Friday, June 29, 2012

"Professional Artists in their Youth:" Juried Exhibition of Ohio High School Art

The Ohio State University's Urban Arts Space downtown Columbus hosts through July the 2012 High School Juried Exhibition. This show was the brain child of Meena Oberdick and Olivia Wallace, two interns at Urban Arts, then seniors at Columbus Alternative High School. In addition to conceiving the show, Oberdick and Wallace prepared and advertised the call for entries. They organized the submissions for the professional artists whom they had recruited as jurors. They raised funds so that cash prizes could be awarded. Thanks to the skills they've developed as interns, the pair laid out the show and helped the winners install their work. I'm thinking, in fact: Where's the "high school" in this?

Emily Linville, Insignificance, 2012. Detail
Mixed media.
Author photo.

I don't seek out student shows. This isn't a prejudice necessarily about the work on the walls; it has more to do with intrinsic confusions about how work is selected for student shows and what, exactly, is being showcased. 

Bravo to any efforts that highlight the creative efforts of students; cheers for any opportunity the public has to admire their work. But whether any child is producing "good" or "bad art" is secondary by far to their being educated to exercise certain parts of their minds and spirits—as they do with any other discipline. 

In my book, a student art show should demonstrate the creativity that every child is endowed with. It shouldn't be a competition that makes children drag apologetically home muttering that Johnny or Janey is a good artist (witness the horse that looks like a horse!) and he or she is not. Art education isn't all about end products. It shouldn't necessarily be about products at all.

So there's unfortunate semantic confusion about what we call "art" in education, and it's a distinction that's central to the High School Juried Exhibition. For this show, there was a call for entries—for finished works. The artists were self-selecting; the works were vetted, and quality judgments were made by a jury of professional artists. Everyone involved had the same goals and put themselves in the same world.

Normally, a school art show includes a sampling of work, tending to favor what the teachers see as neat or comely work. Parents want to see horses that look like horses; they want kids to bring home projects they will be proud to frame. So the huge shows of student work display "artistic-looking" pieces, no matter whether the students may in fact be succesfully learning how to think in three dimensions or to grasp the concept of perspective. A child's production needn't necessarily be the proof that they're learning about visual experience and thought.

In their articulate, thoughtful statement (indeed, the graduate-student show in the adjacent gallery is introduced by bombastic prose tending toward an incomprehensible point), Wallace and Oberdick imply the distinction between school art curricula and what students who wish to be artists long for:

"Many schools are often unable to provide students with the comprehensive experience needed to successfully progress in the demanding professional art world, either due to curricular restrictions or a simple lack of funds and resources. While a high school art program can provide basic tools in technique and the creative processes, most programs cannot emphasize real world application of these skills after graduation. As a young artist, it can be difficult to find substantial footing when caught in the void between 'juvenile daydreams' and the expectations of the professional art world." 

The show Wallace and Oberdick put together is a first professional experience for people who need to learn the ropes and don't usually get the early start they crave. It's a great idea.

Michelle Uzomba, Bunkatsu, 2012
Michelle Uzomba, Fumeina, 2012
Because so much of the work in this show is so good, it reminds us of how little it takes in terms of media or technical facilities to be fascinating. How long has it been since I've seen a show in which fascinating images were identified as "photographs" simply, rather than by descriptions of specialized processes and equipment? The image is the thing for Michelle Uzomba in two portraits of a girl who remains squarely posed before the camera yet denies it her face. Denies it? Or, in the acts of looking away, moving, and closing her eyes, presents everything we really need to know about her? The double-faced portrait, Bunkatsu, is titled by a Japanese word that means "division." Fumeina, the title for the single image in black and white, is Japanese for "unknown." 

Uzomba's images are dignified. There is no dissonance between the woman's strength and her beauty. I like this. It's as if a female viewer is implied, since there's a masculine tradition of sexualizing images of defiant pretty women. These pictures are womanly and self-assured, betraying considerable introspective power. 

