The Photo League was a cooperative of photographers in New York who banded together around a range of common social and creative causes. The League was active from 1936 to 1951 and included among its members some of the most noted American photographers of the mid-20th century.
The League’s origins traced back to a project of the Workers International Relief (WIR), which was a communist association based in Berlin. In 1930 the WIR established the Worker’s Camera League in New York City, which soon came to be known as the Film and Photo League. The goals of the Film and Photo League were to “struggle against and expose reactionary film; to produce documentary films reflecting the lives and struggles of the American workers; and to spread and popularize the great artistic and revolutionary Soviet productions.”
In 1934 the still photographers and the filmmakers in the League began having differences of opinion over social and production interests, and by 1936 they had formed separate groups. Paul Strand and Ralph Steiner established Frontier Films, to continue promoting the original goals, while at the same time Strand and Berenice Abbott renamed the original group “The Photo League”. The two organizations remained friendly, with members from one group often participating in activities of the other. The goal of the newly reformed Photo League was to “put the camera back into the hands of honest photographers who ... use it to photograph America.”
The League quickly became active in the new field of socially conscious photography. Unlike other photography organizations, it did not espouse a particular visual style but instead focused on “integrating formal elements of design and visual aesthetics with the powerful and sympathetic evidence of the human condition.” It also offered basic and advanced classes in photography when there were few such courses in colleges or trade schools. A newsletter, called Photo Notes, was printed on a somewhat random schedule depending upon who was available to do the work and if they could afford the printing costs. More than anything else, though, the League was a gathering place for photographers to share and experience their common artistic and social interests.
Among its members were co-founders Sol Libsohn and Sid Grossman (director of the Photo League School); Walter Rosenblum, editor of the Photo League Photo Notes; Eliot Elisofon, a Life magazine photographer; Morris Engel (since 1936); Jerome Liebling, who joined in 1947; Aaron Siskind; Jack Manning, a member of the Harlem Document Group of the League and a New York Times photographer; Dan Weiner; Bill Witt; Martin Elkort; Lou Bernstein; Arthur Leipzig (since 1942); Sy Kattelson; Louis Stettner; Lester Talkington (from 1947); Lisette Model; and Ruth Orkin, a member from 1947.
Unusual for artist groups at the time, approximately one-third of League members and participants were women and they served in visible leadership roles such as secretary, treasurer, vice president, and president. For example, Lucy Ashjian, who joined the League as early as 1936, served as Photos Notes editor and board chair of the League's school.
In the early 1940s the list of notable photographers who were active in the League or supported their activities also included Margaret Bourke-White, W. Eugene Smith, Helen Levitt, FSA photographer Arthur Rothstein, Beaumont Newhall, Nancy Newhall, Richard Avedon, Weegee, Robert Frank, Harold Feinstein, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Minor White. The League was the caretaker of the Lewis Hine Memorial Collection, which Hine's son had given the League in recognition of their role in fostering social activism through photography as his father had done.
Most of the members who joined before the end of World War II were first-generation Americans who strongly believed in progressive political and social causes. Few were aware of the political origins of the movement of the communist "Workers as Photographers" (Arbeiterfotografen) in Berlin. This had in fact little to do with what the organization did as it evolved, but helped its downfall after the war, when it was accused by the FBI of being communist and "subversive and anti-American." In 1947 the League was formally declared subversive and placed on the U.S. Department of Justice blacklist by Attorney General Tom C. Clark. At first the League fought back and mounted an impressive This Is the Photo League exhibition in 1948, but after its member and long-time FBI informer Angela Calomiris had testified in May 1949 that the League was a front organization for the Communist Party, the Photo League was finished. Recruitment dried up and old members left, including one of its founders and former president, Paul Strand, as well as Louis Stettner. The League disbanded in 1951.
After the League’s demise, and coupled with the return of more women to domestic roles in the Post-War era, the careers of many promising women artists, such as Sonia Handelman Meyer and Rae Russel, did not continue.
The Photo League was the subject of a 2012 documentary film: Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League's New York by filmmakers Daniel Allentuck and Nina Rosenblum. The film traces the rise and demise of the Photo League between 1936 an 1951, and includes interviews with surviving members and a soundtrack including Woody Guthrie, the Andrews Sisters, and the Mills Brothers. Cineaste Magazine calls the film a "fine addition to the library of documentaries dedicated to remembering the cultural work of the old left."
- Max Yavno, former president
- Tucker, Anne (September 1979). The Photo League: Photography as a Social Force. "Modern Photography". p. 90.
- Betsi Meissner (2002). Original Sources: Art and Archives at the Center for Creative Photography. Center for Creative Photography. p. 161.
- Tucker (2001), p 12-13
- These are the names singled out by Time-Life in their volume on the documentary (1971).
- Klein, Mason; Evans, Catherine (2011). "As Good as the Guys: The Women of the Photo League". The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-1951. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-14687-5.
- Tucker (2001), p 162
- Where Do We Go from Here? The Photo League and Its Legacy 1936–2006
- Cineaste, Vol. XXXVII No. 4. Fall 2012, p. 80 [See: www.thephotoleaguefilm.com; www.imdb.com/title/tt2123262]
- Klein, Mason and Evans, Catherine: "The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-1951". Yale University Press, 2011
- Maddow, Ben: "Faces: A Narrative History of the Portrait in Photography". New York Graphic Society, Little Brown and Company, 1977
- Newhall, Nancy Wynne: This Is the Photo League, The Photo League, 1948.
- Robinson, Gerald H.: Photography, History & Science. Carl Mautz, 2006, chapter V, pages 31–70.
- Tucker, Anne Wilkes. This Was the Photo League. Chicago: Stephen Daiter Gallery, 2001
- History of Photography, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Summer 1994). Special issue devoted to the Photo League.
- "Documentary Photography". Life Library of Photography, Time-Life Books, 1972