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The Irony-Free Lens: Art of the Photo League at the Norton Museum

A show of the work of the Photo League, a politically radical collective of photographers of the 1930s and 40s, opened at the Norton Museum last night. The photography is of the highest order--formally impeccable, deeply human in its concerns. Inescapably, the show has a vein of nostalgia for what seems like a simpler time. In their intentions, these were artists without irony.

The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-1951, is an exhaustive survey, some 175 photos, all in black and white. Imbued with the left-wing politics of the Great Depression and World War II's Popular Front, shot chiefly in the streets of New York, though also in hardscrabble rural America, the work reflects the artists' belief they could help change the world for the better.

(Photo by Erika Stone. Courtesy of Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio)

Born out of a split within a predecessor group, Workers International Relief, that served as a resource for the left-wing press, the League included both professionals and aspiring amateurs. They were later joined by photographers from throughout the U.S., including luminaries like Berenice Abbot, Weegee, Lisette Model and Paul Strand. At its loft on East 21st Street, the League provided darkrooms and instruction, lectures and social events. Many of the members were first-generation Jewish-Americans, the children of working class families, and, progressive as they were, women were a major presence in their ranks. 

The actually lived life of the common people of the city was the League members' great topic. Squalor abounds, but the images are rich in resilience, romance, grace and humor. A young boy looks up at the camera wary but unabashed, his coat windblown open like the wings of a dream. A shoemaker pauses during lunch at his workbench, a sandwich in his hands, though the hands look strong enough to shape the world. Two walls of a tenement building mark the city's social chasm: on one wall a clothesline of laundry hung to dry/on the other a giant advertising image of a woman finely dressed and bejeweled.

The League came apart in the immediate post-war years, a victim of McCarthyism, its members falling away under the threat of blacklisting. Their gritty approach and unflinching gaze still resonate however, providing a model for photographers that followed, and pleasure and pathos for viewers forever. 

The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-1951 
March 14, 2013 - June 16, 2013

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