March 2012

Leah Triplett


The Radical Camera

"These wrecks of manhood, thrown together in careless heaps or ranged in ghastly rows for burial, were alive but yesterday. How dear to their little circles far away, most of them!" writes Oliver Wendell Holmes in "Doings of the Sunbeam," an essay on battlefield photographs of the American Civil War, and one of the first writings on documentary photography in the country. Published in 1864 in his book Soundings from the Atlantic, "Doings of the Sunbeam" describes the shock that Holmes and his contemporaries felt at the private, photographic confrontation of faraway people, places and events that were previously only represented through artist-mediated illustrations. Parents were a distant witness to the terrors their sons withstood on the battlefield for the first time during the Civil War, their private worry and anguish publically personified in photographs of dead and dying soldiers. For many of these parents of soldiers, such as Holmes, whose son was wounded in battle several times, these images, made universal through newspapers and other mass media, meant that their nightmares were articulated and made public, antagonizing the grieving anywhere outside the home. "It was so nearly like visiting the battle-field [sic] to look over these views, that all the emotions excited by the actual sight of the stained and sordid scene, strewed with rags and wrecks, came back to us, and we buried them in the recesses of our cabinet as we would have buried the mutilated remains of the dead they too vividly represented," continues Holmes, describing his need to constantly suppress his grief or fears at the sight of these newly ubiquitous images.

The mid-nineteenth century saw the proliferation global experiences made multiple and distributable via this seemingly unbiased documentary photography. While the Civil War marked the first time Americans witnessed via photograph the battlefield horrors that their loved ones endured, Europeans had already experienced this a decade earlier in the Crimean War. As photographers returned to their respective homes from these wars, they brought with them a documentary impulse back home to New York City as well as Eastern Europe. Photography's genesis as a tool for documentation and rise to eminence in print media is wove into the political and social fabric of pre-World War II and Cold War United States and Russia, though such threads have seldom been studied in exhibition or text. The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-1951, an exhibition on view at the Jewish Museum through March 25 and traveling this year, seeks to historicize and elucidate the nebulous connection between documentary photography and leftist politics that delivered the Photo League, and thus its post-World War II shift toward abstraction and ultimate splintering during the McCarthy Era. 

That the photographic medium would be egalitarian as an art form isn't surprising, and neither is the fact that it was often used as the weapon of communistic and capitalistic polemics alike. As non-English speaking immigrants collected in American urban centers, leaving their brethren to be organized and mobilized in the revolutions of early Modern Europe, photography became a tool to articulate ideas to a public that was increasingly diverse in language, culture, and custom. Photography became accessible to these masses through its relative affordability and informality; the advent of the hand-held 35mm camera effectively made anyone a picture-maker according to personal vision and stance. Photography became instrumental in Communistic propaganda and its machinations, born forth mostly through photographically illustrated magazines and newspapers, inspiring leftists worldwide. New York City, the immigration epicenter of the United States, was certainly no exception, and in 1930 the Film and Photo League, connected to the Workers' International Relief (WIR), was established in order to document and spread the proletariat's plight. Strife between photographers and filmmakers prevailed by mid-decade, and in 1936, the Photo League was launched with many inaugural members heavily involved with the Communist Party. In its fifteen years, however, the Photo League would evolve from a primarily political legion interested in photography for sociological reform into a softly political alliance of photographers interested in testifying human nature within the photographic print.

Organized in collaboration between the Jewish Museum and the Columbus Museum of Art, The Radical Camera and its accompanying catalogue surveys and illuminates the many personalities and their politics that formulated the Photo League's tenants and ensuing oeuvre throughout the tumults of their times. "While the League may have initially emphasized a fairly narrow agenda of documentary work -- largely a product of the 1930s and the international revolutionary Zeitgeist of the worker-photography movement -- its real contributions are far more enmeshed in the period's transition toward the experimentation and spontaneity that came from using a 35-mm camera in the street," writes Mason Klein, curator at the Jewish Museum, in "Of Politics and Poetry: The Dilemma of the Photo League," the catalogue's first essay. Klein outlines the League's tumultuous history, focusing his attention to co-founder Sid Grossman's ideals and teaching, and how the two informed his pedagogy and photography alike. Unlike many active Photo League members, such as Bernice Abbott, Lisette Model (who later taught Diane Arbus), or Aaron Siskind, Grossman has been all but ignored from the canon of photography history, though he was integral in establishing shaping the atmosphere of debate and curiosity around League headquarters. The child of Austrian Jewish immigrants, Grossman was passionate and combative in his belief that the photographers' challenge was to fully immerse themselves into their subjects, and that documentary photography was partisan and thus political in the sense that it records an individual's singular experience -- abstracted or otherwise -- of happenings around him or her. Grossman's early politics and thus photographs were the yields of his harsh childhood and milieu, just as his later, less overtly activist works were tempered by his experiences away from home during World War II. Accordingly, Grossman urges his students at the League -- many of which were women, a group usually barred from traditional art schools teaching painting and drawing -- to photograph their subjects from within their psyches, to submerge themselves in the people and places that they chose to document through photograph.

The slight, but significant, differences between Grossman and the documentary work that he prescribed in the Photo League and the documentary work of Farm Security Administration workers, such as Walker Evans, are fascinatingly discussed throughout the catalogue. Where Evans and his collaborator, James Agee infiltrated the "other," in order to share their struggles with the world through photograph in works such as Now Let Us Praise Famous Men, the largely first-generation Jewish immigrants of the Photo League sought to spread the tenor of their lives through the photographs they made and sold to weekly magazines. To Grossman and the League, the person behind the camera made the photograph of the person in front of it. "The organization's commitment was to documentary photography, and its desire was to make the camera eloquent as members responded to the people and places around them," writes Anne Wilkes Tucker in the closing essay of the catalogue, "A Rashomon Reading," which details Grossman's betrayal, and the subsequent demise of the League, by one of their own members. "Relative to those various postures, the positions of individual members shifted over time in light of events and perceived threats to their lives and professions." The particularized experiences and professionalization of women within the fine art and commercial photographic fields are detailed in Columbus Museum of Art, Catherine Evans's brief biographic sketches of key female figures in the Photo League. The artistic output and contribution to the League's mission of certain women photographers has only lately been appreciated, and in some cases, such as that of Lucy Ashjian (1907-1993), only recently discovered. These women had a unique and important voice in the League, markedly influencing the tenor to the group's photographic output, programming and journal.

Sadly, it was a woman who deceived Grossman and the League. Angela Calomiris, by many accounts a subpar photographer, who Grossman worked with in the darkroom through nights, helping her print her mediocre works, collaborated with the FBI to name the Photo League as a "subversive organization," and testified against Grossman in a 1949 trial of alleged Communists. Calomiris published an account of her life as an informant, Red Masquerade, in 1950, one year before the League closed in 1951. The autobiography explains her motives (mostly financial) for effectively ending the group that sought to make known and familiar the lives that the American mainstream would rather forget. In doing so, she wrecked the manhood of Grossman, a man who vehemently championed photographic work of all individuals in mass media as evidence of equality and shared experience, and who, broken by the Second Red Scare, retreated from New York to Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he died in 1955.