Speech by Walter Rosenblum, Lifetime Achievement, ICP Infinity Award Winner
Lewis Hine came into my life when I was nineteen, and by friendship and example, showed me the road I might follow. And then there was Paul Strand, who, by his example made me see how a simple sheet of photographic paper might become alive with the wonders of the world. From him I learned that anything in the world can be photographed if it has meaning for the photographer, that subject matter is inexhaustible if one is willing to explore its richness, that beauty can be found in a cobweb in the rain, in a bit of sand under a stormy sky, or in the face of someone you love. He made me see that photography must always be treated with respect and given one’s best effort. In my philosophy, the meaning of life derives from the people one has known and loved, who have made life inexhaustible in its richness. I have met my share of evil people and know what they are capable of (I was at the liberation of the camp in Dachau) but I have always held that evil is not inherent in men and women. I still believe that given a caring society, only the best in people will flourish. That is the spirit that has moved me to photograph.
NYPL "Where Do We Go From Here", A Text by Walter Rosenblum
On December 4, 1947, the Photo League appeared on the official list of “totalitarian, fascist, communist or subversive” groups submitted by U.S. Attorney General Tom C. Clark to President Harry S. Truman. Walter Rosenblum, who was president of the Photo League at the time, received the news when it was reported by the media the following day. The League issued a press release denying the charges, and a membership meeting was called to discuss the group’s response to the blacklisting. On December 16 at the Hotel Diplomat in New York, Rosenblum and Paul Strand addressed the League members and read telegrams from Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and others in support of the League. Nancy Newhall and Edward Weston drafted a telegram, which was unanimously approved, to Attorney General Clark repudiating the allegations of disloyalty. The idea of a retrospective exhibition, which became This Is the Photo League, was also born at this meeting, the notes of which were gathered and printed, along with Walter Rosenblum’s article “Where Do We Go from Here?” in a special issue of Photo Notes in January 1948. The text of Rosenblum’s article, reprinted with the kind permission of Naomi Rosenblum, follows.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Tom Clark’s bolt of lightning was certainly blunted if our membership meeting on Tuesday night was any indication. A membership, united in indignation, rejected the smear technique he used as being completely unfounded in fact and certainly in violation of the basic law of the land. Shades of Tom Paine [author of Common Sense and The Rights of Man]! Who ever thought the day would come when the Photo League would be called upon to defend the Bill of Rights?
It is interesting to speculate as to why we were placed on Clark’s list. What have we done in the past to be so labeled? Almost immediately one begins to think of the old Film and Photo League. Our files for that period contain pictures of strikes, picket lines, and demonstrations of the unemployed. Certainly the Film and Photo League of that day seemed to concern itself greatly with the social scene.
But is this so difficult to understand? The period between 1929 and 1934 was one of the most turbulent in American history. Millions of people unemployed, two thirds of a nation ill clothed, ill housed and ill fed. What more fitting material for the photographer who wanted to honestly reflect the world he lived in? Our war years and the prosperity engendered by full production have perhaps made us forget. But the pictures in our files are a constant reminder. The film section of the League acquitted itself well. Practically the only movie footage available today which documents the turmoil of those times is that made by the Film section of the League. The commercial newsreels weren’t interested in recording that kind of reality. Historians of the future will be grateful indeed to such League film makers as Leo Hurwitz, Sidney Meyers and Julian Roffman.
The history of the Photo League is the history of its members. We have developed a tradition based on social realism because our members concern themselves deeply with the world they live in. At one time the Pictorialists labelled documentary photography as the “ashcan school.” It is true that many of our members did not concern themselves with the natural scene. Not because they didn’t recognize the emotional value inherent in such subject matter, but because they were brought up in an environment of crowded tenements. And you make the best photograph of that which affects you most strongly. We feel deeply about the people we photograph, because our subject matter is of our own flesh and blood. In Harlem or on the East Side, we aren’t tourists spying on the quaint mannerisms of the people. We aren’t interested in slums for their picturesque qualities. The people who live in them are our fathers and mothers, our brothers and sisters. The kids are our own images when we were young. The inhumanity of watching a woman drag a big sack of coal up four flights of stairs hurts us because our mothers did it too. How can one be censured for being interested in one’s fellow man? Our immaturity has never been in depth of emotion. What many of us did lack was the aesthetic ability to sum up our emotions and feelings in pictures that expressed fully and completely in visual terms what was in our hearts. But that is a problem with which those Photo Leaguers who photograph the social scene are coming to grips with more securely.
This intense feeling about the social scene is not limited to Harlem or Pitt Street. That is why we flung ourselves so quickly into the war effort. We organized our work in the Red Cross, the AWVS [American Women’s Voluntary Services], the servicemen’s canteens with all the power at our command. Our members did a magnificent job in the armed services. At a meeting called to organize Camera Clubs into the war effort, Captain [Edward] Steichen told the group to follow the fine leadership the Photo League had established.
We were successful in our efforts because we understood the real nature of the world in which we live. The destruction of Fascism had a personal meaning for all of us, and we were going to use our cameras to help smash its might.
It is true that our members are still tremendously interested in the social scene. The day of the ivory tower artist is over. With the housing shortage being what it is, you can’t even rent an ivory tower any more. Our membership felt the Taft-Hartley bill [which imposed strict limitations on labor unions] to be a menace not only to labor but to the entire American people, and so, in a democratic manner at one of our meetings we passed a resolution urging Congress not to pass it. At another meeting our membership felt that the State Department was destroying an important cultural program when it repudiated its own collection of American paintings and recalled them from Czechoslovakia and South America. We informed the State Department how we felt. Inflation, the lack of adequate housing and the threat of another war affect all people regardless of craft. We are and always will be citizens as well as photographers.
The League has been attacked not because of the few resolutions we have passed—any Masonic group or ladies’ club does the same—but because reaction in this country knows that artists can be a very potent force for progress. When some artists threw their support behind Roosevelt in the last election, they contributed much towards his victory. Scare the artist now and you might shut him up when 1948 rolls around. But we will not be frightened by this flagrant attempt at thought control. We will continue to speak up when and how we please.
However, it would be wrong if the few political actions we have taken should disguise the true nature of the Photo League. We are, have been, and always will be, an organization devoted as exclusively to photography as a disordered world will allow us to be. Our members are of every race, color, and creed—of every shade of political opinion. The only question our membership committee asks of prospective members concerns the seriousness of their approach to photography. The Photo League is a photographic and not a political organization.
There is only one answer to Clark’s listing. And that is to move full steam ahead in building a bigger and better Photo League. The League developed out of specific needs which photographers have—a need to get together as social individuals to talk to one another about pictures, to help each other become better photographers, to have a place where they can show their pictures to the public, to have a school for young photographers. These needs exist more strongly than ever. Our work to date has earned us the reputation of being a vital force in American photography. But we know how much more there is to be done. Let us go on with our building. Let us make the Photo League what our dreams say it can be.
We have united in the face of a slanderous attack. Let us now unite in building the Photo League into a real center of American photography.