Catherine Evans on the Women of the Photo League

The Radical Camera show at the Jewish Museum presents a selection of photographs by women that dispell the purpose that Kodak adverts of the time suggested women used cameras for: gender-appropriate domestic portraits of family, documentation of male activity, flowers. The silent movement of women with cameras surveying the streets of New York, especially during a highly charged political time, deserves more attention. I interviewed Catherine Evans, co-curator of The Radical Camera, about the role of women in the photo league and their particular circumstances, as far as they are known.

What follows is an edited version of an interview with Catherine Evans, completed in February, 2012.


In your opinion, what were the biggest challenges that women faced within the Photo League as an organization?
Catherine Evans: The Photo League lasted only fifteen years, nevertheless it encompassed a wide range of conflicting opinions by and about women. We could speculate that exclusion of women could have been the biggest challenge but while the culture was certainly male-dominated, women were disproportionately well represented for the times as roughly one third of those who participated were women. Looking 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.”

Ida Wyman, Spaghetti 25 Cents, New York, 1945.
Ida Wyman, Spaghetti 25 Cents, New York, 1945.

Abbott’s and Meyer’s diverging statements could well have to do with the decade or so that separated their time at the League, and differing world views. Several women mention the challenge of getting away from domestic activities to get to the League. Meanwhile, outside of the League, women competing for commercial photography jobs were discriminated against. Erika Stone remembered that editors didn’t trust women and thought women weren’t technically good enough.

Some women were very well known (Bourke-White, Model, Abbott), others dwelled in obscurity (Ashjian, Kokofsky), which may reflect varying degrees of involvement, shifting ambitions and 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, for example in Lucy Ashjian’s case, soon after the birth of her son, she left the PL and returned to Indiana to care for her husband who had suffered a mental breakdown. About Kosofksy virtually nothing is known.

Rosalie Gwathmey's Shout Freedom,  1948. Still from "Ordinary Miracles."
Rosalie Gwathmey’s Shout Freedom, 1948. Still from “Ordinary Miracles.”

The blacklisting had a devastating impact on everyone. Rosalie Gwathmey destroyed all of her negatives as a result of the PL blacklisting and FBI surveillance of her husband, painter Robert Gwathmey. That there were exceptions (such as Bourke-White, Model, Abbott) may have to do with the fact that they all had careers in photography independent of the Photo League; Bourke-White with Fortune already in the late 1920s; Model and Abbott both taught at the New School for Social Research; Aboott had established her artistic reputation in Paris, her work was being shown in NYC, and by 1939 had completed her massive Changing New York project; Barbara Morgan went on to become best known for her Martha Graham dance work; Helen Levitt, who insisted she never was a member of the Photo League, had her first of three one-person exhibitions at MoMA in 1943.

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.

Ruth Orkin, Ethel Waters, Carson McCullers, and Julie Harris at opening night of “Member of the Wedding,” New York City, 1950.
Ruth Orkin, Ethel Waters, Carson McCullers, and Julie Harris at opening night of “Member of the Wedding,” New York City, 1950.

Why do you think there was never a woman president of the Photo League?
Catherine Evans: There was! Albeit briefly, in 1943 Marion Hille served as President. Although women had high profile roles at the PL right out of the gate and throughout its tenure, it’s a mistake to think that traditional gender roles were not an issue. However, the fact that Lucy Ashjian served as Vice President AND as Chairman of the school AND as editor of Photo Notes (as did Gwathmey and others) points to the kind of egalitarianism that drew women to the League. Gwathmey stated in an interview, “There was a real feeling of equality” and that many women were ‘highly respected at the Photo League” (Bezner, 14).We simply don’t know if women aspired to be president and were not nominated or if they didn’t pursue the position aggressively, or even what the process might have looked like.

The smaller Leicas that were portable and totally discreet, enabled women to be out on the street, empowered to shape meaning out of what was seen. It must have felt to so modern.  Thoughts on technology and inspiration for the women of the Photo League?
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 PL to learn photography from the ground up such as Sonia Handelman Meyer. I haven’t delved too thoroughly into the technical choices women made but yes, the Leica was liberating and because of lectures and exhibitions at the League, everyone knew about antecedents, such as Atget.

Subway by Sonia (Handelman) Meyer, c. 1946.
Sonia (Handelman) Meyer, Subway, c. 1946.

Women were inspired by other women, Lange, Levitt, Bourke-White, Ulman, Jacobi. 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 Rolleiflex and a view camera.

Left: Rebecca Lepkoff, Broken Window on South Street, New York, 1948. Right: Rebecca Lepkoff, Lower East Side, New York, 1948.

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 has been researching Calomiris for an upcoming book. I consulted her about this issue. She 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.

Lucy Ashjian, Horn Sign, 1930s.
Lucy Ashjian, Horn Sign, 1930s.

I was especially surprised to read in your essay, regarding Lucy Ashjian, who “with her dark coloring and foreign name she would have been well aware of discrimination, especially in the Midwest”.  Looking at her self-portrait on page 49 of the catalogue,  Ashjian is a white woman, who could be Italian, Spanish, Mexican, French, Russian—much like myself. It surprised me to read that, because at that time, anyone who was read as white would have a social advantage just for being white.
Catherine Evans:  I spoke and corresponded at length with Ashjian’s great niece, through marriage. Christine Tate, who first suggested this (Tate is also participating in our symposium). I am not a race scholar, but can well imagine that kind of discrimination. On a purely anecdotal note, my mother was a Czech refugee, we spoke Czech growing up just outside of the Bronx, and I was ridiculed in the early 1960s for not speaking “American” at home, for having a slight accent in elementary school, was told to say “sieg heil” to my mother by a neighbor boy, (I’m guessing he assumed we were evil Germans, even though my dad was from Iowa). Foreign was just foreign, never mind that the Germans had occupied then Czechoslovakia during the war! And I have blue eyes and fair skin.

Vivian Cherry, “Untitled” From “The Game of Lynching, Yorkville, East Harlem”, series, 1947
Vivian Cherry, Untitled, from “The Game of Lynching, Yorkville, East Harlem,” series, 1947.

Now I understand:  Ashjian didn’t read as ‘white’, she read as foreigner, as immigrant; as other—so her social experience would indeed be different from ‘white’.  Vivian Cherry’s lynching game series was rejected by McCall’s for being “a little too real for magazine use”. Yet, the gruesome images created by Weegee were widely printed, and sensationally so. Perhaps it is a matter of which magazine prints what.  Perhaps PM Magazine would have published Cherry’s lynching game series, but 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 increasingly.  It’s fine to have two politicians on television acting and 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. I’ve attached a scan of it. 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.”

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 the lynching game photographs at Kim Bourus’s Higher Pictures gallery in 2009 Women of the Photo League I was shocked.  I still am.