September 6, 2012 | by Lucy McKeon
One day in late March, I took some pictures of the crowds of protesters in Union Square, newly arrived from Zuccotti Park. The week before, more than seventy protesters had been arrested, and the Union Square encampment evicted in a fashion many Occupiers described as gratuitously violent. Ramarley Graham had been killed about a month before, and the racially-charged practice of stop-and-frisk was asserting itself into mainstream consciousness. Trayvon Martin was now a household name. And since the previous August, one revelation after another had surfaced about the NYPD’s secret Muslim surveillance program. So people gathered on March 24.
Tall, glittery women milled about with signs that proclaimed SOCIAL JUSTICE IS FABULOUS!, at one point posing for a picture with veteran progressives whose cardboard sign read PROTESTING IS NOT A CRIME IT IS A RIGHT!. One man held a white square above his head with red Chinese characters and their English translation in black: PROTECT HUMAN RIGHTS. PEACE FREEDOM DEMOCRACY. A LONG WAY TO GO. A young guy pontificated, a lit, dripping, handmade candle his microphone. A “naughty policewoman” balanced on the toes of her ice skates, legs angled and baton in hand, her sign saying something about police wiping their collective ass with the Constitution. Former Police Captain Ray Lewis promoted the documentary Inside Job, while the Hare Krishnas, gathered in the square as usual, sang and danced in full force.
These pictures, I didn’t realize at the time, would be lost. Innocent of their fate, I took photographs that day as most people do, with the idea that this was not a test.
Thirty minutes after leaving Union Square, I arrived at the Jewish Museum, where “The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936–1951” was on view for its last day in New York City. (The exhibit is currently at the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, set to travel to San Francisco and West Palm Beach.) And while the sparse grandeur of Museum Mile was in contrast to the teeming crowd of Union Square, the trajectory felt logical.
Founded in 1936, the Photo League was born of the Workers’ Camera Leagues, groups within Workers International Relief (WIR), formed to help striking laborers and their families. It later became a photography school as well. Originally devoted, then, to using documentary photography on subjects of sociopolitical commentary and reform, many of the League’s members were first-generation Jewish, middle-class, and communist. They practiced, as cocurator Mason Klein writes, “sociologically informed photography”—documentary art in the name of social change.
When I entered the exhibit, a film positioned to catch the eye projected a scene, which, despite its lack of color and grainy appearance, was eerily familiar. The Workers Newsreel Unemployment Special (1930) showed Union Square overflowing with protesters demanding government assistance for the unemployed. “In the richest country in the world,” the text below read, “two billion dollars of relief for the bankers and industrialists … but no help for the unemployed.”
The parallels were almost too obvious to register, but there was a palpable, almost sheepish, compulsion shared among us to recognize the uncanny effect in silence. Most of my fellow museumgoers wore graying buns or discontinued suspenders, and that almost-frumpy old New York elegance the elderly of only this city exude. These were people who had lived here for years, some of whom, perhaps, long enough to have seen New York as it appeared now on the walls. Finally, one woman gasped unabashedly to another, “It’s just like Occupy Wall Street,” and we waited for her to utter the cliché no one wanted to hear: “The more things change…”
And yet, the clothing, the quality of film, the authority of communism—it all felt very distant too, very much of another era. Even the New York of the photographs was a familiar but, ultimately, a distant city.
Wandering the rooms, this sense of immediacy distanced by nostalgia persisted. Frozen into stillness by Walter Rosenblum’s Girl on a Swing (1938)—surely the very moment for which swings were invented caught on film, the Manhattan Bridge in the background echoing and framing her swooping tense limbs—I heard the voice of the same woman, the one with whom I seemed to have entered into the arbitrary museum partnership one accepts with simultaneous arrivers. In the last room she’d remarked, of the old New York adolescent street gang of Joe Schwartz’s Sullivan Midget 2, that it was taken “when there were still Italians.” It was unclear whether she said this wistfully or triumphantly (not to mention where she believed all the Italians had gone). “Today you don’t even see swings anymore!”
She now huffed, delighted in her pronouncement, until the child trailing behind her replied, “Yeah … you do.” But the woman wasn’t easily deflated, still comfortably satisfied that the present moment was radically different from the past.
You’ve probably seen Butterfly Boy, Jerome Liebling’s 1949 portrait of a child, his hands pocketed and arms outstretched, splaying open his coat like wings. A little newsboy cap tops his head and laced dress shoes cover his feet. The sweetly serious child-gaze was plastered in subways for months, enough to make you miss your stop.
Lou Bernstein’s Father and Children, Coney Island (1943) is a surprisingly intimate aerial view of family life, a snapshot capturing father and children outstretched on a sandy blanket—and when I see it, I imagine that Butterfly Boy is the child in the left-hand corner, off school for a day, his schoolboy attire hastily discarded, rumpled in a pile left for his mother to wash.
Light is the subject of Rebecca Lepkoff’s Early Morning Rush Hour (1947), in which directional signs, protruding from a centrally placed streetlamp, pierce the morning glow—mirrored by the silhouette of a man’s hat. The hat marks the in-between, a magical threshold capable of transforming the heavenly white pouring from the top right into the dark, human rush that is the bottom left, the workers’ commute. It separates the posh ladies looking for the bus that should be coming any moment now—where is that bus?—from the men who walk away from the camera and into the light.
