'The Radical Camera' at the Jewish Museum takes in American image-making from the Depression through the blacklist
"The Radical Camera," an exhibition at the Jewish Museum of nearly 150 black and white photographs—of newsboys, Easter parades, transvestites, murder scenes, protest marches, fire escapes, and the geometry of tenement laundry lines—begins with a video. It’s a brief clip from a 1931 newsreel showing breadlines, labor rallies, and protesters being strong-armed into horse-drawn Black Marias intercut with titles reading “In the richest country in the world … 2 billion dollars of relief for bankers and industrialists … But no help for the unemployed.”
The still photos that follow were mostly taken by members of New York’s Photo League, founded in 1936 as a splinter of an offshoot of the leftist Workers International Relief and disbanded, by proximate force of blacklist, in 1951.
Depression and life-destroying paranoia were the context in which the League worked, and again, seven decades later, form the context in which we’re viewing the photos. In both cases the question is how to balance the demands of justice against the demands of art.
These days, the answer is usually to choose one or the other, but the solutions presented in "The Radical Camera" range from the frankly propagandizing, like Lewis Wicke Hine’s pre-League Steamfitter (1920), in which beauty serves politics and man serves machine (a handsome, muscular steamfitter in an undershirt bows majestically to tighten a bolt on a gleaming cogwheel), to Lucy Ashjian’s Untitled (Steps) or Rebecca Lapkoff’s Under the El (both ca. 1939), in which ostensibly formal experiments were focused and energized by their political context. The decision to present the simple geometry of a staircase or of shadows cast by elevated train tracks as worthy both to be recorded, in a documentary sense, and to serve as the content of high art—the decision, that is, to picture them honestly, but compose the pictures ambitiously—could only be motivated by a hopeful interest in the life of the people, and in the democratic new instruments, like the camera, that were letting the people learn to see themselves.
This subterranean relationship between politics and the aesthetic is emphasized by the contrast between the show’s earlier formal experiments and the heartbreaking anticlimax with which it ends. In 1947, the Attorney General blacklisted the League, and as it attempted to survive for the next four years, many of its members tried to avoid being forced into stark political decisions by retreating into “pure” aesthetics; the dull photos that wind up The Radical Camera amply demonstrate the sterility of aesthetics as denial.
But an uneven show, stocked with good work, studded with gems, and pregnant with half a dozen equally unfinished directions, is the best memorial to a movement whose unevenness was its genius. If progressivism produces pretty pictures of trains, and authoritarian paranoia prevents them, in both cases it’s only by establishing contexts in which individual talents flourish or wither. (The more open and various the context, the more gems.) The Radical Camera is full of historical interest, but as art, the photos that wear best are the portraits, in which the subject’s gaze can most thoroughly displace the photographer’s so we can see what the photographer saw looking back at us.
Arthur Rothstein’s 1935 Wife and Child of a Sharecropper, catching a pale, pregnant woman with striking bone structure and her blond daughter, both of them looking somewhere far away, can’t help exoticizing, while Bernard Cole’s Shoemaker’s Lunch or Edwin Rosskam’s Stock Room Porter (both 1944) show the power of photography to eternalize the transient: The photographers’ positions only served as amber in which to preserve the shoemaker’s homely smile and the porter’s patient, resigned attention.
A few photographs, like Jerome Liebling’s Butterfly Boy and two by Vivian Cherry, don’t seem to have aged at all. Butterfly Boy shows a little boy, with a cap on his head and his hands in the pocket of a topcoat only buttoned at the collar, staring solemnly into the camera and spreading out his arms. In the first of Ms. Cherry’s two 1947 photos, a black boy in a handsome pea coat stands in front of a concrete wall with a partially exposed bit of neatly-lettered graffiti. He tips his head down in gentle concentration as a mixed-race group of smaller boys—the very smallest in a white sailor cap—pull his arms to either side. The title is Game of Lynching, East Harlem.
The second photo, Playing Lynched, East Harlem, shows the same victim, this time alone, his feet among the weeds, his eyes closed, his head hanging to the side. This is the point where dichotomies like politics and aesthetics, art and documentary, candid and posed, or work and play converge, and artifice allows us to see the truth. The graffitied letters, though clearer in this wider shot, are still illegible, but one stray vertical stroke ascends behind the boy’s neck as if to indicate a rope.
"The Radical Camera" is on view at The Jewish Museum through March 25.