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Guest Post: The Pioneering Women of the Photo League

Guest Post: The Pioneering Women of the Photo League

One of many gratifying aspects about making Ordinary Miracles was the opportunity it afforded to identify and celebrate the contributions made by an impressive number of extravagantly gifted female photographers who joined the Photo League or sat in on its lectures and used its darkrooms. Curator Catherine Evans recently wrote a terrific essay about them entitled  “As Good As The Guys.” And so they were.  As Evans writes, women were “a visible and vital presence in the League” noting that over one hundred participated in League activities between 1938 and 1951, serving in key roles — editor of Photo Notes, treasurer, vice president, president — and as members of the advisory board, lecturers, teachers, critics and writers. “Most significantly” she concludes, “the women of the Photo League were prolific and prominent artists working in documentary at a time when the arts, criticism, social commentary, and indeed most other professional fields still belonged largely to men.

From its inception, the medium of photography attracted enterprising and creative women ranging from the genteel likes of Julia Margaret Cameron and Lady Clementina Hawarden to more rough and ready, in-the-line-of-fire types like Gerda Taro, Dorothea Lange and Mary Ellen Mark as well as self-supporting photojournalists like Margaret Bourke White, Ruth Orkin, Marion Palfi, Lisette Model and Inge Morath.

A surprisingly large number of the above named ladies and a great many more, were members of the Photo League, a documentary-oriented New York-based cooperative consisting of amateur and professional photographers which flourished from 1936 to 1951. From the League’s inception, women were accepted as equal players and during WWII with most of the men overseas, female photographers like Rosalie Gwathmey and Sonia Handelsman Meyer really stepped up and kept the organization running while continuing to do their own work.  It should be noted that during the war and throughout the postwar years the League’s female membership continued to increase as opportunities in the growing field of photojournalism expanded dramatically.

Notable female Photo Leaguers include Dorothea Lange, Consuelo Kanaga, Berenice Abbott, Barbara Morgan, Rosalie Gwathmey, Lisette Model, Marion Post Wolcott and Ruth Orkin. Highly talented but less well-known are Vivian Cherry, Rebecca Lepkoff, Sonya Handelsman Mayer and Lucy Ashjian.

Sadly, a female member was the cause of the League’s untimely demise. During its trial of eleven leaders of the American Communist party for allegedly advocating the violent overthrow of the U.S. government, the government produced a surprise witness in the form of an FBI informant named Angela Calomiris. Calomiris testified that she’d been recruited to join the party by the FBI and was a member of the Chelsea branch. She also testified that the Photo League’s guiding light, Sid Grossman, was a communist and that the League itself was a fifth column of subversives loaded with “mousy” females and swaggering Bolshevik bullies eager to do Stalin’s bidding, or at least the party’s. To the astonishment of all, it turned out that Calomiris was in fact a dues paying member of the Photo League and had been for seven years, though no one could quite remember her. During this time she billed herself as a photographer of children and animals. She released Red Masquerade a ghost written memoir in 1950 revealing more people she informed on and the fact that she was well paid by the FBI. She eventually moved to Provincetown where she opened a bed and breakfast. Ironically, Sid Grossman, whose career Calomiris had effectively destroyed, was one of her neighbors.

ORDINARY MIRACLES: THE PHOTO LEAGUE’S NEW YORK will be released theatrically in LA on June 15 at the Laemmle Noho 7,  and in NYC at the Quad Cinema, on  June 22.  The film will be shown in Naples, Italy on July 9 as part of a festival of seven of the films of Daedalus Productions, and at festivals both here and abroad.  The film will also be digitally distributed.  Details here.

Nina Rosenblum, DGA, NYWIFT, IDA, is an Academy Award-nominated film and television producer/director and president of Daedalus Productions, Inc., an award-winning production company established in 1980 focusing on international co-production and partnerships with international television, PBS and cable.

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