Another piece that delighted me was Alison Easter's We See Everything. This sculpture would probably not be entered in a show beyond the high school level for the simple reason that it's made of humble materials that people forget about beyond the "beginner" level. This  tree consists merely of an armature covered with pictures torn from magazines.  
Alison Easter, We See Everything, 2011-2012. Mixed media.
Author photograph.
On the grand level, it is an antic, ebullient, and irresistibly attractive event. Its branches reach out in every direction like friendly arms and its stout, no-nonsense trunk give it the sense of reliable indestructibility. It's wise and old with the joy of youth. It's shape reminds us of Sendak's wild things, of St. Exupery's baobab tree, of Lisa Simpson's spiky form, or even of Keith Haring's twitching urban kids.

We See Everything is covered with faces and eyes; they look at you, and you can't help but close in and look back. The whole event is an embrace of observation and the joy of engagement. Easter has made this piece work from every angle, at every distance, without causing the viewer the smallest pause over any tiny detail that might throw off the balance of color, weight, or tone. She's created an enormous play space. It's  like a day at an enchanted park; it's a work to fall in love and spend hours with.

Kira Keck titles this arresting piece, Harm (Trich). "Trich" refers to trichotillomania, a disease of hair pulling or skin plucking: Note the uneven sets of lashes around the many eyes. The washed out images of individual eyes stand in contrast to three images of the self-abuser. In the picture on the left, we see her impassively "harming" herself, in a close-up that obscures a landscape of bright green grass and beautiful blue sky. But her act seems of secondary interest to the astonishing color Keck has achieved in the girl's skin, sensuous lips and sapphire-blue eyes. We have to wonder about perceptions of harm. While the subject is obsessed with the eyes as the loci for lashes and as the focal point for disease and diagnosis, yet from the outside we see a vivid, warm, girl with crystalline eyes—her lashes and brows barely compete with the depth of color. Perhaps she sees individual hairs where we see "the big picture." Keck has found a powerful way to convey the nature and force of an obsession.

Kira Keck, Harm (Trich), 2012. 
Linocut, pastel, digital print, marker.

Shaundrina Jones was the only artist I noticed who referred to a work of art from outside of contemporary culture. Her Girl Deep in Thought lifts a female figure, well known for eluding an intrusive masculine gaze, and gives her a life of her own in a space of her own,orld, wrapped in serious contemplation. I'll admit that at first I thought this was an original self-portrait: It took me a minute of groping to realize that this is—and is not—the figure on the right from Gaugin's Women of Tahiti. 
Jones removes the tropical flower from the woman's hair and replaces it with two puffy pig-tails, pulled up high on the head, replacing Gaugin's ambiguity with clear definition of a girl. But this is a deep girl. She is evading nothing; rather, she gives the impression of one facing up to serious matters that she sees clearly, right out of the corner of her eyes.

I think Jones' concept and its realization in a strong, isolating, vertical box and earthy palette are gripping.

Throughout 2012 High School Juried Exhibition I asked myself if I would encounter themes of adolescence. Introspection and identity were the most apparent—but these are themes for any age, which could compel my attention in any circumstance.

The opening image for this article comes from Emily Linville's fresh and hopeful meditation on Insignificance, a concept most of us first contemplate in youth. Linville's approach is elegantly simple and visually satisfying. Her white painted surface isn't a view of Nothing, but of complications effaced; there's a lot going on under the surface. Through a tiny crack breaks one word in small print, insignificance, divided into syllables, articulated for emphasis.

Linville carves from the rough surface disguise an opening through which a young face peers. The girl is part of a glittering, surreal environment populated with iridescent fish, luminous forms that could be computer boards or skyscrapers; signs in Japanese; old people bundled up against the snow; crumpled scraps of papers and the depths of the cosmos. 

