In 1936, a group of young, mostly Jewish photographers walked the gritty streets of New York City, focusing their cameras on ordinary people trying to scrape by.
More than 300 members — roughly a third of them women — participated in the school and salon that became known as the Photo League. Over 15 years, the League produced a powerful body of work, exploring issues of class, poverty and race from the Depression and postwar prosperity to the Cold War climate that led to its demise.
“The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951,” is on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum through Jan. 21. The exhibition, which includes nearly 140 photographs, is a moving collection depicting everyday life, from young women at a Harlem dance school to a shoemaker in his apron, holding a sandwich. While most of the images are from New York, some photographers went outside the city to document life in the rural South and beyond.
The pictures of children are among the strongest. In each one, they gaze at the camera with a directness that is difficult to contemplate. Standouts include “Butterfly Boy New York,” by Jerome Liebling; “In the Shadow of the Capitol,” by Marion Palfi; and “Halloween, South Side” by Marvin E. Newman.
The show also features an excerpt from the 2011 documentary “Ordinary Miracles: the Photo League’s New York,” in which several members discuss their experiences.
“For me, the Photo League was the most exciting thing I could imagine at the time,” says Arthur Leipzig, who joined in 1942. “I would spend my days in the streets shooting, my nights in the darkroom developing and printing and discussing.”
The League held Crazy Camera Balls to raise funds. Its Photo Hunts, competitions in which members combed the city doing random, sometimes ludicrous assignments, became legendary.
Despite the League’s popularity, it couldn’t survive. As the Cold War began, anti-communist sentiment swept the country, making left-leaning organizations suspect. The exhibition includes a letter in which the League tried to defend its reputation after being blacklisted by the U.S. attorney general.
It was a lost cause. League member Angela Calomiris, also a paid informant of the FBI, accused League co-founder and leading teacher Sid Grossman of being a communist. The League was forced to disband in 1951. Grossman retreated to Massachusetts, where he died of a heart attack four years later.
The museum is hosting a variety of events. Through Jan. 3, the public can participate in biweekly Photo Hunt challenges, using their phones and cameras to take photographs inspired by the exhibition and San Francisco life.