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.