Street Photography: The Photo League

February 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

Long before Flickr, 500px, Tumblr and all the other photo websites, there were photography clubs.  One of the most famous was The Photo League in New York City.

Deep into the Depression, the League was founded in1936 and headquartered on East Twenty-First Street in Manhattan.  It was an outgrowth of the earlier radical Film and Photo League, organized in 1930 and sponsored by the International Workers’ Relief with the purpose of producing films about the class struggle in the United States.  By 1936 there was a split — the Photo League became a separate entity.

Documenting urban life was the primary focus for the volunteer members of the League.  Originally this urban photography reflected a Progressive social agenda during a time when approximately 10 million people were unemployed and soup kitchens were an everyday experience.  Photography projects included in-depth, street-by-street views of the struggle of people in neighborhoods from Harlem to the Bowery.

Many members were young and idealistic.  Classes were offered to those wanting to learn photography.  Exhibitions and lectures were part of the League’s mission.

As the 1930s ended there was an evolution into more expressive photographic viewpoints by the members of the League.  The success of the League continued into the 1940’s.  However, by the end of World War II when the “red-scare” became a national psychosis, the FBI accused the organization of being a Communist front for activities which were anti-American.  As with hundreds of people in the arts, these charges were absolutely unfounded.  By 1951 the League was finished.

What “McCarthyism” and the House Un-American Activities Committee could not destroy is a vast collection of iconic images from the photographers connected to the Photo League during its sixteen-year existence.  The number of photographers who were members, students, lecturers or exhibitors could fill an encyclopedia ~~ Berenice Abbott, Sid Grossman, Eliot Elisofon, Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin, Robert Frank, W. Eugene Smith, Helen Levitt, Margaret Bourke-White, Weegee, Lisette Model, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon and Robert Capa.  Henri Cartier-Bresson also lectured at the League during the two years he lived in the United States.

I wish I had been there to be a part of this incredible organization.

Please feel free to add your comments or ask questions.

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