The Photo League was a New York cooperative organisation founded in 1936 as an offshoot of the Workers’ Film and Photo League. It was disbanded in 1951 after being included on the Attorney General’s list of subversive organisations. Early on, there were several important members who did belong to the Communist Party, and the Photo League had close ties with several “front” organisations and publications. For instance, the Daily Worker and the New Masses were not charged for the members’ photographs they used, but other publications were. The league had a school that taught photography at several levels, there were exhibitions of members’ and guests’ work, an occasional publication, darkrooms, lectures by distinguished photographers, and — maybe most important — a place for like-minded people to hang out. There were never more than 100 members before the Second World War. After the war, when it expanded a little, the early emphasis on politically motivated documentary photography was gradually replaced by an interest in more subjective modes of expression. By the time it was targeted by the Attorney General, the Photo League was no threat to the republic — if it ever had been.
The Photo League is celebrated because, although it was never a big organisation, a large number of famous photographers were associated with it as students, teachers, lecturers and supporters. The Jewish Museum is currently mounting (until March 25) The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951, a major exhibition of work by these people, most of whom were Jewish. The five pictures on these pages were part of the Harlem Document, a project led by Aaron Siskind; they are included in the excellent volume The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League 1936-1951 (Yale, £35).
All images are reproduced courtesy of The Jewish Museum, New York.