The contrast between the fascinating mysteries of the hole and the engulfing blandness of the white surface could be completely trite, but the girl's anchoring gaze, directly fixed on the viewer, turns the piece into a big question—and questions are what we want, not statements, polemics, or breast-beating. Are we facing a person looking back from the side of wisdom to us who still believe in our insignificance? Is this girl rejecting the whole idea that we might assume to be the sniffling province of self-indulgent youth? Perhaps we are invited to think about this circle as a spot, or a mote, and to think how much life a speck contains—the angels on the head of a pin? However we wish to understand this (we are looking in; she is looking in; we are spectators; she sees the bright world around us, which we neglect...), "insignificance," takes on a whole new...significance.

All of these artists are significant, and all these exhibitors are artists. May this be an annual show, and may "high school" always be prominent in its title. Art is art, and this is an invigorating reminder that it flourishes wherever people have the will to make it. 

2012 High School Juried Exhibition runs through July 28 at Urban Art Space in Columbus. For details, see

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Life is a Body: Sculpture of Alina Szapocznikow

No, I'd never heard of her either, Alina Szapocznikow (zha PAHsh ni koff), this Polish artist whose work is introduced in the retrospective, Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone. The Hammer Museum and the Museum of Modern Art New York have collaborated with the Museum of Modern Art Warsaw and the WIELS Contemporary Art Centre in Brussels to bring together a huge exhibit of Szapocznikow's work in several media. It's stopping now at the Wexner Center for the Arts until August 5, between its runs in Los Angeles and New York. Szapocnikow's sculpture bears visual and spiritual relationship to work we have seen at Wexner this year by Louise Bourgeois and Hans Bellmer

Alina Szapocznikow, Fragments of lip casts, c. 1966
Courtesy Sabine Stanislawski and Galerie Gisela
Capitain GmbH, Cologne. ©The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow/
 Piotr Stanislawski/ 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/
 ADAGP, ParisPhoto: Fabrice Gousset, Paris
But there is no mistaking this as other than the work of an individual, independently exploring the body as her subject, object, and means all at once. Szapocznikow's sculptures have a flat-footed immediacy that makes them feel like the product of deeply digested personal history. There is no cant or theory about them. Even when she abstracts the body into pieces, she rarely disfigures those. I feel that there is no dissonance between her work and a deeply entrenched perception of reality. However it appears to the eye, her work is not at all abstract.

Most of Szapocznikow's sculpture refers to the female body. Still, it struck me that these works seem quite unconcerned with anything we might identify today as feminism or its agenda. Women in the twentieth century—artists and intellectuals especially—certainly didn't have to await the influence of the American feminist movement to challenge patriarchal and culturally assigned ideas about the the ways their bodies may determine their roles in society. 

The works in this retrospective were made between 1954 (when Szapocznikow was 28) and 1972, when she foresaw her own imminent death from breast and bone cancer (she died in 1973 at age 47). The sculptures never treat the body as a locus for feminist philosophy or as a phenomenon so simple that sexuality is its dominant issue. The body is life and death, simply, and in all their infinite ambiguity and complexity. This work is not about sexuality because sexuality, like pain or pleasure, is but one aspect of the body, which, like every other, can't be compartmentalized. Her work considers the integrated nature of corporeality, even when she examines it piece by piece.

Szapocznikow, a Polish Jew, spent her teen years from fourteen to nineteen interned in ghettos and a succession of three Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Afterwards, she refused to speak about this experience. Sculpture Undone includes her filmed interview with a badgering Frenchman, relentless in his determination to make her talk about concentration camp horrors and their effects on her work. She—a bright-eyed, curly-haired, winsome girl—bluntly refuses and returns the camera-interviewer's gaze as unblinkingly as a bronze.

Alina Szapocznikow
Madonna of Krużlowa (Motherhood)
Assemblage: colored polyester resin, photographs,
 gauze,16 1/2 x 20 1/2 x 7 1/8 inches
Société de l'Apostolat Catholique (Pères Pallotins), Paris.
 © The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow /
 Piotr Stanislawski/ 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS),
New York/ ADAGP, Paris
Only four years after liberation from the camps, Szapocznikow contracted tuberculosis, which almost killed her. She fought a protracted struggle for her life against the disease but again survived, though it was blamed for her infertility (she and her husband adopted). In 1972, she died of breast cancer and the bone cancer consequent upon it. She had contracted breast cancer several years earlier and worked throughout her illness in consciousness of death's proximity.

