This essay was written in August 1994, in response to questions posed by Mary Panzer, the Curator of Photography at the National Portrait Gallery. (See below for the questions.) See also “Remembering Sid Grossman.”

Trying to describe The Photo League, after so ­many years, is like the proverbial blind men trying to describe an elephant. The organization was composed of people with a myriad of concepts. Joint projects and a cooperative spirit gave the impression that The Photo League was a monolithic group. Upon examining, in detail, the methods and concepts that would seemingly unify the League, it would become apparent that such accord was a myth. It was the variation of opinions and belief which the members expressed that gave the League its color and attraction that, after all this time, still fascinates students and scholars in the photographic community.

However, there was one thread of a unifying viewpoint that appeared to permeate the League. For many, sympathies were favorable towards working people, the underprivileged, against racial discrimination, and a general desire for social justice where there wasn’t any. A number of Photo Leaguers were veterans recently returned from World War II and took seriously the war’s clarion call for the Four Freedoms. It was an ideal still fresh in the minds of those who participated in the war.

For instance, W. Eugene Smith was a noted photojournalist in the Pacific arena. Walter Rosenblum was an Army photographer who took part in the D-Day invasion of Europe, and continued photographing in Europe until the end of the campaign. (I had been an infantry squad leader with six months of combat experience in Europe.)

In 1948, I was introduced to the Photo League by an acquaintance of a relative. He saw my work and urged me to visit the League, insisting that it would be beneficial to me because of the nature of my work. Earlier that year, I had attended a ten-week course in photography with Sid Grossman. Once a week, the class met at a Union building on Astor Place in the city. (See my essay, “Remembering Sid Grossman.”) I always wondered why, during those one-hour sessions, he never mentioned The Photo League. I have only recently become aware that Grossman was in a transitional stage at that time, rethinking some of his theories about photography and his relationship to the League.

The League was in the process of hanging a show of French photographers when I first visited them. (The group had just moved to a basement on Tenth Street, off Fifth Avenue, in New York City.) I was impressed with the selection of work and their method displaying the photographs. It was the first time I saw dry-mounted prints without margins, grouped in such a manner that each photograph maintained its individuality and could be appreciated for its own communication without the distraction of the prints around it.

Among others, the show included work by Boubat, Brassai, Doisneau, and Cartier-Bresson. I was so impressed with these photographs and with the sophistication of the League members who were hanging the prints, I decided to return and become part of the League’s activities.

For about a year and a half, I attended lectures and discussion that the Photo League sponsored. W. Eugene Smith and Paul Strand were among some of the outstanding photographers I was fortunate to hear. Dan Weiner gave a two-session workshop course in lighting. I participated in the two classes at a cost of $2.50 per class. I visited the League on a regular basis, but did not become a member, even though my experience with the League during that period was both enjoyable and rewarding. Darkrooms were available for members. I processed my work at home. Perhaps not needing a darkroom may have been the reason I neglected to join officially.

Prior to my association with the League, I had already developed a particular approach and style toward subject matter that appealed to me. I was photographing my immediate community and its surroundings. My purpose was not only to document what was interesting to me, but also to photograph what I saw in such a way that the final print would reveal something about myself. I was attempting to make a comment about my surroundings, as if I was telling someone what I saw and how I felt about what I was looking at. Only when I discovered a book in the local library called American Photographs by Walker Evans, did I become aware that other photographers had similar concepts and ideas about commenting on subject matter that had social implications. My attraction to the Photo League was also influenced by the social awareness of its members.

What I lacked during my initial work with the camera was an overview of the historical development of the photographic medium. Sitting in on talks and roundtable discussions at the League, names such as Emerson, Stieglitz, Hine, Atget, and others became familiar to me. I began to research other historical figures who were prominent during and after the discovery of photography. Studying the past events and theories that gave rise to the current stage of photography helped me to understand some of the motives and directions I was moving in. During that period, my mind was like a blotter, soaking up as much information as was useful to me.

