What was the Photo League and who was in it? Meet the radical photographers who dared to reveal the true face of the American dream.
Written by Federico Alegría
“Put the camera back into the hands of honest photographers who ... use it to photograph America.”
The legendary Photo League, which came to an end after only 15 years, was one of the earliest efforts to combine the art of photography with the goal to show Americans the real America away from the government’s watchful eye. One of its first attempts to carry out this goal was a project commissioned by the Farm Security Administration (FSA), which emerged to combat rural poverty during the Great Depression.
These images shed light on realities unseen by the masses; the photographers wanted to make the American dream’s reality more transparent, and that’s why the League was considered dangerous. The collective was also part of a big cultural movement backed by Communist International, which was even more alarming for the US government at the time.
Originally, the League was born from a Workers International Relief project (the WIR was a Berlin-based communist association). The project, called the Workers Camera League, emerged in New York City in 1930. Later, it became the Film and Photo League. Their goal was to document the lives of American workers and to spread these images in the US and beyond.
In 1936, organization divided in two, Frontier Films and the Photo League, due to differences in opinion and to keep their goals separate. The new Photo League quickly jumped into the emerging field of socially conscious photography. The League is known for having integrated the formal elements of design and visual esthetics as well as the powerful presence of human beings contextualized in their reality.
The collective was short lived. In 1947, the League was labelled “communist,” which garnered it (along with other academic organizations and entities) swift attention from the FBI and the Un-American Activities Committee.
Back then, the collective was committed to documenting life in the poorest neighborhoods in New York City, which the photographers were very familiar with. From these images and the photographers’ eye behind them, we can get a sense of the discontent caused by capitalism at the time. For the League, that system was crushing the working class, which was capitalism’s foundation and backbone.
Under the government’s watchful eye, the collective was in jeopardy. Their criteria was simple: if an institution was linked in any way, shape, or form to the Communist Party USA, it was immediately labelled as subversive. This meant that the subversive organizations’ leaders and members were carefully surveilled. The way the FBI saw it at the time was that if anyone, no matter how innocent they might be, was associated to Party members, they would automatically catch the “disease” of communism, and that it would inevitably spread to other members in the organization.
The persecution got to the point that the collective had to shut down. Before it disbanded, the list of notable photographers who were in the League or supported its activities included: Margaret Bourke-White, W. Eugene Smith, Helen Levitt, Arthur Rothstein, Beaumont Newhall, Nancy Newhall, Richard Avedon, Weegee, Robert Frank, Rebecca Lepkoff, Harold Feinstein, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Minor White.
Thanks to the work of these photographers, who described themselves as “honest,” we are able to see the true cost of being inside the American dream.
Translated by Zoralis Pérez
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