My favorite work in Sculpture Undone is Szapocznikow's Tumors Personified, which consists of fifteen variously-sized irregular "tumors" laid out singly, as if for specimen study, on a bed of gray gravel. It is stunning, nauseating, and funny in the way only the grotesque can be. Szapocznikow loves polyester resin as a material and uses it liberally here to wrap and bind the lumps. Its translucency permits the viewer to see the tumors' components, particularly the photo transfers of her face, which personalize them indeed. She claims the tumors as her very own, as body parts, however lately acquired, and however painfully. Each is as personal as the breasts and lips by which she has identified herself in sculpture through most of her career. 

Tumors Personified (detail), 1971, Alina Szapocznikow,
1 of 15 pieces, 5 15/16–13 inches high,Polyester resin, fiberglass, paper, gauze, Courtesy Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, © The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow /
 Piotr Stanislawski / 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Photo: Manuel Versaen, courtesy WIELS Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels, 2011

A few of her sculptures are beautiful, but all are arresting, and all are fraught with meaning. We rarely have to grope for Szapocznikow's core intent, yet her work is sufficient in invention and is aesthetically compelling enough to win our repeated attention. Again, she manages to give us humanity without focusing on sex appeal. She doesn't hold back, yet we don't develop contempt; we always want more.

Many of the sculptures feature a lozenge of skin in the center of which are lips closed or barely parted. Szapocznikow rarely presents a whole face until, in her work of the seventies, she memorializes herself in full-body castings that she flattens and mounts, naming each a Herbarium, for they are permanently preserved, like dried flowers, long after life.

Lips occur independently as often as they do, placed directly above a torso in Szapocznikow's sculptures. In her Self-Portrait I, a sensual work of marble and polyester resin, she represents herself as a bust—beautiful breasts carved and polished from virginal, cool stone. Atop the shoulders sit lips are cast in colorful, soft "gel" on a blank disk of yellowish "face." Is the message, though, that the lush lips invite the viewer? Do they serve as soft foil to the hard marble bust? 

Despite the visual contrast, the lips—so full and red—are set. The proportion of lips to the "head" is large, the better to make the point that the mouth they guard is firmly shut. It's a singularly silent self-portrait, defiantly closed. The self-portrait is a self-consciously formal, public work that gives up nothing personal. It demonstrates how little we learn from the revelation of nakedness. Exteriors, even "intimate" ones, tell us nothing. Our bodies are only our own.

Alina Szapocznikow, Small Dessert I, 1970–1971
Assemblage: Colored polyester, glass salad bowl
3 1/8 x 4 5/16 x 5 1/8 inches, 

© The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow / Piotr Stanislawski

 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/
ADAGP, Paris. Photo: Roland Schmid

In other contexts, though, like Illuminated Lips and Small Dessert I, lips are completely dissociated from the face. In the lamps the lips are at the top, in the paramount positions. There are other pieces in which bouquets of lips on stems burst from the tops of heads. Aren't the brains supposed to be at the top? 

Lips are not, for Szapocznikow, merely flesh that bears rouging. They are the portals to the voice, and hence to the intelligence, to the soul that is damned to live in the body, never to surpass its boundaries no matter its radiance (lamps), its bloom (flowers from a gray, decaying vessel), or seductiveness. With the death of the corporeal comes the death of wit, speech, and idea. In life, the mouth protects privacy, allows and disallows access to the soul. 
Illuminated Lips and Marching Lips, c. 1966
Colored polyester resin, electrical wiring, metal,
11–20 1/2 inches high. Courtesy The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow/
Piotr Stanislawski and Private collection, courtesy Galerie
Isabella Czarnowska  respectively. © The Estate of Alina Szapocznikow/
 Piotr Stanislawski / 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS),
 New York / ADAGP, Paris

It's a common trope in criticism to say that this or that artist's work "celebrates" its topic; to attribute love to consistent acts of attention. Generally in life, this seems to be true: We grow emotionally close to what we spend time with, whatever we may initially believe or feel at the outset, however difficult or disturbing it may seem. Szapocznikow's sculptures don't celebrate the body, though. They anatomize and study it in a way more scientific, as if from first principles by an anatomist of experience. Flesh is the repository of an individual's every experience. 

