An exhibition curated by Shelley Rice and Mike Nash with Jonno Rattman and students in both the Art History and Photography and Imaging Departments of New York University.
« The View From Left Field »
on view in the Department of Photography & Imaging
New York University
721 Broadway, 8th floor
New York, USA
September 4 – November 17, 2012
Opening Reception – September 14, 5 – 7 PM
This Blog Post is an adaptation of the wall text and a sampling of photographs from an exhibition on view in the New York University Department of Photography and Imaging Galleries from September 4 through November 17. All photographs are from the Daily Worker/Daily World Photographs Collection, part of the archives of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) at New York University’s Tamiment Library. These photos may not be republished without the consent of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA).
The View from Left Field was the name of a sports page of the Daily Worker, the official newspaper of the American Communist Party. New York University’s Tamiment Library, under the direction of Mike Nash, acquired the archives of the Party in 2006. Included in this acquisition, among the records, documents and publications that date from the 1910s to the end of the 20th century, was the photo morgue of both the Daily Worker and its successor, The People’s Daily World. The estimated 500,000 images in the morgue, filed away in boxes with written documents and currently being digitized for use by the public, include approximately 25,000 prints, 85,000 negatives and 165,000 wire service images, as well as 25 boxes of large format photographs produced for display purposes. The Worker and World photograph morgue and the larger Communist Party archive are widely recognized as a nationally important collection, certainly the most important that the Tamiment Library has acquired in the past 25 years.
One of the most significant special collections in the United States documenting the history of the American Left and the labor movement, the Tamiment Library substantially enhanced its visual holdings with the addition of this repository of images documenting Communist Party history, the Cold War and all of the 20th century movements for progressive social change that shaped American society. The original photography in the archive represents the work of staff and freelance photographers associated with the newspapers. Documentary images, they depict people at work, social conditions, factories, strikes, parades, farms, fields, struggles for civil rights and liberties, wars and revolutions. The fight for racial equality, whether by Paul Robeson, soldiers in the Spanish Civil War, or baseball players in America, runs throughout the visual narrative. Images of Soviet society and conditions in Eastern Europe during the 20thcentury, rarely seen by Western audiences, are also an important component of the archive.
Throughout the Fall 2011 semester, students in my Toward a Critical Vocabulary seminar systematically examined a selection of 12-14 boxes randomly pulled for this purpose by Michael Nash. Each box has one or more themes, whether that is the Vietnam War, agriculture in Czechoslovakia, May Day Parades, student protests, sports heroes or the Civil Rights Movement, and that theme is developed in folders filled with both photographs and printed, handwritten or typed documents. The students’ goal was to select images of exceptional interest – in form and/or content — that could be scanned, printed and exhibited in the 719 Broadway Gallery of the Photography and Imaging Department of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. After choosing the pictures, the students worked on related research papers with Professor Nash, who filled them in not only on 20thcentury history but also on the ideology of the party, thus helping them to understand the complex social history behind the images taken, collected and ultimately selected for publication in the Party’s newspapers.
This is, in other words, a project designed as a learning experience. It is not the definitive research exhibit on this material. It is a student sampling of available resources, an assemblage of amazingly interesting and relevant pictures, and not a comprehensive survey of the Tamiment’s archive. There are notable subjects missing from this show that are, of course, part of the library’s collection: pictures of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, records of major union strikes, demonstrations and negotiations of the 20th century and documents of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade that fought against Franco during the Spanish Civil War, among them. Students worked with and studied the material Nash chose for them, and often made decisions based on visual rather than strictly chronological or historical criteria. They were impressed with the quality of the images, and disturbed by something else that was missing: the lack of attribution. These pictures might have been taken by members of the Photo League who worked free-lance for the Daily Worker, or unknown talents, or perhaps by known artists and photojournalists living in New York at the time — but until we study this further we will never know. Much more research needs to be done to establish authorship, and this exhibition is designed to both celebrate wonderful material and to stimulate continued engagement.
Since The View from Left Field is being shown in a Photography Department Gallery, my colleagues wanted the exhibited images to look their best. All of the original pictures were, therefore, beautifully scanned and reprinted by Jonno Rattman, a student in the class, and then matted and framed by Karl Peterson and the rest of the gallery staff. Needless to say, this is not how the “working” photographs look in the Daily Worker archive. There they are of diverse sizes and materials; technically, they run the gamut and are in wildly variable conditions. Some are original black and white prints, some are post cards, some are wire service transmissions or clippings from other newspapers and many are torn or faded or covered with publishing marks. As a historian, I personally prefer to see the pictures in their “real” rather than their “ideal” state, so we have compromised, and composed an archival e-book of the original images, front and back, with their captions and marks, to accompany the show. This makes it possible for historical researchers to get a better sense of the actual state of images now stored in folders and boxes.
We are hoping that this sampling of what I call “the world in a box” will help to inform photographers, the NYU community, historians and the general public about the archival treasures stashed away in the university’s library, a major resource soon to be made available online. The study of this collection will add a lot to our understanding of photographic history, American history, the history of journalism, and international relations (among other things), and it is a visual feast chock full of information about the daily lives of humans on earth during both the quiet and the tumultuous moments of the 20thcentury.
The View From Left Field is dedicated to the memory of Michael Nash, who left us in July 2012. He didn’t make it to the opening he was so anticipating, but we know he is with us in spirit.