In 1930, Wilhelm Münzenberg—a German Communist Party activist and millionaire media mogul—sent an envoy to New York to set up an office for his pro-Soviet publishing empire. Münzenberg’s most successful newspaper, the weekly Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (Worker’s Illustrated Newspaper, or AIZ), had a circulation of around four hundred thousand at the time and a readership of nearly one million. AIZ resembled the other illustrated weeklies that dominated newsstands in the first half of the twentieth century, insofar as it relayed the news visually, pairing eye-catching photo essays with short texts in a bid to make current events engaging for everyman. But where commercial publications like the French pictorial magazine Vu mixed international current events with gossip and fluff, AIZ took a more rigorous approach to the only story its editors felt mattered: the struggle of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie.
In order to tell that story, however, the magazine needed photographers on the front lines of the class war, and the existing photo agencies in the US weren’t getting the shots it needed. When Münzenberg’s delegates arrived in Manhattan, they rented a loft near Union Square and began recruiting photographers for a news association that would circulate images to sympathetic magazines and tabloids around the world, not just to AIZ, but also US outlets like Fortune, the Daily Worker, and Labor Defender.
The group’s formation coincided with a boom in labor organizing and leftist populism, brought on by the misery of the Great Depression and the harrowing exploitation of farm and factory workers at the hands of fat cat industrialists. In the course of the 1930s, nearly 50,000 Mexican and Filipino agricultural workers—often led by organizers from the Communist Party USA—joined successive waves of strikes against the lethal working conditions and meager pay rates of California farms. In the streets of Minneapolis, union teamsters armed with metal pipes defended their general strike in open combat with cops and hired thugs, culminating in the “Bloody Friday” of August 1934, when police officers shot sixty-seven protesters. That same year in San Francisco, striking dockworkers paralyzed waterfront industry for four days, winning union recognition in ports up and down the West Coast.
The left was so emboldened in the interwar years that Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs won nearly a million votes–more than 3 percent of the popular vote—in the 1920 presidential election while serving a federal prison sentence for sedition. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, which proposed surges in public spending that would seem radical in today’s political landscape, was roundly denounced by prominent labor groups for continuing capitalism as usual. “Never before or since have American Communists been more like the fish that swims in the sea of the people,” Vivian Gornick wrote in The Romance of American Communism, her 1977 oral history of this intense, anomalous moment. The Workers Film and Photo League (WFPL), as the organization came to be called, sought to boost revolutionary fervor by capturing these uprisings, and the workers driving them, in both still and moving images.
Around this time, portable camera technology launched a boom in both photojournalism and fine-art photography. For the WFPL, this meant an expanding pool of amateur photographers and filmmakers who could be sent out to cover the bread and picket lines and the hunger marches occurring all over the country. A 1930 Labor Defender essay summarized the ethos of the worker photography movement: “The photo is not an ornament.” Though the WFPL was first and foremost a propaganda studio operating under the auspices of the Communist International, early members like Leo Seltzer produced artful images of the rallies and rent strikes they were sent to cover. Seltzer’s photograph Speaker at Demonstration in Harlem, New York City (1933), for instance, pictures a Harlem street preacher in the midst of an anti-lynching speech, his right hand curled like he’s striking a hammer, face tilted toward the light and seeming to glow from within, jacket flaps flying in the wind, emphasizing the kinetic sweep of his gesture.
When Hitler rose to power in January 1933, Münzenberg fled to Paris, and his global media empire began to fall apart. By 1935, the WFPL’s Comintern funding dried up, and when the group’s filmmakers split off to form a new collective in 1936, the WFPL shortened its name to the Photo League.
In removing “Workers” from its title, the League also softened its rhetoric and attracted a more politically agnostic crowd. While the group continued to operate as a photo agency, the remaining members also developed a curriculum for a photography school. It included a gallery space that functioned like a clubhouse for New York’s leading photographers, among them Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Paul Strand, and Weegee.
