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The Photo League was a cooperative of amateur and professional photographers whose activities formed an important backdrop for American photography in the 1930s–40s. The group resulted from a split among film and still photographers in the Film and Photo League, an offshoot of Workers International Relief, which was an organization that supplied the left-wing press with images of working-class life. The filmmakers, under Paul Strand, eventually formed the production company Frontier Films. The photographers, led by Sid Grossman and Sol Libsohn, founded the Photo League in 1936.

Many of the original members of the League were first-generation Americans in their early teens and twenties, the children of immigrants who had settled in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in Brooklyn, or in the Bronx. Born between 1900 and 1925, these New Yorkers came from working-class families and had low-paying jobs. For the majority of League members, photography was a means of integration into American society, and many of them went on to become respected photojournalists and professional photographers. Eventually, the League attracted members from all over the country.

Initially operating out of a loft on East 21st Street, the Photo League provided members with low-cost darkroom facilities and technical instruction. The League also published an important newsletter, Photo Notes; offered courses in photographic history; sponsored lectures by the most famous photographers of the time; and organized social activities, such as “Photo Hunts” and “Crazy Camera Balls.” As the only noncommercial photography school in America at the time, the Photo League was poised, by 1947, to realize an ambitious plan to become the Center for American Photography. That plan was cut short after the League appeared on the attorney general’s list of subversive organizations in December 1947.

Disregarding the actual photographs produced by the League’s members, the FBI emphasized the group’s commitment to social causes in order to allege dissident activities and political alliances. Members of the League responded to the charges in a special issue of Photo Notes in January of 1948. In an impassioned address, Paul Strand spoke against reactionary forces in the country whose objective was to silence and intimidate the public; he called upon members to “change the complexion of a Congress and administration which permit and participate in the curtailment of basic American liberties.” In the same issue, Walter Rosenblum published the article “Where Do We Go from Here?” in which he emphasized the League’s dedication to photography, rather than politics, and called for renewed commitment to the group’s long-range plans.

Immediately after the FBI’s allegation, membership increased as photographers rallied behind the League. A major retrospective exhibition, This Is the Photo League, was held at new headquarters on East 10th Street. This hopeful fervor was short-lived, because photographers soon realized that continued membership came at the cost of jeopardizing their careers. Although a few members of the League, including Sid Grossman, may have been members of the Communist Party, the claims of subversion were never substantiated. Nonetheless, the Photo League was forced to disband in 1951 after an FBI informant testified that it was a front organization for the Communist Party. McCarthyism and the second “Red Scare” swept the country.

In recognition of the 70th anniversary of the League’s founding, this exhibition, drawn from works in The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, celebrates the diverse oeuvre of its advisors, teachers, and members. Like the 1948–49 retrospective, the exhibition is divided into three sections: (1) photographers who guided the group’s initial efforts; (2) founding and early members; and (3) later members—in this case, photographers who joined the League after the United States entered World War II. Each section includes special focus on the work of a single photographer who is well represented in the Photography Collection: Lewis Hine, Sol Libsohn, and Rosalie Gwathmey, respectively.

Whenever possible, works are shown from photographers’ careers both during and after the active period of the Photo League. Quotations from Photo Notes give insight into the photographs and into the League’s concerns, which were as often aesthetic as social or political. Even so, members realized after 1947 that they were “not living in an aesthetic age but a political age.” In our own era of homeland security—with subsequent questions of eavesdropping and record sifting— the example of the Photo League serves as a reminder that now, as then, the political climate of the nation can have real consequences on its cultural life.

Stephen C. Pinson
Curator, Photography Collection, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division Of Art, Prints And Photographs

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