The landscapes of New York and beyond that show up in the photos of the Norton Museum’s comprehensive exhibition about the city’s legendary Photo League will be familiar and nostalgic for many. The Photo League operated during three tumultuous decades, in and out of the boroughs, from 1936 to 1951, where its members captured the Great Depression, the raid on Normandy, City Hall, Mulberry Street, Coney Island, Muscle Beach, the legendary Zito’s Bakery in Greenwich Village, all on crisp, clear, black-and-white 35mm film.
But beyond the nods of recognition these images will trigger for the countless New Yorkers now living in South Florida – the fashion of the era, with long overcoats, fedoras and top hats, also evokes nostalgia – is a general feeling of unease, a powder keg on the verge of bursting.
In the League’s central shooting locale of New York City, Jews and Christians, blacks and whites, the young and old, coexisted then as now, but, if the photos don’t lie, rarely did they live together as peacefully. These shots document the tense, precarious (im)balance struck between races, cultures and faiths, whether it’s African-Americans dealing with bigotry under Jim Crow, Jews sharing their collective suffering on a bus bench, or Japanese-American children shamefully rounded up after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
One of the exhibition’s objectives is to chronicle the Photo League’s shift from objective documentarians of street life to provocateurs for progressivism, and it’s a movement that resounds loud and clear, on every wall, across a swath of nearly 150 images. The sense you get while strolling through this exhibition it that, morally, these talented photographers couldn’t just remain impartial journalists – that they were driven to expose injustice. It’s no surprise this collective was blacklisted for its efforts, a Communist witch-hunt that forced its dissolution.
Surprisingly, even a half-century later, some of these pieces still shock. There is inherent controversy in Paul Strand’s “Swastika,” a harrowing photograph of a skeleton crucified on a giant Nazi emblem. Eliot Elisofon’s “Child Bride, Age 15, Memphis” resonates deeper than its matter-of-fact title suggests, showing us a stoic, pregnant teenager at the edge of a nearly disemboweled bed, its exposed springs saying all that needs to be said about the future of the girl and her offspring. And Marvin E. Newman’s “Halloween, South Side” is creepier and more unforgettable than most horror-film images, with its three trick-or-treaters – one of them masked – suggesting something between Diane Arbus and Wes Craven (pictured above).
Occasionally, the photographers would capture genuine hard news, as opposed to ethnographic studies or human-interest images – yet always with an artistic eye. George S. Zimbel’s “Dead Man Under Third Avenue El” is chilling and voyeuristic, with the photographer spotting the titular corpse in long shot, peering through openings in the railway structure to do so. Like all great photographers, the League’s artists captured the perfect subjects, in their perfect essences, from the perfect angles – From rooftops, trains, cars, bridges, storefronts, markets, festivals and battlegrounds. They were perched everywhere, like omnipresent gods, or perhaps like an inverted Big Brother, out to expose the status quo rather than enforce it.
For me, the most powerful image in the exhibition is a disturbing photo from Vivian Cherry that show the casual cruelty of two white children in Harlem who pretend to lynch a black boy as part of a game; another one of Cherry’s shots shows a black child, perhaps the same boy, pantomiming the posture of being hung by the neck. These shocking photographs imply how far racism permeated the national fabric of life, even in the so-called progressive north. It’s scary and vital – a cautionary tale that, in our own racially fractious time, we shouldn’t soon forget.
"The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-1951" is on display through June 16 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $12 adults and $5 students. Call 561/832-5196 or www.norton.org.