Sid Grossman and Sol Libsohn, two native New Yorkers fresh out of night school at City College, emerged as the de facto leaders of the Photo League when it was reborn in 1936. Grossman, the League’s chief visionary and its most zealous Marxist (an attitude that earned him the nickname “Commissar”), was inspired by photo-documentarians like Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, whose images of child exploitation, back-breaking industrial labor, and miserable tenement housing galvanized the public to demand radical changes to public policy. He and Libsohn promoted a gritty, “shoot from the hip” style that, as they saw it, matched the honesty and austerity of their subjects. But the group (whose ranks would ultimately grow from roughly twenty to 250) wasn’t strictly partisan: it included plenty of sympathetic but otherwise apolitical photo aficionados who wanted access to affordable workshops, darkrooms, and social events. For the most part, what unified them was an interest in no-frills, street-level images that captured human drama at its most universal.
Like Grossman and Libsohn, both first-generation Jewish Americans, many of the League photographers hailed from immigrant neighborhoods like the South Bronx or the Lower East Side. To make ends meet, they often picked up work from New Deal federal agencies like the Farm Security Administration—run by League member Roy Stryker—which sent photographers on cross-country assignments to document the poverty and desolation of the Great Depression. The League’s roster over the years boasted a striking number of women, including Berenice Abbott, who was already established by the time the League was founded, and Lisette Model, who would go on to mentor Diane Arbus. Frequent guest lecturers included Dorothea Lange, the celebrated Dust Bowl photographer, and Margaret Bourke-White, who shot iconic photo essays for publications such as Life magazine.
The Photo League’s fifteen-year run was punctuated by incendiary debates about the mixing of art and politics. Representing the group’s militant wing was critic Elizabeth McCausland, who belonged to the League’s board of directors and often wrote for its newsletter, Photo Notes. She believed that photography’s core function was to state the truth, raw and unedited. In an influential 1939 article for Photo Notes, she argued that the medium had a higher calling: “to acquaint us with the range and variety of human existence, to inform us (as it were forcibly) of unnecessary social horrors such as war, [and] to make us aware of the civilization in which we live and hope to function as creative workers.” By her reasoning, any visual practice guided by “abstract formulas of what is ‘beautiful’ and ‘effective’” was nothing more than bourgeois, escapist entertainment.
This left little room for tricky experiments with eye-catching angles, fantastical contrasts of light and shadow, abstraction, blur, or any kind of image manipulation. While the League’s contemporaries—like the California photo collective Group f.64, cofounded by landscape photographer Ansel Adams—viewed aesthetics as an end in itself, the League’s primary interest in aesthetics was as a means to amplify its message. The term “pictorialist,” which applied to the formalist style of fine-art photographers like Edward Weston and Alfred Stieglitz, was often used disparagingly within this camp. This attitude ultimately alienated many of the League’s top photographers, who left feeling suffocated by the need to justify their work in terms of its direct social benefit.
Nonetheless, even the group’s die-hard realists were drawn to the play of line and light. Take for example, Libsohn’s 1938 photo Loneliness of Longshoremen. It captures the labor practice known as the “shape-up,” which forced low-level workers to line up and ask for work each day, leaving them to compete for reduced pay rates and sub-par conditions. Picturing three young men idling against a brick building, the image would be unremarkable if not for the distended early-morning shadows, which leave trails on the wall behind them like long, black capes. They appear to be emerging from a void that threatens to suck them back in. The effect is formally striking, but it also makes a point: without unions to prevent these kinds of schemes, the atomized worker risks sliding backward into abjection.
Loneliness of Longshoremen was shot for the Chelsea Project, one of the League’s neighborhood-based workshops, which sent groups of students and professionals out to document the social conditions in Manhattan’s working-class enclaves. Highlights from these projects were often used in exhibitions at League headquarters, or shown at nearby venues like the New School for Social Research, while others were published in photo essays.
Many League members sought to profile the same slums they grew up in, as was the case with participants in the Pitt Street Project, which documented late ’30s life on the Lower East Side. “I was born on the Lower East Side,” said League photographer Walter Rosenblum in a 1948 interview. “Three floor walkup. Toilet in the hall. Cold water flat. Bathroom in the kitchen. My mother did the laundry for seven people and carried it up to the roof to dry. We never lit the coal stove in the winter until two in the afternoon because we had no money for coal.” Grossman, who led many of these workshops, didn’t see this sense of identification as a threat to the photographer’s rational assessment, in fact, quite the opposite: he believed it pushed photographers to produce nuanced images that eschewed sensational clichés and stereotypes. In other words, this firsthand experience helped, rather than hindered, their ability to access the truth of the place.
