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Bearing Witness: The New York Photo League and Sonia Handelman Meyer

23 November 2013 - 29 June 2014

Mint Museum Randolph



Sonia Handelman Meyer

Spanish Harlem, ca. 1947

Rosalie Gwathmey

Beer Garden, 1947

Berenice Abbott

Untitled (Truck Being Repaired), ca. 1950 



Bearing Witness: The New York Photo League and Sonia Handelman Meyer comprises approximately 90 photographs by members of The Photo League, established in New York City in 1936 by a group of young, idealistic photographers. It consisted of a school, darkroom, gallery, and meeting place, but it was also a place where photographers learned about their position in the world, both as artists and as people. Their dedication to social imagery led these photographers into their own neighborhoods, exploring the streets with their cameras, and capturing the lives of ordinary people as they had never before been depicted.


The exhibition highlights the work of Sonia Handelman Meyer. Born in Lakewood, New Jersey in 1920, Meyer spent most of her life in New York City. She was introduced to the Photo League in 1943 and remained a member until its closure in 1951. Like the other members of the Photo League, Meyer was intent on making meaningful images that could affect social and political change, and she began taking photos of the people and the city around her. The photographs presented in this exhibition underscore Meyer's concern with social justice and her humanist approach to documenting her subjects, including her work with the Sydenham Hospital, the first integrated hospital in the country, the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, her extensive documentation of life in Harlem and Spanish Harlem, and her moving, dignified portraits of children.


By the late 1940s, the heightened anti-liberal social political climate of the McCarthy Era had placed the group in the precarious position of being listed by the Attorney General as a "subversive organization." In this hostile environment of blacklisting and accusations, membership declined and the Photo League was ultimately forced to disband in 1951. However, in the brief 15 years of its existence, the Photo League had expanded and revolutionized what documentary photography could be, moving away from purely objective imagery into more challenging arenas of life that could have lasting resonance.


After the painful and destructive conclusion of the Photo League, Meyer similarly fell into obscurity. Over time, she lost touch with many of her friends and colleagues at the Photo League. She had married- changing her name and making it difficult to be located- and increasingly turned her attention towards the care of her family. As a result, her extraordinary and prolific body of work had been omitted from museum collections and major exhibitions on the Photo League and was all but forgotten for nearly six decades. It was not until 2002, after Meyer moved to Charlotte, North Carolina to be closer to family, that her work was rediscovered. Within the past six years, Meyer has enjoyed a renaissance of interest in and appreciation of her work as an important contribution to the legacy of the Photo League. Although Meyer first picked up the camera 70 years ago, she has never before been the subject of a major museum exhibition until now.


The thesis of the exhibition, and the accompanying exhibition catalogue, revolves around the notion that even as Photo League members sought to engage the realities of a very particular milieu, they accomplished this feat in a way that managed to transcend their own social and political era, ultimately depicting something timeless - the humanity, struggles, and triumphs that reside at the core of human life. 


This exhibition also presents work by additional members of the Photo League, including Berenice Abbot, Margaret Bourke-White, Vivian Cherry, Morris Engel, Lewis Hine, Sid Grossman, Rosalie Gwathmey, N. Jay Jaffee, Arthur Leipzig, Rebecca Lepkoff, Barbara Morgan, Arnold Newman, Ruth Orkin, Walter Rosenblum, W. Eugene Smith, Lou Stoumen, Todd Webb, and Ida Wyman, among others. Organized by The Mint Museum.



Featured Artists 

Sonia Handelman Meyer (1920 -    )


Berenice Abbott (1898-1991)


Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971)


Vivian Cherry (1920-      )

          Vivian Cherry's stories behind her photographs, depicting life in the 1040's and 1950's in New York City. 



Morris Engel (1918-2005)


Sid Grossman (1913-1955)


Rosalie Gwathmey (1908-2001)


Lewis Hine (1874-1940)


N. Jay Jaffee (1921-1999)


Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)


Arthur Leipzig (1918 -     )


Rebecca Lepkoff (1916-     )





Barbara Morgan (1900-1992)


Arnold Newman (1918-2006)


ArnoldNewmanVideo from Les Wollam on Vimeo.




Ruth Orkin (1922-1985)


Walter Rosenblum (1919-2006)


W. Eugene Smith (1918-1978)


"W. Eugene Smith's Caregiving Photo-Essays," By Sam Stephenson from Center for Documentary Studies on Vimeo.


Lou Stoumen (1917-1991)


Todd Webb (1905-2000)


Ida Wyman (1926-     )


General Online Resources about the Photo League


Selected Print Resources in the Mint Museum Library









Created by Christy Dooley, intern for the Mint Museum Library