The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951

Zelda Bronsteinbyline‚ Nov. 28‚ 2012

What does vital left culture look like? “The Radical Camera,” a terrific exhibit at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum through January 21, offers one answer: it looks like the Photo League. Founded in Depression-era New York, the Photo League, write the show’s curators, “was at once a school, a darkroom, a gallery and a salon." Its founders were mostly first-generation Jewish-Americans whose “solidarity centered on a belief in the expressive power of the documentary photograph and on a progressive alliance of socialist ideas and art.” Rejecting the prevailing modernist style, they focused on “gritty realities,” turning their cameras on ordinary people and their streets and neighborhoods. Their approach to such realities, however, was no doctrinaire socialist realism. Instead, they “propelled documentary photograph from factual images to more ambiguous ones—from bearing witness to questioning one’s own bearings in the world.”