Sunday, 13 November 2016

He WAS the League

Right this book has an excellent selection of photos by Photo League members (ISBN 9780300146875).

Photo-historian Keith Davis has written a fascinating biography of Sid Grossman but it's more than just a look at his life because he was intimately connected with the turbulent decades of thirties and forties America. Photographers were inspired by the social upheaval of the Depression and Grossman with Sol Lipsohn founded, in New York, the Photo League in 1936 as a place where members could learn about photography, both practically and theoretically, see exhibitions, hear lectures from professionals and enjoy the company of like-minded members. It's clear from the book's essays that Grossman was the Photo League, it's principal organizer and especially teacher.

The book is different from the usual photo biography of having a front of book essay followed by a long section of plates. Grossman's life is divided into chapters reflecting current affairs at the time and how they influenced his photography and each has it's own illustrated essay and photos.

The early years (1938-1940) with photos of New York and trips to the mid-West follow the documentary style of the FSA, during the war he was in an Army photo section (1943-1946) posted to Guatemala and Panama. The plates in the this chapter reveal a change of emphasis from the documentary approach to a more subjective one that was to stay with him for the rest of his life. This more liberated and personal style is shown in Grossman's best work during the postwar years especially photos shot at Coney Island (1947-1948) there are seventeen remarkable photos (the book's cover has one) from this period.

Grossman's past caught up with him in the late forties. He had joined the Communist Party in the thirties (like many Americans involved in the creative arts) and in 1942 the FBI had the League in their sights with the help, over the years, of an undercover agent: Angela Calomiris. The League was declared a subversive organization by US Attorney General Tom Clark and the 1949 trial testimony from Calomiris put Grossman in an awkward position regarding the League. He left and joined an artists colony in Provincetown, near Cape Cod. With declining membership the League struggled on until 1951 when it closed.

The blacklisting ended Sid Grossman's work as a professional photographer and he spent his time teaching in Provincetown and New York. The book's last photo sections include ballet (1951-1955) and Provincetown (1949-1954) including four color shots of fishing and nature. There's an interesting eight page chapter at the end of the book called Grossman speaking which has a transcript (made by one of his students from a 1950 lecture) revealing his thoughts on photo creativity and the individual.

The life and work of Sid Grossman is a worthwhile and sympathetic look at this rather forgotten but influential photographer/teacher. Steidl, of course, have done an excellent job producing the one hundred and fifty plates (and many more in the essays) with 175 screened four-color blacks.

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