How is the body to be celebrated by a person who, before age 30, has survived the prospect of death in concentration camps and barely escaped death by tuberculosis? What knowledge is behind the closed lips that will not yield to bullying about what her eyes (never represented as seeing) have seen of other tormented, tortured, and dying bodies? How will we ever know what it is like to be in the mind that inhabits a body pulled alive from stinking acres of death?

Both medicine and psychiatry acknowledge that people who suffer unspeakable events, especially as youth, have less chance of flourishing than those whose lives have taken normal courses, free of extraordinary torment, guilt, or suffering. Horror begets vulnerability to disease; every experience in life registers permanently in the body, continually reshaping it and altering its resilience. Szapocznikow's physical descent—despite her brilliance, determination, and astonishing, daring output—was perhaps doomed by her experience. 

But art is experience too, and it seems just as likely to me that, for a person to whom life handed such a crushing and bitter lot, to choose the experience of art-making was to choose the most powerful of all antidotes to devastating experience. She chose the bravest way to extend her survival and most intense way to live. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

"The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League 1936-1951"

This vast, eye-popping, deeply informative show, a collaboration between the Columbus Museum of Art and The Jewish Museum, has already been praised by The New York Times, reviewed in ARTNews (April 2012), noted in a National Public Radio blog, and highlighted by Vince Aletti in the New Yorker's "Critic's Notebook" (December 19, 2011). My contribution at this point can only appear weak competition in the genre of encomium. The Radical Camera opened in Columbus in April, so the local print media long ago seized the opportunity to recommend it to Ohio audiences. I am left  to write only about the ideas the show gave me.

Marion Palfi, In the Shadow of the Capitol, 1948, gelatin silver print.  

The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Photography Acquisitions Committee Fund.
  © 1998 Arizona Board of Regents, Center for Creative Photography.

During the 1930s, the New York Photo League formed around the missions of documenting everyday life and identifying social injustice in its many forms. The Photo League work molded our assumptions about black and white documentary photography and, ultimately, about photojournalism in the early days of Look and Life magazines. Members of the League included WeeGee, Lisette Model, W. Eugene Smith, and Aaron Siskind, to whose Harlem Document—a collaboration with  several other white photographers—we still owe many of the most enduring and misleading images of that neighborhood.

As thanks for their radical innovations in photographic subjects, the Photo League was blacklisted in 1947 for alleged Communist activities. The League disbanded under pressure in 1951.

There isn't an image in The Radical Camera that wouldn't move the most obdurate of hearts, save for a very few that were motivated by formal interest. Photos of primarily artistic appeal, though, almost by definition have no people in them. In the context of the League's social mission, whenever a figure is present, even in the most beautiful composition, we necessarily focus on the peopled context first and the aesthetic later. 
Morris Engel, Harlem Merchant, New York, 1937, from Harlem Document, 1936-1940,
gelatin silver print.  Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, Photo League Collection,
 Museum Purchase with funds provided by Elizabeth M. Ross, the Derby fund,
John S. and Catherine Chapin Kobacker, and the Friends of the Photo League.
  © Estate of Morris Engel

This Morris Engel photograph from the Harlem Document is a beautiful composition. Do the balance of scales, the symmetry and asymmetry, depend on having a human face in the top central portion? What if a painting with similarly dispersed light were placed in that niche? Or a decorated jug? Is the photo essentially about the man? Or is he one replaceable element, like anything else in the artistic arrangement? 

The most basic fact about documentary photography—the fact that the effective documentarian must render invisible—is that the photo is always trying to persuade the viewer. The photographer wants you to think something you wouldn't have thought before, or to believe it in a heightened degree. The New York Photo League artists were on missions to melt our hearts. Do they get our minds?

