Photography is an artistic medium that we entirely take for granted. Today, anyone with a cell phone can be a photographer. Anyone with Facebook or Flickr or Instagram can share their photos with the world. The world as we know it has never been so thoroughly documented in images.
Recently, I viewed The Radical Camera, an exhibit at the Jewish Museum. The exhibit focused on the work of the New York’s Photo League from 1936-1951, a period that saw the Depression, World War II and the rise of the Red Scare (which itself led to the disintegration of the League). League members were ardent documentary photographers, who candidly captured everyday life, social interactions and tensions: despite the ordinary nature of their subjects, they so clearly recorded history as it was happening.
I have always been captivated by old photographs. Perhaps because it is such a familiar medium and seems to so honestly capture its subject, photographs represent such a close link between then and now. The faces staring out of photographs look like faces we know today; we feel like we can instantly relate to their joys and sorrows. And yet the context is so different—the clothing, the cars, etc.—that we are transported and connected to a different time.
Looking at the exhibit, I couldn’t help thinking about the relationship between photography then and now. In a sense, documentary photography is alive and well—just ask anyone wielding an iPhone camera to snap pictures of their friends or oddities in the streets. There may be no defining school for this sort of photography, and most people may not be concerned with creating art. However, today’s digital media has definitely developed its own kind of aesthetic, and in 50 years it may indeed be looked upon as art, or as a unique representation of this time.
See the exhibit for yourself! The Radical Camera is open until March 25.