Monday, April 27, 2009

The Photo League

Photo League
from the fundacion telefonte
Forty authors belonging to Photo-League, the leading organization of social photography in the United States, offer the portrait of a multi-faceted and socially committed New York of the 1930’s and 40’s. This is the exhibit’s first European showing, hosted by the Fundación Telefónica and PhotoEspaña 99.
In this sample, organized by the historian Naomi Rosenblum, the personal commitment of the photographers is made evident by the landscapes and simple unassuming people they photographed. Their involvement allowed these authors to capture the tone and the energy of daily life in the neighbourhoods of New York during two very significant decades in the city’s history.
Photo-League was the only organization worthy of mention as being dedicated to social photography in the U.S. It was born of an international movement in photography that had its origins in the radical political scene at the end of the twenties in Germany. This movement then extended to other European countries and to the other side of the Atlantic. Originally called the Film and Photo League, its initial purpose was to provide the leftist press with photographic and cinematographic images of the strikes and political protests. However, in New York in 1936 the group’s photographers reorganized and redirected their attention towards documenting the way of life of the working class.
Open to both professionals and amateurs who paid an annual fee, the League offered a rich contrast to the pictorial aesthetic espoused by clubs whose members were more interested in making "photographic art" with nudes, still lifes and elaborate scenes. The Photo-League maintained a Center that had space for both exhibits and laboratories; It started a school of photography and published a "newsletter" called "PhotoNotes". Its board of directors included names such as Berenice Abbot, Robert Disraeli and Paul Strand.
Since its beginning in 1936 until its disappearance in 1951, the Photo-League explored and expanded the concepts of social and documentary photography. To achieve this objective, its members decided to organize projects structured around the title Reporter Groups, made up of photographers who selected a neighbourhood and concentrated on photographing predominantly the streetlife but also life inside the homes. One of these projects, with Aaron Siskind and Morris Engel as participants, was known as the "Harlem Document"; Another, with Sol Libsohn and Sid Grossman, was the "Chelsea Document". Several members of the League chose to independently photograph different areas of Manhattan. (These photographers include Bernard Cole, Lou Bernstein, Consuelo Kanaga, Rebecca Lepkoff, Arthur Leipzig, Walter Rosenblum and Dan and Sandra Weiner.)
At the end of the forties, the thin thematic line that had initially focussed interest in documenting the working classes was significantly widened to include topics with greater aesthetic emphasis, in addition to the regular social content. As a consequence of this change, the League attracted greater diversity among its members, now including Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Barbara Morgan, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall and Edward Weston. This broadened perspective resulted in a more differentiated spectrum of exhibits and lectures, as well as that of the criticism published in "PhotosNotes". In 1948, at the height of its activity, the League was attacked by an increasingly reactionary government that described its activities as subversive to U.S. interests. Although no evidence of these accusations was ever made public, the blacklists and the anti-liberal political climate that soon spread resulted in the disappearance of the Photo-League in 1951.
The exhibit is organized by Naomi Rosenblum, historian and author of "A World History of Photographers" (1984), one of the basic books for reviewing the history of this medium. She has also published "A History of Women Photographers" (1994), the result of impressive research that became the basis of an exhibit held at the New York Public Library in 1996.

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