The New York Photo League

I’ve long been a fan of the work which came out of the New York Photo League. Founded in 1936 it became the basis of a tremendous energy in photography in America in the 1940s and beyond, and was a key influence on the kind of photography that for me is central to the medium. I wrote my first article about it in 2001, when there was really very little available about it on the web, and it was a piece that got a wide readership and many responses, including from several of the photographers who had been involved (a couple actually asked me for advice.) Later I wrote more about the league and a number of those who had taken an active part in it.

In the eleven years since then, I’ve been pleased to see articles and features about some of those then less well known photographers appearing, and more of their work available on the web and through galleries. Some in particular had previously been busy promoting their work, in particular the  Stephen Daiter Gallery in Chicago, who had published Anne Wilkes Tucker’s book ‘This Was The Photo League’ earlier in 2001 with photographs by Morris Engel, Walter Rosenblum, Morris Huberland, Sid Grossman, Sol Libsohn and Dan Weiner.  Years earlier in 1979 I’d read Tucker’s article on the Photo League in ‘Modern Photography’ magazine,  probably the first time I was aware of it’s importance in photography.

Here’s a short section of the roughly 3000 word essay I published in 2001:

The major figure in keeping the activities running over the years was Sid Grossman, described as an organisational genius, as well as a fine photographer, but many others, including Walter Rosenblum (president for many years), Dan Weiner and Sol Libsohn played vital roles. Paul Strand was always on hand for advice and also taught and lectured (Rosenblum describes a class by him in his essay mentioned earlier). Aaron Siskind led the Harlem project for four years, and there were many others. All those involved in the League’s programs gave their time without charge.

Most of those who belonged to the Photo League, at least before the late 1940s, were working class New Yorkers, from the lower east side, from Brooklyn and from the Bronx. Most were in their teens and twenties when they joined; many were the sons and daughters of first generation immigrants living in these working class areas, and they were predominantly of Jewish origin. Few were professional photographers, most were working in low paid jobs

The LEAGUE set up in a second floor loft – the former FPL premises in East Twenty-first Street. This small base became exhibition hall, meeting room, darkroom and school for the members.

They were attracted in particular by the low cost (the teaching staff were not paid) and high standard of the photographic tuition on offer. The League school, directed by Sid Grossman, offered courses in the techniques, history, aesthetics and practice of photography. As well as Grossman, a gifted teacher, and Libsohn who together ran the documentary class, there were also courses and guest appearances by many well-known photographers. Teaching in the photography classes was very much based on practice, with the students being sent out to record life in the various communities of Manhattan, taking photographs that were then criticised – at times extremely forcefully – and discussed in class.

The Photo League School was at the time, as Hal Greenwood noted in 1947, the’ only non-commercial photo school in America’, and in the years it was open, trained over 1500 photographers. It used a ‘ progressive educational method: the student learns by doing’ which was unusual for its time and aimed ‘ to help the student ‘discover the world; to develop a personal, philosophic, and visual perception which would load to an individual direction in photography’. It’s success can be seen in the work of those who passed through it, and also by the later adoption of similar methods by many courses in photography in our schools of art. Unfortunately few of them did it anything like as well.

What prompted me to recall this was a feature Redeeming a Life in Photography in today’s Lens blog with Sid Grossman’s widow, Miriam Grossman, now 85 (Sid died of a heart attack in 1955, when she was only 28) in which she talks of having waited since his death “for some kind of redemption, , and it never came.” As writer David Gonzalez comments, it has now, with the show ‘The Radical Camera‘ which has been showing at the Jewish Museum in New York and closes this Sunday. The Museum of the City of New York has 77 images by Grossman on-line  (open one of them as a larger image and you can then go through them all as a slide show.)

Last week the Lens blog had another feature, A Liberating League on the women of the Photo League, which includes an interview with another photographer I wrote about some years back, Rebecca Lepkoff, as well as two women I didn’t mention, Vivian Cherry and Sonia Handelman Meyer, all now in their nineties.

2 Responses to “The New York Photo League”

  1. rdwood says:

    As well as Anne Tucker’s book it is worth looking at the Summer 1994 issue of the quarterly journal History of Photography. It featured articles on two special subjects: ‘Early Colour and the Autochrome’ and ‘The Photo League’, the latter four articles being as follows:

    History of Photography, Summer 1994, Vol 18 (No. 2), pp. 154–194
    ‘The Photo League’s Forgotten Past’ by Leah Ollman; The Photo League: ‘Left–wing Politics and the Popular Press’ by Fiona M. Dejardin; ‘A History of the Photo League: The Members Speak’, by Anne Tucker; ‘Photo Notes [Photo League’s publication] 1938–1950: Annotated Author and Photographer Index’ compiled by William S. Johnson.

  2. Thanks for that. There is also at least one Ph.D Thesis I’ve looked at but only a part of it on line. I suspect there may be more.

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