I just saw a terrific photography exhibition, and it’s up for just one more week. So I’m going to write this fast and post it and hope you read it in time to head to San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum to view The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951.
A group of excellent, socially conscious photographers, the Photo League was decimated by this country’s Cold War politics after World War II. The group was lumped in with others deemed fascist, subversive, or Communist—because that’s what socially conscious came to mean in that paranoid era—and disbanded. With their classes, lectures, exhibitions, parties, and salons, the men and women who took the 150 photos in this exhibition had no agenda other than to “learn as much in making the picture as the picture was to present to the viewer,” in the words of one of the people interviewed in the interesting short film that accompanies the exhibition. Said another, “We have never had much but ardent purpose to sustain us.”
And these photos, documentary in subject matter but just as purposeful aesthetically, are teeming with life. When Sid Grossman, one of the group’s most esteemed teachers, said, “Every picture must be worth something,” he didn’t mean financially, although the photographers were sustained in part by the many picture-hungry periodicals of the time (remember Life magazine?). He and his colleagues wanted their work not only to bear witness, but to convey the photographer’s relationship with the subject matter. “You have to get close to people, not just physically but as a human being.”
Some of the portraits prove how “close to people” the photographers got. Often the subjects seem unaware of observation, but others… just look at the face of the little boy holding the sides of his coat out like a pair of wings. You could spend hours looking into his eyes and wondering about his life and thoughts.
And from a formal perspective alone, some of the images are stunning. Consider “Untitled (Tenements, New York),” c. 1937, by Consuelo Kanaga. Taken through the heavy-iron vertical bars of a window, the photograph looks out on crisscrossing lines of laundry, hung from the windows and soaring above the bleak yards of several brick tenement buildings. The vertical and almost flat diagonal lines of laundry, buildings, yards create a succinct view of poverty—both pleasing image and social comment.
Through Jan. 21 (closed Wednesdays), Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F., 415.655.7800; the cjm.org.