Boy in Black Coat (1938) is among Rosenblum’s most striking Pitt Street images. Photographed from below, a preteen boy in a dark coat and cap poses against a backdrop of zig-zagging tenement fire escapes, with a hardened expression that suggests he’s been forced to grow up fast. In another Rosenblum photograph, Girl on a Swing (1938), a child is standing up on a high-flying playground swing, her mouth open with delight. Swung forward with so much momentum that she’s almost horizontal, the girl looks as if she’s about to take off, suggesting the possibility of flight from an enclosed grid of brick walls and wrought-iron fences. The monumental Manhattan Bridge behind her, an escape route that extends into an open field outside the frame, makes for powerful contrast with the low-lying foreground, a comment on the existence of two different cities within one.
Of these neighborhood-based projects, the League is most often remembered for its somewhat controversial Harlem Document. Led by League teacher Aaron Siskind, the project was intended to advocate for racial justice by portraying life in the country’s most storied Black neighborhood. It grew from a series of outings with a rotating cast of teachers and students, including Harold Corsini, Morris Engel, and Lucy Ashjian. The Harlem Document was originally envisioned as a book-length sociological study that would supplement photographs with hard data and expert testimonies affirming the neighborhood’s poor living conditions and suggesting policies for improving them. Siskind had planned it as a collaboration with the Black sociologist Michael Carter, whose text accompanied several photo essays excerpted from the series, and published in magazines and newspapers. Though these images were shown on numerous occasions at different venues and in different configurations between 1939 and 1941, the archive was eventually dispersed and the planned book project abandoned. Forty years later, Siskind’s Harlem photos were compiled into a book, Harlem Document: Photographs 1932–1940, which sidestepped the original project’s sociological approach.
Many of the Harlem Document photographs strike a delicate balance between the League’s sociological impulse and the members’ growing interest in modernist aesthetics. In Engel’s Harlem Merchant (1937), a tightly-cropped view of a tobacco stand, the vendor peers out from a small window, surrounded by piles of assorted merchandise. The composition is bisected by a ledge displaying advertisements for different brands of chewing tobacco, most prominently, Days Work. Jack Manning’s Elks Parade (1938), a wide-angle view of Harlem fire escapes teeming with onlookers angling for the best view of a passing parade, presents an ornate arrangement of theatrical vignettes, each of which dazzles with its own dramas and gestures. It evokes a sense of the bonds that constituted the neighborhood’s thick social fabric.
But the Harlem Document project, which was produced almost entirely by white photographers, was also criticized for reinforcing negative stereotypes about the people it was supposed to empower. When the exhibition “Towards a Harlem Document” opened at the YMCA on 135th Street in February 1939, viewers wrote complaints in the gallery’s guestbook about its one-note rendering of the neighborhood. “What about the intellectual and cultural side?” wrote one attendee. Why show only “the lower living conditions” and say nothing of the famous music or literary scenes? Furthermore, when the widely circulated magazine Look approached the League to purchase images from Harlem Document, the publication nixed most of the photos that had an affirmative message and instead designed a sensationalist feature about the corrosive effects of poverty on the human psyche. In the article, Manning’s Elks Parade was framed as evidence of dangerous overcrowding. Even carefree scenes of people dancing or playing pool have captions about how Harlemites “burst for relief from the drudgery” of everyday life.
During the war, with the bulk of its members either serving in the military or stationed abroad as photojournalists, the League gave its messaging a patriotic tone. While still motivated by the humanist impulse behind social documentary, the group no longer focused so intently on illustrating the evils of capitalism. “People can be wonderful, even when life is tough,” ex-League member Ralph Steiner wrote in a 1942 article for the left-leaning pictorial paper PM. The comment appeared as a caption in a two-page spread of student photographs, below an uncredited image of a happy family framed in a tenement window. “That’s the present view of the League school shown by this photo,” Steiner continued. “Years ago the school specialized in photos that showed this was a terrible world.”