There were several controversies taking place at the League as was usual among any group of thinking people. I admit that for the most part, I either stood aloof from them or was unaware of the nature of the discord, especially those disagreements that were among the members and were not for public airing. As mentioned earlier, Sid Grossman’s conflict with the League was an affair that I was innocent about. His name was sometimes mentioned, but I did not see him at the League and never asked why. The classes I had with him earlier were a profound experience, yet I did not know (perhaps I forgot?) that there was a group at the League that was critical of Grossman’s “rethinking.” Only recently did I read about Sid Grossman in Jane Livingston’s book, The New York School, that made me aware of how troubled he was about his association with the League.

I cannot support or deny Ms. Livingston’s revelations about Grossman’s feelings toward the League. I was somewhat stunned to read about his dilemma. Whatever the problems were, it did not hamper my relationship with the other League members. In my essay about Sid Grossman, there is no mention of the quandary he is in, because he never brought it to the attention of the class I had taken with him. Not knowing that he was being hounded by the FBI in those days for his progressive ideas, one can easily imagine how anxious and disturbed he could have been.

W. Eugene Smith showed slides of his Pacific war work during a lecture he gave. The image of a baby being taken from a shelter by a Marine, after it had been sprayed by a flame thrower, made me appreciate Smith’s professed pacifism. He was at a stage in life, he said, where all he wanted to do was to sit in the middle of an empty room and listen to Bach. Smith had recently returned from Spain, where he recorded “Spanish Village” for Life magazine. Upon discovering who Smith was and what he was doing, Franco’s militia tried to detain him. Smith made a mad dash to the French border in order to preserve all of his film. When the editor of Life printed the “Spanish Village” story, some of the best of Smith’s exposures were deleted. Because of the many protests from the people who saw the complete essay, Life magazine published a separate portfolio of Smith’s more compelling work that had not been used in the magazine story.

Aaron Siskind was a cause célebre at the Photo League. He had moved away from the documentary style used to photograph Harlem during an earlier League project. Siskind was now totally involved with abstractions, photographing graffiti and wall textures. The League was in a turmoil. Siskind defended his abstractions, and eventually they were accepted by the new wave of curators who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. I was amused at the brouhaha Siskind caused, but felt badly abut some members’ bitterness in the aftermath of all the tumult this incident had caused. As part of technique exercises. I was already pointing my camera at barks of trees and interesting brick and cement walls in order to attain the maximum texture in my negatives and prints. Subsequently, I had no compunction to make abstractions if I found them pleasing and photographic.

It always seemed odd to me that there were those in the League who put forward the idea that only “documentary” photography was the purest use of the camera. The label “art” was frowned upon, even by those who were making photographs thought by many to be highly evocative, with feelings worthy of being considered works of art. For example, many pieces in Smith’s “Spanish Village” could be classified as art, particularly the image of the Spanish woman who is dressed in black and unraveling thread for weaving. The graceful position of her body and her head and hands is reminiscent of a Renaissance painting.

Atget’s and Steigletz’s work raised questions of art verses the documentary. Atget primarily documented Paris and its environment. He sold his work to artists who copied the subject matter for their paintings. Yet Atget’s work is considered photographic art of the most serious nature by noted curators. Stieglitz recorded scenes of New York at the turn of the century. Many consider much of his work artistic rather than documentary, although it is possible to view them as both.

Walker Evans documented an area of this country for the Farm Security Administration. The purpose of these photographs was to show how people lived in rural areas of the South. Yet Evans’s attitude about people, along with his artist sensibilities, created images that far transcended their original purpose.

Paul Strand was revered and honored for his contributions to the photograph medium. His book, Profiles of France, is filled with images that are striking in their content and reproduced with such care that they almost appear to be actual prints. There is no question that this book could come under the heading of “art” rather than photography. The Photo League had been disbanded when his book was published. Included in the book are clouds, landscapes, old vines, tombstones, and old stone houses, many with windows decorated with French white lace, delicately detailed by Strand’s camera. I wonder what the League would have thought of the book. Would such work be frowned upon by such a master, if the League felt that more urgent social photographs was the requirement of the day? I suspect that Paul Strand would have been treated with special homage, especially after producing such a magnificent book. (The McCarthy period prompted Strand to leave the United States because he felt he could no longer create in such a repressive atmosphere. His move to France may have as inspired new attitudes and insights toward his fresh surroundings. There seemed to be a sudden leap from his rather mild New England scenes to a vigorous and aggressive announcement of a new-found freedom in a country where he felt comfortable and possibly more safe.)

