Yet as New York-centric as the show was, it would not have been possible without the unusual involvement of the Columbus Museum of Art, a seeming “fish out of water” in regards to its interest in the subject. Columbus will present the exhibition from April 19-Sept. 9, and photography lovers should definitely plan a visit. It has been curated from the holdings of Columbus and the Jewish Museum, both of which in the past decade have acquired separate Photo League collections.
Using almost 150 vintage black-and-white images, the exhibit shows how the members of this largely forgotten cooperative made astutely timeless, socially and politically engaged photographs that evolved over time from pure documentation to something more artfully personal, yet still connected to the city around them. In doing so, Photo League members helped set the agenda for the post-World War II transformation of photography into fine art. The league had some famous members — Berenice Abbott, Lisette Model, Aaron Siskind, Weegee — but many others who are undeservedly less known.
The exhibit also shows how the League was driven out of existence during the height of the post-World War II “blacklist period” — when the government, aided by right-wing politicians, sought to punish any citizen suspected of past or present communist associations. That period, also known as McCarthyism after the Republican U.S. senator who most aggressively pursued this agenda, is now considered one of this country’s most shameful eras.
In the 1930s, many progressive Americans — including artists and intellectuals — saw Soviet-style communism as a possible answer to the economic woes of the Great Depression.
The Photo League’s roots were in that period and some members — especially its School Director Sid Grossman — had been American communists.
You might ask at this point what all this has to do with Columbus Museum of Art — and Columbus in general. (The Jewish Museum in Manhattan makes geographic sense.) And it’s a fair question, since regional art museums often look for a strong local connection in their art presentations. But Catherine Evans, the museum’s photography curator who also co-curated Radical Camera, moved well beyond that consideration when she acquired a large collection of vintage Photo League prints in 2001. (The Jewish Museum followed in 2008.)
“It was a great watershed moment for us,” Evans recalled in a phone interview. “We had a photography collection, but it didn’t have a real trajectory or any kind of identity.”
A local collector had told her that Chicago photography dealer Stephen Daiter, who had painstakingly over two decades built a collection of vintage prints by Photo League members, was interested in selling it to a museum. His preference was to keep it together.
“He recognized these were a group of photographers whose contribution had been eclipsed because of McCarthy blacklisting,” Evans said. Further, unlike other large photography projects of the era — especially that of the federal government’s Farm Security Administration, which chronicled rural poverty — the league’s work hadn’t been preserved as an archive or popularized by post-World War II culture. Yet, Evans explained, “It was an interesting urban-grassroots counterpart to what was happening at the FSA.”
Yes, but Columbus? “I immediately thought this was going to be a huge reach for the museum,” she said. “But the more I thought about it, the more I realized this was exactly what could give us a foothold in photography without trying to replicate what MOMA or the Met or the Art Institute of Chicago or all the big institutions have done.”
She also realized Columbus’ American paintings holdings contain work from the Ashcan School — early 20th century urban social realists who depicted gritty street life and squalor. Further, perhaps the greatest of all the Ashcan painters, George Bellows, was a Columbus native. So maybe there was a local connection, if indirect.
“This body of work seemed more and more to be a perfect fit for us,” she said. “We had to raise the money and it was a lot of work, but it has been a fantastic addition for us.” (The museum did not reveal the price.) “It has become a way for people from all over to add to this collection, so we’ve now doubled its size. It started with 170 works and now is a little over 300.”
For more information, visit www.columbusmuseum.org.
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