Membership swelled after the war, with photographers of many political persuasions signing up to take classes or use their darkroom facilities. The increasingly loose interpretation of the League’s original mission brought with it an unprecedented openness to the trappings of modernism. Grossman, the League’s most hardcore ideologue, returned from Panama, where he had been stationed with the US Air Force toward the end of the war, with a portfolio full of gestural, poetic photos that contradicted his earlier teachings about the importance of straight photography. Black Christ (1945), for instance, in which candles rise like willowy trees over the obfuscated faces of churchgoers at mass, is so formally dazzling that it takes a moment to even grasp what is depicted. Aguadulce Cantina, Panama, from the same year, captures the rush of three dancing figures with a tipsy blur and shadows that resemble puppets behind a scrim. In his final years, Grossman even produced abstract images like Provincetown (1951), an overhead shot of seagulls feeding against a textural backdrop of sun, shadow, ripples, and waves.
By the late ’40s, the Photo League was so artistically and politically diverse that it could no longer be said to embody one particular approach. With the organization’s Depression-era ideology receding into history, everyone was shocked when, in December 1947, US Attorney General Tom C. Clark released to the press a list of totalitarian, fascist, communist, and subversive groups that included the New York City Photo League. Angela Calomiris, a onetime League member recruited by the FBI as an informant, claimed that the League was a Communist Party front and identified Grossman, among others, as Party members. Cited on a roster of sixty-eight organizations that included the Ku Klux Klan, CPUSA, and the Black Dragon Society, the organization spiraled into paranoia and suspicion that led to its dissolution in 1951.
Whatever their politics, the League’s members believed in the power of images to win the hearts and minds of the American people, and furthermore, they believed it could be wielded honestly. While there was internal division over the best means to accomplish this, even the group’s ardent propagandists recognized that they needed to shoot beautiful photos if they wanted the public to take note. They may have disagreed over the ideal ratio of aesthetic to political content, but there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that eye-catching compositions could enhance the affective force of the drama they wished to convey. Meanwhile, even the photographers who dabbled in abstraction clearly recognized the ability of documentation to convey important truths about the world. If anything, these two camps held each other to account.
Ninety years on from the first meeting of the Workers’ Film and Photo League, we are in the midst of a social and political crisis that in many ways parallels the post-Depression period. It’s no surprise, then, that more and more artists are placing themselves in the service of the protest movements that have arisen in response. Among the League’s spiritual inheritors today is the Bronx Documentary Center, an education and exhibition space located in the working-class neighborhood of Melrose. Since opening in 2011, the storefront has hosted exhibitions, talks, and film screenings, as well as community events like tenants’ rights workshops. Founded by veteran photojournalist Michael Kamber, the organization’s mission is to get cameras into the hands of people who live and work in the Bronx, and to promote photography that agitates for social justice. In 2014, the Center formed a mentorship program for emerging Bronx-based photojournalists called the Bronx Photo League, directly inspired by the WFPL.
For their project “Jerome Avenue Workers,” begun in 2015, the group’s sixteen members portrayed workers and tradespeople whose livelihoods were threatened by the proposed rezoning of a nearby commercial artery. Shot in black-and-white with medium-format Hasselblad cameras, the portraits harmonize personality and place, framing the workers against richly textured scenes from the commercial strip. In a photograph by David “Dee” Delgado, a Salvadorean mechanic named José is shown leaning against his carjack and staring straight at the camera, surrounded by tall columns of stacked tires. Melissa Bunni Elian captures a beauty salon client posing in hair curlers against the storefront’s roll-up gate. In October 2015, the BPL staged an exhibition of the “Jerome Avenue Workers” photographs at a local auto body shop, Vasquez Muffler, one of the businesses likely to be pushed out under the rezoning scheme. (As Kamber wrote in a post for the New York Times “Lens” blog: “Chain and big box stores are in—immigrants fixing cars are out.”) By showing the “proud culture of industry and work in this last bastion of New York City’s working class,” as the photographers wrote in an accompanying statement, they countered the narrative of underdevelopment that promotes gentrification in the guise of urban renewal.
Today’s socially engaged artists are having many of the same conversations as their forebears in the 1930s and ’40s, about how to produce work that feels vital, relevant, and responsive to the turmoil around them. With that in mind, the Photo League may offer artist-activists today an example of how to negotiate aesthetics and politics while remaining equally critical of both. After a century of deepening cynicism about photography’s ability to promote meaningful change, the Photo League’s faith in truth and justice may be exactly what we need now.
This article appears in the March/April 2021 issue, pp. 56–61.