The Radical Camera



of an Exhibit

by Maggie Lisman

Published on March 26, 2012 , Modified on April 20, 2012

  • Description:

    To much surprise, upon visiting The Jewish Museum, I was greeted with crowds of adults, students, and children in strollers that occupied every inch of what seemed to be their most popular exhibit, The Radical Camera. While the subject of the exhibit might be geared toward an older, more familiar audience, The Radical Camera drew in multi-generational crowds. Families, couples, children in strollers, and senior citizens in scooters crammed the rather small exhibit to get a glance at a history of New York City through the eyes of ordinary people, something visitors, especially from New York, can relate to. Older and younger visitors can find a connection to the neighborhoods and time period of New York that is explored, whether it is personal to them or not.

    The temporary exhibit, The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951, documents the Photo League in action through the New Deal, the Depression, and WWII. Focused on New York, the black and white photographs encompass the realities of urban life, using ordinary people as the subject. By doing this, the league truly captures every essence of the time. As I walked through the exhibit I could not help but wonder what was going on historically when these pictures were taken, what neighborhood were they in and how did that affect the attitude of the photograph. Is there a reason the subject is in that area, what were they doing in the photograph that might have social impacts.

    The exhibit is housed in a very simple and minimalist, well-lit space with lightly colored walls so the focus was purely on the photographs with little distraction. In addition, the photographs were all framed in black with large white backgrounds and hung at eye-level so a visitor could easily examine them. The main headings and descriptions provided a very fluid progression throughout the exhibition that began with the great depression, leading you to the war years and red scare. Other than a short description of each time period and how it related to the progression of the Photo League, there was no other labeling, which allowed the audience to create dialogue and interpret the photographs freely. The layout of the space made it easy to navigate and understand the big picture of the exhibition. These photographs really capture the true colors of New York City—how people interact and why they interact in different situations and neighborhoods. Every single picture in the exhibition tells a different story, giving diverse perspectives on life and every day realities people deal with through historical events. The documentation of the photographs is incredibly sobering. As I walked around the exhibit, I over heard a conversation between a couple and the curator of the exhibition, Mason Klein, who were discussing Paul Strand’s, Wall Street, New York, 1915, and that visitors are often immediately pulled to it because it contrasts with the new J.P. Morgan building on Wall Street. The photographs allow the visitor to make a personal connection because they are ordinary people themselves living in New York City and that makes the exhibition unique and interesting.

    There is one aspect of the exhibit that I appreciate and commend the curator for including. As I was making my way through the exhibit, I came to this photograph by Jack Manning entitled Elks Parade, 1939, from The Harlem Document Project—A way to document an impoverished community and advocate for better living conditions. It produced a stereotypical view of Harlem that was not accurate and quite negative. The label goes on to say that the photographers acknowledge that they did not give a complete picture of the Harlem community. While I am unsure of exactly how many other photographs in the exhibit were from the Harlem neighborhood, to avoid criticism or confusion, the label was a great addition to the exhibition.

    After visiting The Radical Camera, I went online to see if the website provided additional information on the exhibition, artists, and images. I found that the exhibit was well presented online. What stood out was a Google map of New York City (right) and depending on where photographs were originally taken that was where they would be placed on the map. You can then click on the photograph to get the artists name, titles of the photograph, and a voice transcript that gives a detailed description of the work (below). I found it to be a sufficient way to display the photographs online. There is also a detailed history of The Photo League and each artist’s biography in the exhibition, giving the visitor a detailed understanding for the type of photographs they are known for. Visitors want to be able to find additional information online that is easily accessible. There is always the question of how much information curators give in descriptions online. Websites that have little to no resources on the exhibit aren’t helpful to the public that wants to know more. The Jewish Museum gives a good deal of history, images, and audio descriptions. A great exhibition is one that is clear in the museum space as well as on the website and The Radical Camera hits home on both.

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