“Be somethin’ to look and recognize your grandpa,” an elderly woman says to me, gazing at a photograph of men on the beach during the D-Day landing. “I was thinking, my father was…” she trails off having noticed the feet peeking from beneath a blanket, guarded by a somber fellow solider. “Oh, look. He’s by his comrade.”
A special project aimed to document specific neighborhoods, Aaron Siskind’s five-year Harlem Document (1936-40) is certainly problematic if perceived as a complete portrayal of black uptown experience. It could also be criticized for simplifying complex multicausal social issues, like poverty and crime. But a handful of Document’s photographs are nevertheless the most striking of the exhibit: the filled-to-the-brim fire escapes of Jack Manning’s 1938 Elks Parade, where people accessorize the angular architecture of what looks like Lenox Avenue; and, from the same year, Sol Prom’s Untitled (Dancing School), a symmetrical study in preteen girlhood, from intent conversation and self-conscious shoulder hunching to giggling hysterics.
All of these photographs, now traveling the museum circuit, were taken on the streets at a time before photography was recognized as worthy of museum purchase, before Henri Cartier-Bresson and his disciples made street photography chic. The League wanted to merge socially motivated documentary with formal artistic sensibility. Like the era of its flourishing, the Photo League was alive to the reciprocity of politics and aesthetics, life and art. With its roots in communism and its current status as both documentary art and artistic documentation, this historical meeting of social justice and aesthetic value seems today both canonical and impossible.
Now, as hundreds of iPhones capture an arrest at an OWS protest in the name of justice, no one can doubt that some of these images can and will also be singled out at some point in the name of the aesthetic. But does the time lag involved in moving from the streets to the museum (or to the hip blogosphere) work against their reciprocity? When the marginal becomes the fashionable, does a genre like street photography lose its street cred? The financial crisis of the 1930s helped provoke the hard-nosed solidarity of the Photo League, both its politics and its aesthetics, whereas our own crisis is shadowed by skepticism on both fronts.
Ever since Susan Sontag’s On Photography formalized the conventional wisdom that photography is dangerous—from the presumption of its “photographic” veracity to its powers of exploitation—an acute sensitivity to photographer-subject relationships has bred within the medium an identity politics that’s not easily negotiated. This discomfort is heightened, in conjunction with technological innovation and class stratification, by the type of camera one uses, the motives for and context of its use, the social background of both artist and subject—all can be seen as capable of compromising the radical camera ethic of the Photo League.
Maybe we don’t question the Photo League photographers because we trust their politics. The absence today of any “actually existing socialism,” however flawed its historical actuality has been, together with the polarization of wealth more extreme than what precipitated the Depression—these social facts have made us skeptical. But the technological democratization of the medium, the broadening of its spectrum of forms and formats from “exhibition photography” to photojournalism, has raised a skepticism of its own.
Is there an equivalent of the Photo League today? Or would today’s Photo League be something like class tourism, even if backed by a Marxist middle-class ethos? And how does our present moment’s sheer scale and saturation of documentary reproduction—to a degree perhaps unforeseen even by Walter Benjamin—affect the potential of life and art to coexist in a self-consciously collective project? When does the democratization of a form mean the making of more artists, and when does it mean simply the making of more consumers? (The camera phone being an especially interesting locus for these questions, where with tracking technology, the photographer is also the tracked consumer.) What would Benjamin think of Instagram?
Time passes. As it does, the things we’ve lived through become clarified and can seem representative of historical forces. Still shots of reality grasped in the moment take on the value of historical meaning. As Benjamin wrote, “The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.” It is both charming and frightening to think that so much invisibility will reveal itself only later, when we’re older and things are different. When what we grasp today is distanced and alienated—yet made more available to interpretation—by time’s passing.
Perhaps the all-too-obvious feeling in comparing 1930 to OWS reflects the jadedness of late capitalism, one that is too comfortable in the idea that this has been going on for a long, long time.
A crowd has gathered around Lisette Model’s Albert-Alberta, a once-famous act at Hubert’s 42nd St. Flea Circus. A one-bosomed fishnet bra holds Albert-Alberta’s one nipple, one leg stockinged and high-heeled, the other hairy in a dress shoe and sock. “My grandpa took me there a number of times,” a man old enough to be a young grandfather himself is saying. “We’d go next door for a beer. I was only eleven or twelve, but things were different back then,” adding, “That was today’s history lesson.” The women laugh, they liked that. “Thank you, Professor.”
The museum is closing soon. I won’t have time to see everything. Scribbling down titles now to look at them more closely later. Consuelo Kanaga’s Untitled (Tenements, New York) (1937). I don’t know yet that months later, while typing Kanaga into Google and searching the March Against Police Brutality, my pictures now lost, I’ll stumble upon a Flickr album of the day, many of the shots seemingly exact replicas of the ones I’d taken. “Isn’t it freaky when your life becomes history?” says the Professor as the museum guards shoo us out.
Lucy McKeon is a freelance writer and photographer, and a graduate student at NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program.