The League's idea was to capture the world "as it really is"—as photographers would encounter it on the street. "What really is" comes to us through the artists' personal points of view, however, and those have to be communicated strategically if our attention is to be held at all. Most of us would be quite content never to look at social realities at all. Few willingly look directly at poverty or injustice without some effective persuasion to do so.

How did photography get us to comply in looking at disease, urban poverty, compromised children, and despairing parents? Why do we willingly shuffle, wide-eyed, from print to print in this show, heart-strings yanked by the serial visions of injustice and bitter realities? How, for that matter, did we get to this place, now, where media are now so awash with images of injustices "as they really are" that we beg for respite from the onslaught? Is The Radical Camera so appealing a show because it returns us to the time when documentary images made a difference?

Perhaps it's because those New York Photo Leaguers of the '30s and '40s actually needed to persuade viewers about a novel agenda, that their new subjects were worth attention. These photographers had to develop strategies to engage an audience unused to observing unappealing subjects.

Rosalie Gwathmey, Shout Freedom, Charlotte, North Carolina, c. 1948,

gelatin silver print.  Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, Photo League Collection,
Museum Purchase with funds provided by Elizabeth M. Ross, the Derby fund,
John S. and Catherine Chapin Kobacker, and the Friends of the Photo League.
© Estate of Rosalie Gwathmey / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

One of the League's most obvious tools, used time and again with an one hundred percent success rate, is ironic juxtaposition. Often, this places pieces of text incongruously in a scene where it is wildly inappropriate or ironic, creating either dark comedy or a moment of embarrassing distress. Rosalie Gwathmey's, Shout Freedom, Charlotte, North Carolina, is composed on the most obvious idea, that this tattered child lives in poverty that will prevent her from enjoying most freedoms the viewer takes for granted. While the child looks directly at the camera, the composition nevertheless eases our guilt by leading the eye to the largest, brightest element, the sign that dominates behind the very dark girl, making her face difficult to see. The irony of the sign creates a bitter humor, but it also gives us somewhere to look besides at the pathetic image of the girl—from whom we'd look away in real life, too. Irony softens the blow and gives us space as we enter this new, troubling territory.
Joe Schwartz, Slums Must Go! May Day Parade, New York, c. 1936,
 gelatin silver print.  Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, Photo League
 Collection, Museum Purchase with funds provided by Elizabeth M. Ross,
 the Derby Fund, John S. and Catherine Chapin Kobacker,
 and the Friends of the Photo League.  © Joe Schwartz.

By contrast, an image in which text is delivered straight, Joe Schwartz's Tenants Union Represented on May Day pictures a tableau of people holding signs naming the evils of the slums. They look like...people holding signs with words. Surely the shawls, plain clothing, and grim expressions signal the poverty of these people. Still, they are standing up for something, rather than looking downtrodden. The lack of irony or emotional contrast makes this a dull picture indeed compared with most others in this show. The visual strategy is to make us feel pity or guilt, but it's hard to feel either for people who address their own plight head on, in so many words.

Erika Stone wakes us up to the irony of everyday life in Lower Eastside Facade, a photo in which our expectations, heavily colored by the world of consumer advertising, run directly up against the expectations of the people consumerism leaves behind. Like the blonde in the ad, we only have to look the other way and the reality of washing worn knickers disappears.
Erika Stone, Lower Eastside Facade, 1947, gelatin silver print.  Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, Photo League Collection,
 Museum Purchase with funds provided by Elizabeth M. Ross, the Derby Fund, John S. and Catherine Chapin Kobacker,
 and the Friends of the Photo League.  © Erika Stone.
Sol Prom (Solomon Fabricant), Untitled (Dancing School), 1938,
 from Harlem Document
, 1936–40, gelatin silver print.
  The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase:
Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Fund.
Copyright, Estate of Sol Prom.
Another strategy is to present the unfamiliar or upsetting in a familiar or tolerable guise. Black teens rest gossiping, crammed onto a bench at the Mary Burch Dancing School in Sol Prom's photo from the Harlem Document collection. Prom has cropped the image to make it appear that they exist in all the space there is, as if it were the artificial space of a stage set. The curtain has just gone up, and here they are, in medias res for the first scene. Who will enter on the narrow skirt to disrupt their good spirits? Prom also knows that he has behind this picture the force of our acquaintance with Degas ballerinas preparing themselves for the stage. We will not see this simply as a group of working class girls; we will see the dramatic potential of the scene, and the usual romantic tropes of nubile young dancers. Will the young dancers of art history make the audience for this image empathetic? Or will it make us squirm?

