Organized jointly from the collections of the International Center of Photography (ICP) and the George Eastman House (Rochester, NY), The Photo League: Harlem Document and Related Works is on view at ICP from February 28 - May 25, 2003. This is the fourth in the two institutions’ collaborative series “New Histories of Photography.” Previous exhibitions in this series are available at the ICP and George Eastman House joint web site, www.photomuse.org.

Aaron Siskind:
Harlem Grocery Store, 1940
Gelatin silver print
ICP 105.1981

The Photo League had its origins in the worker's photography movement of the early 1930s, which, by 1931, had established groups (or leagues) in various international cities to provide the left-wing press with documentation of worker's activities. The U.S. group was called the Workers' Film and Photo League. Their silent documentary films on hunger strikes and unemployment were based largely on Soviet models (the filmmakers called their section Nykino), and their photographs were distinguished from contemporary photojournalism only by their unrelenting focus on class and the daily struggles of workers. By 1936, the filmmakers had left to form Frontier Films, while the still photographers reconstituted themselves as the Photo League. The League remained active as a school, gallery, and club until 1951, and its members included Aaron Siskind, Sid Grossman, Morris Engel, Max Yavno, Dan Weiner, Paul Strand, and Lewis Hine. From 1947 to 1951, the Photo League was under investigation as a "subversive organization," though its ties to the Communist Party had long since dissipated. Under the pressure of blacklisting, however, the Photo League broke up in 1951.

 

Aaron Siskind:
Harlem Lady in Kitchen, 1940
Gelatin silver print
ICP 98.1981

 

Aaron Siskind:
Harlem Man in Bed, 1940
Gelatin silver print
ICP 111.1981

In the mid-1930s, the Photo League sought to establish a proletarian photography that could both place the tools of cultural production in the hands of working-class practitioners and document the everyday life of the worker. This "proletarian photography" was disseminated through various political institutions (including the Workers' International Relief in Berlin) and photo magazines (particularly Photo-History, Photo Notes, Survey Graphic, and PM). In particular, members of the Photo League sought to portray the lives of the urban working class. They sought to transform prevailing attitudes toward the ghetto, and the links that were forged between race and poverty. Conceived in conjunction with ethnologists and urban sociologists were the photographic surveys of the Photo League's Feature Group, including "Portrait of a Tenement" (1937), "Dead End: The Bowery" (1937-38), and "The Harlem Document" (1938-40), which emphasized the everyday lives of ethnic urban subjects. These social documentary photo series--like the contemporaneous "tenement pastorals" of writers Richard Wright and Tillie Olsen--not only challenged the political theory that city planning was the remedy for urban decay but also helped to stimulate an urban ethnic renaissance (which, in the case of the Photo League, led to coalitions between Jewish and African-American groups).

Brian Wallis, Chief Curator


 

This exhibition is presented in collaboration with the George Eastman House, Rochester, New York, and is the fourth in the series "New Histories of Photography." It is made possible by the generous support of The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, Anne and Tony Fisher, and Gayle and Robert Greenhill.
Aaron Siskind:
Harlem Street Market, 1940
Gelatin silver print
ICP 92.1981