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‘We Cover New York’: protest, neighborhood, and street photography in the (Workers Film and) Photo League

Haran, Barnaby



This article considers photographs of New York by two American radical groups, the revolutionary Workers Film and Photo League (WFPL) (1931–1936) and the ensuing Photo League (PL) (1936–1951), a less explicitly political concern, in relation to the adjacent historiographical contexts of street photography and documentary. I contest a historiographical tendency to invoke street photography as a recuperative model from the political basis of the groups, because such accounts tend to reduce WFPL’s work to ideologically motivated propaganda and obscure continuities between the two leagues. Using extensive primary sources, in particular the PL’s magazine Photo Notes, I propose that greater commonalities exist than the literature suggests. I argue that WFPL photographs are a specific form of street photography that engages with urban protest, and accordingly I examine the formal attributes of photographs by its principle photographer Leo Seltzer. Conversely, the PL’s ‘document’ projects, which examined areas such as Chelsea, the Lower East Side, and Harlem in depth, involved collaboration with community organizations that resulted in a form of neighborhood protest. I conclude that a museological framing of ‘street photography’ as the work of an individual artist does not satisfactorily encompass the radicalism of the PL’s complex documents about city neighborhoods.

Journal Article Type Article
Publication Date May 10, 2019
Journal Arts
Print ISSN 2076-0752
Electronic ISSN 2076-0752
Publisher MDPI
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 8
Issue 2
Pages 61
APA6 Citation Haran, B. (2019). ‘We Cover New York’: protest, neighborhood, and street photography in the (Workers Film and) Photo League. Arts, 8(2), 61.
Keywords Street photography; Documentary; Neighborhood; Protest; Worker photography; Propaganda; Museum
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Copyright Statement
© 2019 by the author. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (

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