Photography 101: The Radical Camera + New York’s Photo League

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In the Shadow of the Capitol ● 1948 (Marion Palfi/The Jewish Museum/© 1998 Arizona Board of Regents)

Every so often, I discover or am reminded of tectonic shifts in photography that seem to be little-known by the exploding world of photographers. No harm, no foul; but in those cases, I feel feel a social + moral desire (obligation?) to occasionally point to these shifts.

One such case is New York’s Photo League – a collection of some of the most innovative, culturally relevant and influential photographers who took to the streets and showed us life as it had been rarely explored before. Photogs like Lisette Model or Weegee (featured earlier on my blog here), Avedon, Leipzig, Orkin and Weston. These and other photogs are genre-defining photojournalists who created stark and unwavering images that offered unique glimpses into a world that – until their groundbreaking work – was infrequently or even NOT explored by photography. Instead of posed images of families, the NYPL documented rampant social change, the great divide between classes, racial issues, the rise of music, the war, and images of New York City in the 40s (even going so far as being labeled “Communists” by the US government…). In short, we have these artists to thank for the way that photojournalism has evolved today. Spin through the image tabs above to sample their arresting work.

If this group or any of these names are unfamiliar to you, give a read here to get the cliff notes, and more importantly – if you’re able — the exhibition called Radical Camera which features an extensive body of this work is on display at the Columbus Museum of Art from now until September 9, 2012.

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Miriam Danar says:

Riveting – and inspiring, as well. Can’t wait to get back to the camera, after seeing these.

Karl Baker says:

amazing photo – check out the curiosity in the childs eyes.

This is a fantastic piece and a great inspiration for today’s photographers.

Aaron Schaub says:

I literally work across the street from the Columbus Museum of Art and have seen this exhibition in person. It is truly remarkable. It’s one thing to see these images sequentially in the slideshow above. It’s another thing to see them all together and exploded across the gallery space. You get to see not only the power of the images but how they evolved and a peek into the politics driving them. The CMA has done a great job with this exhibition. Go see it if you can.

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T says:

Good point Geoff. I think the pictures are there, but sometimes we just don’t see them. You just need to listen to Sebastio Salgado’s and why his Sahel pictures were never exhibited in the USA for such a long time (but all over Europe and elsewhere). Local editors found them too depressing for the local market.

G says:

Great stuff and still inspiration for today’s (great) photographers. “Steamfitter” – just check out Leibovitz’s photo of Martina Navratilova. We can all learn from the past. Not that much to do that hasn’t already been done before.

Geoff Moore says:

By a strange coincidence I was looking at a book of Pulitzer Prize winning photographs,1960-1982 and thinking “they don’t make photos like that anymore”. These photographs fall into the same category. Nowadays images have to entertain, if only for a fraction of second or are heavily censored for public taste. I believe in photography driven social change – I just don’t know where the outlet for such images is anymore.

Michael R says:

Geoff, The web is the most accessible outlet that’s ever existed. There are plenty of print outlets too – Mother Jones, Rolling Stone, your local alternative weekly paper, Democracy Now …

Scads and scads of outlets.

Michael R says:

Weston? As in Edward? NYPL? I always think f/64

Michael R says:

Seems he was a supporter, not a member. But I’m still digging.

Kathleen says:

The 1940 Sievan is wonderfully funny & still very much apropos.

Nowadays, everyone can be such photojournalist, with our ubiquitous cameras and camera-phones we can publish and show it everywhere. In the past, not everyone could document the world around them, and such people as Avedon or Weegee created the view on social issues that the world could observe. They often imposed their own point of view this way, but of course they created many beautiful and priceless images.

Nice piece, Chase. Helps remind us not only of the power of photography, but about always reminding oneself that we have a social obligation to use ourselves and our talents and passions for the service and betterment of others – at least part of the time. This is the second time in two days that I am reminded of that, thank you. And, of course, the photos are amazing.

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