The work I enjoyed immensely was that of Dan Weiner. His prints had (have) a direct sense of communication. Weiner’s images are without confusion and well-defined. I marveled at his ability to seize the moment of his wit and make exposures that captured the essence of what he wanted to say about an everyday street event that would ordinarily escape a walker-by. Such a memorable photograph is the two elderly women in the street who are talking to one another while their two leashed dogs are resting on the sidewalk, facing in opposite directions with obvious disinterest and boredom. Another print I have always been fond of is Weiner’s street scene where a stick ball game is in progress. The picture is elongated, showing a man in shadow running toward first base. It is late afternoon. In the background is a factory building bathed in bright afternoon sunlight, with a large, white-painted sign that reads, “PARKING.” Below the words is a long, white arrow to indicate where the parking is, but it is pointing in the opposite direction of the man running, giving the image a contrapuntal movement and the feeling that this print is a picture in constant motion.

Weiner’s portrait of Judge Learned Hand is a classic example of available light photography, which was extolled by the League and was beginning to be accepted by the press and the better-quality periodicals like Fortune magazine. (Press cameras and flash bulbs died hard, fighting a last-ditch battle against photojournalists who had introduced the 35mm and 2 ¼ x 2 ¼ twin lens reflect to the communications media.) Many proponents of the available light photography belonged to The Photo League. (Unfortunately, Weiner was killed in plane crash while on an assignment for Fortune.)

There were photographers in the League whose work did not move me. Some had made a few photographs that were remarkable, but on balance were not absorbing. Since my critique at the time was a matter of a developing taste, I prefer that these Photo Leaguers whose work I refer to remain nameless.

One aspect of the League that attracted me had nothing to do with photography. When I was a teenager I became interested in classical music. In the ensuing years, whether at a job, in the Service or other social relationships, I found few who had similar musical interests. However, the League was abound with members who not only liked classical music, but would whistle or hum various themes from symphonies, quartets, or trios. One could do little more to make me feel at home and become devoted to the organization.

What a pity is was that the League was disbanded because of the hysteria during the McCarthy era. It was a one-of-a-kind institution what could never again be duplicated. The League stopped functioning in 1951. I had left the League earlier because of family matters that limited my time. I learned later that a small group of League members continued to meet at one another’s home each month, where new work of those who attended was critiqued. I participated in several sessions. Traveling to and from my home in the outskirts of Brooklyn eventually discouraged my attendance.

The Photo League experience left an indelible mark on my career in photography. I persevered, knowing that I was part of an historical chain of photographer who were dedicated to a certain kind of integrity and who adhere to a principled belief that defied trends toward mediocrity and failing standards. The League helped to strengthen my commitment to produce work that I deemed important and to process it to the best of my ability and, that if it did not meet my criteria, to have the discipline or the courage to discard it.

When I taught photography, I often told my students, “If you have something to say, say it in the best possible way.” Perhaps, finally, this simple statement sums up a part of the philosophy of the Photo League. Hardly revolutionary. But definitely profound.

©1994 N. Jay Jaffee. All rights reserved.

Questions from Mary Panzer for N. Jay Jaffee regarding the Photo League:

  1. How would you describe the philosophy of the Photo League (Can you remember any specific classes, assignments, or arguments (!) that illustrate the way the Photo League approached the practice of photography?)
  2. How did/does that philosophy influence your work? How did it guide your choice of subjects? How did it shape your aesthetics?
  3. How does/did that philosophy inform your relationship to your subjects?
  4. How would you define a documentary photograph?