Interview with curator Catherine Evans about women in the Photo League

What follows is an interview with Catherine Evans about the role of women in the Photo League, in response to The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951, an exhibition at New York’s Jewish Museum. The exhibition was co-curated by Mason Klein and Catherine Evans, and will be up at the Jewish Museum until March 25, 2012.

Rebecca Lepkoff, Broken Window on South Street, New York, 1948. Gelatin silver print, 8 5/16 x 7 3/8″.

Patricia: What were the biggest challenges that women faced within the Photo League as an organization?
Catherine Evans: When we look at Photo Notes, the League’s monthly publication, with today’s post-feminist gaze, the drawings/cartoons announcing social events, are certainly sexist. The ever outspoken Berenice Abbott, a member from the outset, quipped, “Talk about male chauvinism, I never saw it so badly expressed as there.” But at the same time, several women whom I interviewed claimed completely the opposite, praising its inclusiveness. Sonia Handelman Meyer went as far as saying that she had “no consciousness of being a woman at the Photo League, never felt we were ignored in any way.” Abbott’s and Meyer’s diverging statements could well have to do with the decade or so that separated their time at the League, not mention differing world views.

Patricia: Some women were very well known, others dwelled in obscurity. Does this reflect varying degrees of involvement, shifting ambitions, or different priorities rather than exclusion?
Catherine Evans: Women’s social history and visibility have ebbed and risen according to political, cultural, and economic forces. Their participation in photography has run a parallel course, it seems. Women took up the medium in its early history, but have not received recognition in equal measure to men. With regard to the Photo League, family, marital status, a return to traditional gender roles after World War II, competition in the commercial market, were all contributing factors. An often repeated circumstance was women having to give way to family demands. About Kosofksy virtually nothing is known. Needless to say, the blacklisting had a devastating impact on everyone.

Since photography did not have high art status, it seems it was more accessible, learn-able, do-able. Yet Abbott and Model, among others, spoke negatively about limited opportunities and double standards, the former saying the “women did not wear slacks then; they wore skirts. When I photographed New York, I put on ski pants. Truck drivers yelled at me, ‘lady, take that off.’ It bothered me, it even bothered me when people gathered around as I was setting up my camera in the street” and Model complained that no other magazine besides Harper’s Bazaar gave her assignments, wondering if it was her intense style of picture making or the fact that she was a woman, that deterred them.

Patricia: Those smaller, portable Leicas enabled women to be out on the street, empowered to shape meaning out of what was seen. Any thoughts on how technology upgrades enabled women being out and about, shooting?
Catherine Evans: Some women learned photography as assistants in dark rooms, as printers such as Ida Wyman at ACME and Rae Russel, others came to the League to learn photography from the ground up such as Sonia Handelman Meyer. Rebecca Lepkoff remarked that there were few women on the streets with cameras and she was therefore not perceived as a threat. Most scholars think that Levitt learned about the right-angled view finder—which allowed her to seemingly be photographing a subject in front of her, but actually capturing something else entirely—from Walker Evans, whom she met in 1938 and with whom she shared a darkroom.

Even with all of the advantages a Leica offered, some women chose to work with medium format cameras (Meyer, Cherry) or Speed Graphic with cumbersome flash bulbs (Model). Abbott initially deliberately shunned the small format and even determined a specific format for each of 3 categories of picture should be taken—a Linhoff, a Rolleflex and a view camera (Yokelson, Berenice Abbott, Changing New York, The Complete WPA Project (Museum of the City of NY, 1997, 33).

Patricia: I’m very curious about Calomiris. What is known about Calomiris’ sexuality and the role it played in her cooperation to take down the Photo League?
Catherine Evans: Novelist and scholar Lisa S. Davis emphatically states that Calomiris was already out as a lesbian and that money was her sole motivation for infiltrating and ultimately testifying against the League in the 1949 trial, in which she named Sid Grossman and his wife Marion Hille as members of the Communist Party. According to Davis, statistics from the FBI files attest to how generously she was paid. Besides Attorney General Tom C. Clark’s black list (published in The New York Times on December 5, 1947), it was Calomiris, with her 7-year long infiltration of the League, damning testimony, and her self-aggrandizing best seller, Red Masquerade, Undercover for the FBI, published in 1950, who most materially contributed to the demise of the League in 1951.

Patricia: Vivian Cherry’s lynching game series was rejected by McCall’s for being “a little too real for magazine use”. Yet, Weegee was widely printed, and sensationally so. I can’t help comparing this definition of “too real” to the current American media infoscape, where we remain shielded from visual “realness”, despite shock factors constantly increasing. It’s acceptable to have two politicians on television yelling like brats, but to see unmediated footage of what is developing in politically charged situations, be it Israel, Iran, Afghanistan, Egypt…it is not possible. “Realness” becomes a problem.
Catherine Evans: One of the ironies in the rejection letter from the McCall’s editor is the use of the male pronoun throughout. I had hoped to include the letter in my essay, but space was a constant challenge. But more to your point, aside from being “a little too real for magazine use” Mr. Adams goes on to write:

“We try to identify the reader with the story, try to say to him that this is he and his problem shown in the pictures. I’m a little afraid he’ll refuse to identify himself with the people and backgrounds here, would prefer to see himself a bit idealized. It’s different, I think, from reporting the goings on of other people, where realism is fine.”
Walter Adams, McCall’s Editor

No small wonder McCall’s, whose readership targeted middle class women and had a huge circulation at the time, wasn’t interested. His last sentence speaks directly to the problem of realness and realism. Sometimes, under certain circumstances, it’s fine! Maybe that’s still the case. In the constant barrage of images, what picture does have the power to stop us in our tracks? Is it a generational issue? I can say as a curator, when I first saw Cherry’s lynching game photographs at Higher Pictures gallery in 2009 “Women of the Photo League” I was shocked. I still am.