Bearing Witness: The New York Photo League and Sonia Handelman Meyer comprises approximately 90 photographs by Photo League members. The Photo League was established in New York City in 1936 by a group of young, idealistic photographers and consisted of a school, darkroom, gallery, and meeting place. However, it was also a place where photographers learned about their position in the world, both as artists and as people. Their dedication to social imagery led photographers into their own neighborhoods, exploring the streets with their cameras, and capturing the lives of ordinary people as they had never before been depicted.
The exhibition features a special spotlight on the work of Sonia Handelman Meyer. Born in Lakewood, New Jersey in 1920, Meyer spent most of her life in New York City. She was introduced to the Photo League in 1943 and remained a member until its closure in 1951. Like the other members of the Photo League, Meyer was equally concerned with making meaningful images that could affect social and political change, and she began taking photos of the people and city around her. The photographs presented in this exhibition underscore Meyer’s concern with social justice and her humanist approach to documenting her subjects, including her work with the Sydenham Hospital, the first integrated hospital in the country, the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, her extensive documentation of life in Harlem and Spanish Harlem, and her moving, dignified portraits of children.
By the late 1940s, the heightened anti-liberal social and political climate of the McCarthy Era had placed the group in a precarious situation, listed by the Attorney
General as a “subversive organization.” In this hostile environment of blacklisting and accusations, membership declined and the Photo League was ultimately forced to disband in 1951. However, in the brief 15 years of its existence, the Photo League had expanded and revolutionized what documentary photography could be, moving away from purely objective imagery into more challenging arenas of life that would have lasting resonance.
After the painful and destructive conclusion of the Photo League, Meyer similarly fell into obscurity. It was not until 2002, after Meyer moved to Charlotte, North Carolina to be closer to family, that her work was rediscovered. Within the past decade, Meyer has enjoyed a renaissance of interest in and appreciation of her work as an important contribution to the legacy of the Photo League, and is represented locally by Hodges Taylor Art Consultancy. Although Meyer first picked up the camera 70 years ago, she has never before been the focus of a major museum exhibition until now.
This exhibition also presents work by additional members the Photo League, including Berenice Abbott, Margaret Bourke-White, Vivian Cherry, Morris Engel, Lewis Hine, Sid Grossman, Rosalie Gwathmey, N. Jay Jaffee, Arthur Leipzig, Rebecca Lepkoff, Barbara Morgan, Arnold Newman, Ruth Orkin, Walter Rosenblum, W. Eugene Smith, Lou Stoumen, Todd Webb, and Ida Wyman, among others. Organized by The Mint Museum.
Bearing Witness: The New York Photo League and Sonia Handelman Meyer also includes a seven-minute clip from the Award-winning film Ordinary Miracles: A Photo League's New York from Nina Rosenblum and Dan Allentuck.