The Radical Camera

When Women Photographers Took to the Streets

The Photo League (1936–1951) was a New York camera club unlike any other. Many of its core members were 20-something Jewish Americans whose progressive politics and passion for photography compelled them to take pictures that would promote social change.

A remarkable one-third of the League’s members were women. The strong female presence at the League can be attributed in part to the democratic medium of photography itself. To be a painter or sculptor, women needed access to art schools they often could not afford or were discouraged from attending. But photography was not yet considered a fine art; all one needed was a camera and a good eye to become a professional. Furthermore, the League was inexpensive and open to all. In the 1930s, respected female photojournalists, including Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange, were already working in the field. By the 1950s, pictures by women were cropping up in magazines, newspapers, and galleries across America.

Because of its liberal roots, the Photo League was later accused of being a Communist-front organization and was blacklisted in 1947. The League disbanded four years later. Some of its women gave up photography, while others went on to be successful artists and photojournalists. Regardless, the majority of women Leaguers have been overshadowed by their male colleagues or simply forgotten over time. Several recent exhibitions, however, have brought their photographs back into the light. “The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951,” currently on view at The Jewish Museum, New York, includes the work of 22 of the League’s women. Here, meet six of them.

Berenice Abbott (1898–1991)

Zito’s Bakery, 259 Bleecker Street, 1937.
While working as Man Ray’s studio assistant in Montparnasse in the 1920s, Berenice Abbott discovered the work of Eugène Atget, a French photographer who captured the streets of Paris. Abbott returned to the States determined to document New York, a city for which she felt a “fantastic passion.” With the support of the New Deal’s Federal Art Project, she created hundreds of images of the city in the late 1930s, from sweeping panoramas of newly built skyscrapers to intimate pictures of one-of-a-kind storefronts. In a 1938 Life magazine article about the series she called “Changing New York,” Abbott explained that buildings “say more about a people than their noses.” Her commitment to documentary photography led her to the League, where she joined the advisory board in 1938, helping to shape the organization in its formative years.

Vivian Cherry (born 1920)

Game Of Lynching, East Harlem, 1947.
Despite the increasingly conservative climate in the United States, many Photo Leaguers refused to shy away from making politically charged pictures. Rosalie Gwathmey, Marion Palfi, Sonia Handelman Meyer and Vivian Cherry all created powerful images that spoke to the burgeoning civil rights movement. Cherry began her series “Game of Guns,” an investigation of violence in children’s games, shortly after the Moore’s Ford massacre in Georgia. Her pictures of children playing at lynching are a chilling reminder of the impact of current events on young minds. Cherry reports that the kids took turns “lynching” each other; that is, they understood the violent nature of the act, but were too young to comprehend the racist motivation behind the murders. Photography magazine published the series and praised Cherry’s ability to use the camera as a “tool for social research.”

Above: Rebecca Lepkoff (born 1916)

Lower East Side, 1947.
Rebecca Lepkoff grew up on the Lower East Side, a daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants. She joined the Photo League after WWII and began to document her old neighborhood, then in the process of reinventing itself: old tenements were being torn down and replaced, Jewish families were relocating to the suburbs and new immigrant communities were moving in. Here she shows a young boy walking down a snowy street, sledding tire in hand, past an empty lot. On the fence behind him is a billboard advertising the controversial film “Gentleman’s Agreement,” which exposed the unacknowledged anti-Semitism pervading postwar American culture. Two of the film’s stars, both Jewish, were soon blacklisted. Lepkoff’s image shows how anti-Semitism and political discord loomed large in the lives of ordinary people during the McCarthy era.

Ida Wyman (born 1926)

Sidewalk Clock, New York, 1947.
Ida Wyman secured her first photography job fresh out of high school in 1943. With so many men serving overseas, employers began hiring women, and she became the first female printer at Acme Newspictures. But when the war ended, she was promptly let go. Undeterred, Wyman joined the League and became a freelance photographer for Life, Fortune, and The Saturday Evening Post. Her attention to detail is evident in pictures such as Sidewalk Clock. The modest timepiece was embedded in the pavement of Broadway and Maiden Lane in 1899, and it remains a hidden gem of New York’s cityscape. Although it has been there for over a century, the clock continues to go unnoticed as thousands of people walk on it each day. Wyman’s picture brings the neglected clock to the fore, and, with a pair of stockinged legs confidently striding across the frame, makes a bold statement about the progress of women in modern times.

Lisette Model (1906–1983)

Lower East Side, C. 1940.
Born in Vienna, Lisette Model took some of her first pictures in the South of France, where she cast a sardonic eye on the wealthy patrons of seaside resorts. In 1938 she moved to New York and soon joined the League, where she had her first solo exhibition. Ever an outsider, she was drawn to figures on the margin of society, photographing eccentric nightclub acts on assignment for magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar. This photo, a humanizing portrait of an apparently homeless man, exemplifies the type of socially conscious photography she promoted. “The thing that shocks me and which I really try to change,” said Model, “is the lukewarmness, the indifference, the kind of taking pictures that really doesn’t matter.” Countless students would absorb her lesson, first at the League, and later at the New School where Diane Arbus and Joan Roth were among her illustrious pupils.

Ruth Orkin (1921–1985)

Times Square, From Astor Hotel, 1950.
Though general membership declined rapidly after the League’s blacklisting, some photographers joined in solidarity. Ruth Orkin brought a playful quality to her pictures of street life. This bird’s-eye view presents three sailors seen from above, surrounded by pedestrians. The trio of white caps, two fedoras, and mother-and-child pair punctuate the gridded sidewalk like notes on a sheet of music. The composition is jazzy and abstract. Orkin’s picture signals a shift towards a more creative mode of picture-taking that future generations of street photographers would come to embrace after the League closed its doors in 1951.

Rebecca Shaykin is a curatorial assistant at The Jewish Museum. She first discovered the work of women Photo Leaguers at Belvoir Terrace, a summer camp for girls, thanks to her inspirational photography teacher Shira Weinert.