politicians and other spokesmen for society to blanket the citizenry with sweeping generalizations about human nature. The world was no longer something that had to be imagined and constructed by “distinguished” figures. Now ordinary men and women, such as the people who gathered at the Photo League, could bear witness to uncomfortably dissonant realities.

The League was made up of prominent teachers and lecturers such as Berenice Abbott, Dorothea Lange, Lewis Hine, Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, Margaret Bourke-White, Lisette Model; figures who later become famous like Ruth Orkin, Weegee and Aaron Siskind; and photographers unfairly forgotten by history: Sid Grossman, Lucy Ashjian, Sonia Handelman Meyer, Vivian Cherry, Louis Stettner, Rae Russel, Morris Engel. From the beginning, modernism held a strong attraction for them, and the League put on exhibitions of work by John Heartfield, Moholy-Nagy and Edward Weston. But the dominant ethos, especially in the League’s early years, was social realism.

“The Radical Camera” consists mostly of snapshots of urban life, especially working-class life, principally in New York City. In 1936 Aaron Siskind, one of the league’s charter members, deployed groups of photographers to make individual studies of the city’s various neighborhoods. The result was vivid depictions of life in a Manhattan tenement, along the Bowery, among the rich and the poor living on Park Avenue. Siskind’s most ambitious project was called Harlem Document, which took four years to complete.

It was not until 1952 that Henri Cartier-Bresson framed his idea of “the decisive moment,” yet the young photographers of the League were practicing it to perfection beginning in the 1930s. Cartier-Bresson defined the decisive moment as the simultaneous recognition of “the significance of an event” and the rigorous ordering of forms that render the significance. In other words, he was attempting all at once to reconcile to one another the amateur spontaneity of the snapshot, the grave witnessing of photojournalism and the formal sophistication of the art photograph. The Photo League’s best work exemplifies this harmony.

The images presented by “The Radical Camera” are unforgettable. A midget bundled up in hat, scarf and ill-fitting coat leaning on the iron banister of a front stoop along a busy street, his roiled, unshaven face a revelation of a special type of mortal dread (Lisette Model, 1940); a woman wondering at the viewer from behind a bakery window adorned with prices and sculptured loaves, as if asking whether business were the bread of life or vice versa (Berenice Abbott, 1937); a six-man peripatetic German band playing on a deserted city street beneath a row of curtained windows: the perfect image of arduous dislocation (Robert Disraeli, 1934); a girl soaring on a swing under the Williamsburg Bridge, the chains on the swing and the cables of the bridge making girl and bridge living symbols of ambitious, urban, restraint-busting dreams (Walter Rosenblum, 1938); a street gang, aged from about 5 to 15, loitering on sidewalk and stoop in Greenwich Village, the tentative idiosyncrasy of each boy’s posture a wary testing of conformity’s immediate prospects (Joe Schwartz, 1939); a young black man, his anxious, deliberating face slightly hidden, wearing a smart leather jacket and seated on a bicycle while leaning against a building as a whitish car rushes by him on the street: Can he win? Should he try? (Louis Stettner, 1940). In each of these photographs documentary truth, an illuminating intuition and formal order converge into a fine mesh of perception.

Consider one of the show’s most striking works: Arthur Rothstein’s 1935 “Wife and Child of a Sharecropper, Washington County, Arkansas.” Rothstein’s photograph, taken a year before Dorothea Lange’s iconic 1936 “Migrant Mother”—a picture of a worn, worried refugee from the Dust Bowl and her two children—depicts a pregnant mother standing in what appears to be either a doorway without a door, or a space in the rotting wooden wall of a barn or house.

Her daughter is standing beside her. The composition is perfectly balanced by the two equally proportioned sides of the doorway and the rectangular blackness obscuring whatever lies in the interior behind the two figures. Yet the harmonious formal elements serve only to clarify the human drama. The future in the mother’s belly is contrasted with the darkness behind her. Her hands resting in reverse on her hips with her elbows out—an image of endurance and resolve—are contrasted with the expression on her face as she gazes into space with an anxiety verging on horror.

There is no political program here, only human facts and social facts. There is no formal beauty, either. What you encounter is an esthetic humility before an experience that cannot be framed or cropped. Yet the picture is hardly politically reductive. The cause of the pregnant mother’s anguish may be finite, the photograph seems to say, but its effects on her inner life are without end.

Some people might protest that the social realist style perfected in Rothstein’s photograph scants art’s imaginative transcendence of measly concrete givens. Against that charge stands the work of Walker Evans, who declared that his aim was to make his portraits of Depression-era suffering “literate, authoritative, transcendent.” Contemporaneous with the Photo League’s best pictures, the photographs Evans made while living in impoverished rural Alabama are not beautiful. Their transcendent element lies in the exposure of an anguish so intractable that it violates the emotional defenses of the viewer.

