Sid Grossman, Coney Island, ca. 1947, black-and-white photograph, 9 3/8 x 7 7/8".

Sid Grossman, Coney Island, ca. 1947, black-and-white photograph, 9 3/8 x 7 7/8".

“The Radical Camera”

Sid Grossman, Coney Island, ca. 1947, black-and-white photograph, 9 3/8 x 7 7/8".

PART OF OUR TIME? Herewith “some ruins and monuments of the thirties” that Murray Kempton’s book overlooked: “The Radical Camera,” a survey of the work of New York’s Photo League, a socially minded artists’ collective that was born in the New Deal and expired during the Cold War, explores two not unrelated historical artifacts. The first we might call People’s NYC, the streets and tenements of Depression-era Manhattan’s prole picturesque neighborhoods (Harlem, the Lower East Side, Little Italy) and playgrounds (Times Square, Coney Island); the second is a particular mentalité, a belief that photography, not yet accepted as art, was a tool to transform society (as well as oneself).

The pictures are black and white and Red all over, although only a few Photo League members were actual Communists—most significantly, the group’s inspirational leader, Sid Grossman. Like him, a sizable number of the photographers in “The Radical Camera,” grew up in People’s NYC, most of them foreign-born or the children of immigrants. None appear to have been black or, to take another of the league’s privileged subjects, poor southern whites. Those folks were (natural-born) Americans, something many of these photographers were only in the process of becoming—one of the exhibition’s several narratives. Another is the development of an American camera eye attuned to an indigenous iconography. In the accompanying catalogue, all roads lead to Robert Frank; in the show itself, Weegee, the sensational-news photographer who forged a strategic alliance with the Photo League to buttress his artistic credentials, is the one given pride of place. (A survey of Weegee’s work, including a partial re-creation of the 1941 “Murder Is My Business” show that the league put up in its East Twenty-First Street digs, is on view at the International Center of Photography in New York through September 2.)

Weegee clearly influenced several Photo League members, notably Lisette Model (the link between People’s NYC and Diane Arbus’s out-of-Park-Avenue slumming), and in a general sense, “The Radical Camera” is curated with an eye to subsequent street photography. The selection is heavy on kids naturalizing the asphalt jungle; a single photo by Photo League fellow traveler Helen Levitt—New York, ca. 1940—is sufficient to establish her as Weegee’s only peer (although a number of distinguished photographers and many talented unknowns passed through the league’s portals).

A third narrative concerns the organization’s political persecution. One of the show’s discoveries is the distinctively form-minded Lucy Ashjian, a first-generation American (from Indianapolis) of Armenian stock, who joined the Communist Party after college and apparently had to give up photography after her Communist husband suffered a nervous breakdown in 1943; her evil twin is Angela Calomiris, the daughter of Greek immigrants from Avenue B, who, recruited by the FBI to join the party, emerged in the 1949 Smith Act trials to expose the Photo League as a CP front masterminded by Grossman. (None of her work appears on the Jewish Museum walls, but her vitrined 1950 memoir, Red Masquerade: Undercover for the FBI, includes a short, vivid portrait of the “informal, friendly, and very badly run” Photo League, which occupied one floor of a “dilapidated old town house. . . . Everyone complained of the dirt, but no one did anything about it.” Except her, evidently.)

Calomiris named only Grossman, who, even more than Ashjian, seems a tragic figure. An inspiring teacher and gifted, action-oriented photographer whose blurry, kinetic images are unlike any others in the show, Grossman lived poor, died at forty-two, and remains obscure. In the immediate wake of Frank’s The Americans (1959), its publisher, Grove Press, brought out Grossman’s Journey to the Cape, a slim collection with dated ’30s-style prose by Millard Lampell that suggests nothing so much as Grossman’s failure to fully anticipate Frank.

“The Radical Camera” overlapped with another ’30s monument: “Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art,” which brought back the commissioned “portable murals” that the artist had created for his 1931­–32 MoMA show. Rivera was inspired by People’s NYC, although his powerfully plutocratic vision is closer to Charles Sheeler’s factory Precisionism than it is to Photo League pathos, and his subjects are hardly the déclassé little people who populate “The Radical Camera.” Dressed as a jaguar, an Aztec warrior crouches over the conquistador he’s stabbed to death; a fiercely elegant Emiliano Zapata appears regally indifferent to the padrone trampled beneath the hoofs of his signature white horse.

The ’30s were not truly historicized until the 1960s (think, for example, Bonnie and Clyde [1967]), and the ’30s mentalité lingered into the postwar era, albeit with a darkened tone. “The Radical Camera” could have included a subexhibition of May Day photographs; as it is, Jerome Liebling’s May Day, New York, 1948 (shot from the perspective of someone hidden in the crowd), is far more expressive than Joe Schwartz’s or N. Jay Jaffee’s straightforwardly reportorial representations of the annual event, while George S. Zimbel’s 1951 Dead Man Under Third Avenue El, also taken as if with spy cam, recalls lefty neorealist noirs such as Jules Dassin’s 1948 The Naked City (named after Weegee’s celebrated book) and Elia Kazan’s 1950 Panic in the Streets.

Some work goes the other way. “The Radical Camera” is postscripted with footage from Little Fugitive, a 1953 film by former Photo Leaguers Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin (the league dissolved in 1951) that renders People’s NYC innocent by presenting it through the eyes of a seven-year-old; it would have been entertaining had the Rivera show included, as a footnote, Kazan’s 1952 Viva Zapata!—a black-and-white Hollywood movie that’s not just Red but White and Blue.

“The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936–1951” travels to the Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, OH, Apr. 19–Sept. 9; Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, Oct. 11, 2012–Jan. 21, 2013; Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, FL, Feb. 9–Apr. 21, 2013.

J. Hoberman is a contributing editor of Film Comment.