Arthur Leipzig similarly connects with drama in "Chalk Games," a scene of boys playing in the street. By capturing their games from an interesting point of view, above them, they are framed amidst the drawings as dancers moving among the markings on a stage. This stage is defined by the parked cars and the edges they have drawn. What a passer-by might see as a bunch of rowdy kids at the limits of control Leipzig has transformed into urban theater, conferring sense and innocence on a scene people might otherwise lower their heads and  scurry past.
Arthur Leipzig, Chalk Games, Prospect Place, Brooklyn, 1950, printed later, gelatin silver print. 
The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Rictavia Schiff Bequest.  © Arthur Leipzig.

Many of the Photo League images insure that the viewer is more than an audience to drama, but even becomes part of an action. How can we not turn our heads to the right, like everyone else in Lucy Ashjian's Untitled (Group in Front of Ambulance)? We are the only ones who aren't seeing the emergency, and we have to be fascinated, wondering what causes their reactions, and how a woman with a baby feels about possibly seeing blood and guts. Just how lurid is the scene? Here are ordinary people, exposed—and vulnerable—to the accidents of life, just like we are. We are out of the frame too: We relate to the people in the picture, but also to the victim—the only other person who, like us, is out of the frame and alive to misfortune in the moment.
Lucy Ashjian, Untitled (Group in Front of Ambulance), c. 1938,
Harlem Document
, 1936–40, gelatin silver print.  Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio,
 Photo League Collection, Museum Purchase with funds provided by Elizabeth M. Ross,
 the Derby Fund, John S. and Catherine Chapin Kobacker,
and the Friends of the Photo League.  © Estate of Lucy Ashjian.

Ultimately, though, nothing captures the empathy of the viewer like a person who looks us in the eye. Among the most important subjects for the Photo League were children and children's welfare. Time and again they delivered pictures that stop our hearts by capturing the innocent directness, curiosity, and fearless scrutiny of children. The first picture in this article is a marvelous example; the photo below is another. These, as so many others, reveal the  children of the city living among squalor, dangers, and the ambiguous benefits of premature independence. The "hard-edged" photos often evoke compassionate responses that can sometimes bleed into the sentimental. These images effectively inform us about terrible conditions, but most of all, they move us.

In 2012, I know that I can't tolerate the gaze of every marginalized child pictured in the press. I can't bear to look at all the pictures from the theaters of war in our cities or in poppy fields abroad. I'm crushed by too many images of the world "as it really is" and I willingly avoid them. Since the New York Photo League's demise, the world has succumbed to non-stop advertising and news that harden us to visual persuasion and permit us simply to tune it out. 

Arthur Leipzig, Ideal Laundry, 1946, gelatin silver print.  The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Esther Leah Ritz Bequest.
  © Arthur Leipzig.
The Radical Camera gives me this consolation, though: Looking at even a few great photographs—in this collection, or among the Pulitzer Prize winners from year to year—will impress the mind with the images that matter. These are the ones so artful and committed that we can't escape their impact. The children in the window of Leipzig's Ideal Laundry  are with me to stay, along with the complicated emotions they evoke. I would know these children anywhere. In fact, try as I may to avoid them, I see them  every day.

The Radical Camera opened at The Jewish Museum, New York, in 2011. It closes at the Columbus Museum of Art on September 9, 2012 and moves next to the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from October 11 through January 21, 2013. The show finishes its tour at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, running from March 15 through June 15, 2013.