Exploding the myth of Evans the tranquil, beautiful photographer of misery, Janet Malcolm studied a new edition of Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and found that the restored prints of Evans’s famous photographs revealed something utterly different than the humanistic serenity for which they had been celebrated. Instead of romantic dignity, she discovered photographs “full of chaos and disorder, of ugly clutter and mess, of people with dead eyes, victims and losers crushed by the indifferent machinery of capitalism, inhabitants of a land as spiritually depleted as its soil was physically eroded.” The permanence of their suffering transcends any attempt to do anything artistic or intellectual about it; to do anything more than behold it. The power of these photographs rises from their anti-beauty.

Evans’s social, not esthetic, sense is what elevated his pictures to the realm of the transcendent. Yet when people hear the term “social realism” nowadays, “transcendence” is not what occurs to them. Rather, they think of commissars, programs and propaganda. It is significant that even as the curators of “The Radical Camera” have performed the precious service of making a case for the primacy of social realist art, they feel they have to apologize for it. The moving catalog’s otherwise acute and intelligent lead essay, by Mason Klein, makes sure to let us know that the brilliant league photographer Sid Grossman doesn’t just capture the humanity of two shoeshine boys, he is “alert as well to the geometries of the shoeshine kit.” We are assured that “beyond its overriding advocacy of straight, honest photography, and its derogation of work that lacked social content, the League exhibited a wide spectrum of modernist work.” Far from surrendering to the dictates of social conscience, the members of the league finally “shift from bearing witness to determining one’s own bearings.”

Because so many of the photographers in the Photo League were either communists or fellow-travelers, the US Attorney General included it in its 1947 list of organizations deemed to be “totalitarian, Fascist, Communist, or subversive.” Keenly aware that the league was blacklisted and its members destroyed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Klein apparently wishes to protect the league’s reputation by refuting accusations of communism. He doth protest way too much. HUAC’s charges were right on the mark. The league was communist, very nearly through and through. That was one if its finest qualities. Its communism was what endowed its work with such an exquisite, impassioned balance of documentary truth, poetic intuition and formal precision—in that order.

Nevertheless, in 2012, Klein feels he must reassure viewers that the best of these young photographers’ outlooks made up the least of their motives. He must convince us that the league was not animated by some vulgar imperative of “straight, honest photography” or by “derogation of work that lacked social content.” Heaven forbid! In other words, the league did not share the commissars’ animus against bourgeois subjectivity or formalist decadence. The Photo League was, as Klein seems to imply, in line with our own contemporary humanist reverence of art as proof of the individual soul and the private imagination. Yawn.

Nearly a quarter century after the collapse of Soviet communism, Stalin’s perversion of the great Russian—and European—tradition of social realism into “socialist realism” seems to have triumphed in an unanticipated way. It has made the two radically different styles of art nearly synonymous in the popular mind. “Bourgeois subjectivism”; “egotistic individualism”; “formalist decadence”: the commissars’ hectoring terms—often portents of imprisonment or murder—incite reflexive smirks. We know that an art driven by political commitments cannot possibly be genuine art. We learn in college that real art is hatched in intimacy and worked out by the individual imagination. Social misery, we say, is for legislation. Sadly, we have come to identify socially conscious art with the very politics that proscribed it.

The fact is that the commissars appropriated and perverted to their own bloody purposes something good and true. It’s hard not to suddenly admire the dismissal of “bourgeois subjectivism” and “formalist decadence” as critical categories: the historically burdened terms seem to hit the nail right on the head. The former nicely captures, to take one example, the logorrheic logjam of self-promoting memoirs. And the latter sums up both the tyrannical formulas of reality TV and the abstract paintings and sculptures that graze, as if in a petting zoo, the walls and floors of boardrooms, restaurants and reception areas. The last forty years have proved that art without the friction of social content—impressionism, expressionism, abstract expressionism, minimalism, even conceptualism: the self-expressive art we have all been weaned on—cannot resist, for all its wonder and originality, the eventual gravitational pull of commercial decoration or design. Unlike dreaded “social content,” abstraction offers no defense against assimilation.

The fathers of social realism in the visual arts—Courbet, Millet, Daumier—were revolted by what had become the Romantic bromide of self-expression. They brought art down from the misty heights of archetypal mountains, out of the enchanted glades of symbolic forests and into the grit of human psychology caught in the nets of social life. One of the inadvertent gifts of “The Radical Camera” is its awareness of—its testimony to—social realism’s reinvigorating alternatives to our tired modes of modernist and post-modernist anti-realism: namely, the subjectivism, decadence and hyper-egotism that nowadays so often pass for advanced taste.