Around 15 years ago, I wrote a series of articles and short notes about what was still then a very much overlooked part of American photographic history, but which is now referred to as ‘New York’s famed Photo League‘. An organisation that was destroyed by McCarthyism as ‘anti-American’ it remained largely outside the pale until this century, and I was pleased to be able write about it and to mention some of the photographers still alive and working who learned and developed their craft there, largely under the critical eye of Sid Grossman (1913-1955). I’ve mentioned it before on this site, including two posts with the same title, The New York Photo League where I quote from my 2001 article, and a longer version here.
You can get some idea of the critical blind-spot by reading the lengthy introductory essay by Gerry Badger to the 1985 Barbican show ‘American Images: Photography 1945-80’ which relegates Grossman and others to what is essentially a footnote to the later work of Robert Frank and the Photo League to an introductory sentence to the work of Aaron Siskind which makes clear that his importance as a photographer was due to breaking away from his early work with the League on Harlem Document.
Although none of Grossman’s work appeared in the Barbican show, that the work of several others involved in the Photo League does probably owes itself – as did much of the show – to the ideas and graft of John Benton-Harris, a native New Yorker who studied with Alexey Brodovitch, and who grew up with the work of the Photo League photographers and their successors and their views of his city.
As his artist page at the Howard Greenberg Gallery states, Grossman, who had founded the Photo League with Sol Libsohn in 1936, “had a tremendous influence on a large number of students who studied with him including Weegee, Lisette Model, Leon Levinstein, Ruth Orkin, Arthur Leipzig, Rebecca Lepkoff and numerous others.”
The main show at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York until Feb 11, 2017 is the “first solo exhibition in 30 years to explore the legacy of Sid Grossman” and the exhibition also includes “a small selection of work by some of Sid Grossman’s students including Rebecca Lepkoff, Leon Levinstein, Marvin Newman and Ruth Orkin.” Also showing at the gallery is a “companion exhibition with work by Sy Kattelson, a student and close friend of Sid Grossman.”
Last September, Steidl co-published with Howard Greenberg Gallery ‘The Life and Work of Sid Grossman ISBN, 9783958291256′ with a biographical and critical essay by Keith F Davis, the first comprehensive survey of Sid Grossman’s life and work, with over 150 photographs “from his early social documentary work of the late 1930s to the more personal and dynamic street photography of the late 1940s, as well as late experiments with abstraction in both black and white and color.”