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

One of the most important photography exhibitions of this (and may be last) year, The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951 at the Jewish Museum is closing this weekend. The show presented the work of the Photo League members, known for capturing sharply revealing, compelling moments from everyday life.  The exhibition included 150 black and white photographs from 73 different photographers covering the period from roughly 1910 to 1959, with a concentration between 1936 and 1951. If you didn’t have a chance to visit the exhibition, have a look at the Jewish Museum website that features information on history of the Photo League, artists, selected photographs from the show, and a Photo League photomap as a nice interactive element.

From the New York Times review: ‘A collaboration between the Jewish Museum and the Columbus Museum of Art, which both have extensive holdings of Photo League work, “Radical Camera” was organized by the team of Mason Klein (from the Jewish Museum) and Catherine Evans (from the Columbus Museum). The exhibition is, in some ways, as unwieldy as its subject. The curators have a lot to say about documentary photography in general, which went through a kind of growth spurt between the Depression and the Cold War, nurtured by an explosion of photojournalism in magazines like Life and Look. They deserve a lot of credit, though, for capturing the breadth and spirit of the league. There are some big names in “Radical Camera,” but the show’s best moments involve lesser-known talents like Lucy Ashjian, Jerome Liebling and Sid Grossman.’

From DLK Collection review:  ‘This show is roughly chronological, and this design allows the viewer to see the evolving stylistic approaches being employed by League members over the years of the club’s existence. Simplistically, one can imagine a continuum, at one end, documentary photography informed by activism, engagement and advocacy, a witness with an ideological purpose and a particular kind of social commentary to put forth. At the other end lies documentary photography informed by more subjective concerns, including individual emotions/reactions, aesthetics, formalism, and more personal questioning. As the years passed from 1936 to 1951 (the beginning and end of the League’s operation), it is possible to watch this internal debate raging on, where a new sensibility gradually starts to take hold.’

The exhibition catalog was published by Yale University Press and available online as well as at the Jewish Museum store.

There is also a film titled ‘Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League’s New York‘. It is the first documentary that tells the story of the Photo League. The film features interviews with a dozen surviving League members. Campbell Scott’s narration and 350 images paint a unique and unexpected portrait of New York City from the 1939 World’s Fair to Be-Bop and Abstract Expressionism. I didn’t find it on DVD but hopefully it will be available soon.


The Radical Camera was an important show to see. It included a lot of forgotten names and showed unique details of New York history. The main reason is very well explained by DLK Collection, and I will quote this review again: ‘I finally started to visually understand the small steps that made up the aesthetic and conceptual changes that took place between the 1930s and the 1950s, those missing evolutionary links between Abbott and Frank; The Americans now seems to me less like a thunder strike of genius out of nowhere and more like an innovative, original extrapolation from visual ideas that were already beginning to percolate around. <…> But the reason I found this to be one of the best photography shows of the year is that it also successfully fills in an important (and largely missing) gap in the recounting of the American photographic narrative.’

As my personal observation/note at the end of this post, here are some photographs from the exhibition with the same formal structure based on multiplicity of similar elements:

1.Consuelo Kanaga, Untitled (Tenements, New York), c. 1937

2. Jack Manning – Elks Parade, Harlem, from Harlem Document, 1939

3. Arthur Leipzig – Doll Factory, 1949