The Honest Eye
Documenting the Spirit of New York
Text: Mike von Joel | Images:
It comes as
no surprise that the fascist apparatchiks of the US government – in the person of Tom C. Clark, attorney general – included the Photo League in its list of proscribed organisations issued in 1947. The hysteria of the embryonic Cold War polarised America and ‘subversive element’ was a catch-all appendage to the usual ranting about Communists and radical thinkers. A review of the antics of the Department Homeland Security today might well lead the casual observer to think that little has changed in 60 years. But why include a collective of documentary photographers that had been in existence a mere ten years?
By 1947, the Photo League had matured into a group of dedicated professional and amateur photographers whose accent was on social realism and candid reflections of urban life in New York City. It had, however, its origins in 1930’s Berlin and the Workers International Relief, a decidedly Communist association. The Photo League in New York was committed to ‘honest’ photography and showing the real life struggles of ordinary American workers. It also offered a place where artists could meet, work and socialise. In the 1940’s it attracted support from some of the great names in the photographic canon, amongst them: Berenice Abbott, Margaret Bourke-White, W. Eugene Smith, Richard Avedon, Weegee, Robert Frank, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Minor White.
Many of the members were first generation Jewish immigrants and had a natural empathy for the underclass of urban America. The pictures created by the Photo League artists confronted America how it was, not how some Norman Rockwell cover for Life magazine would have some believe it to be. The impoverished Black communities, trapped in inner city ghettoes, are portrayed with quiet dignity; the poor areas appear stark, soulless and menacing; whilst the higher echelons of New York society often seem slightly preposterous with their affectations – all set against a backdrop of concrete canyons and the cacophony of billboard advertising.
Despite a spirited defence, the Photo League were crushed by their exposure to what later became known as ‘McCarthyism’, not least a devastating betrayal by one member – Angela Calomiris – who was an undercover FBI agent otherwise tasked to infiltrate the Communist Party of the USA. Nevertheless, the calibre of the League membership and its supporters ensured that their work was recognised internationally and its influence on future generations was profound, not least by Robert Frank’s 1958 seminal study, The Americans, now regarded as a pivotal documentary photo work and harbinger of the New York School.
The work of these photographers has been collected and revised by Mason Klein and Catherine Evans in The Radical Camera. Although the images speak eloquently for themselves, the authoritative texts put the New York situation into context and ably record the socialist impetus of the collective, and thus its challenge to the rightwing politics of the period.