On the living room wall of her Park Road apartment, Sonia Handelman Meyer keeps a framed black-and-white photo of elderly women huddled together outside the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society in Manhattan.
She shot the image with a Rolliecord camera in the late 1940s, after World War II ended and New Yorkers were recovering from the Depression. Meyer slipped inside an open gate to find the Jewish refugees waiting in line at the aid society. She also captured images of African-American children playing in the dirt in Harlem, and volunteered to shoot pictures of the city’s first interracial hospital.
Meyer was a member of the Photo League, a group of artists who set up a school, darkroom, gallery and salon in Manhattan to produce work that was both aesthetically beautiful and politically potent. Their members included Lewis Hine, whose photos of children working in factories helped prompt the U.S. government to enact child-labor laws.
In 1947, the U.S. Attorney General blacklisted the Photo League as a “subversive” organization. The FBI later accused League co-founder Sid Grossman of being a Communist, and the fallout led the League to shut down in 1951. Meyer, who had recently married, began spending time in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, where her family was building a house. She had children and drifted away from her camera. Her photographs were packed up and largely forgotten for decades.
But her son, Joe, wouldn’t let them stay buried. He started sharing her prints with friends in the art world in Charlotte, and in 2007, Hodges Taylor Gallery mounted a show of Meyer’s work called “Into the Light.” National attention and exhibitions followed. Meyer now has images in the permanent collections of the Jewish Museum in New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Bank of America.
This winter, just before her 98th birthday, she shared her thoughts about photography, social justice, and the importance of believing in yourself. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.
“The war ended the Depression but there [were] still difficulties of getting jobs. And it was harder for women to get jobs. Some of our women [at the League] began to make a name. I didn’t, I never pursued it.”
“I was shy about it. I never had very much confidence. … I was given an entree to one of the Life editors, one of the photography editors at Life. And it was pretty early on. I took my work up to show her, and she liked it very much. And she said, ‘Come back in one year and I’ll see more of your work.’ And I never went back.” (Meyer pauses, then chastises herself. “Stupid.”)
“I’m not a technical photographer. I’m an emotional photographer.” (She laughs). “I saw something that hit me, and I’d shoot it and go. Because if you stuck around, you became involved in it. I saw what I wanted, I saw what I felt. That was it.”
“Once, three little boys kept following me, saying. ‘Take my picture, take my picture.’ And I wouldn’t do it because I didn’t like to pose them. Finally, after several blocks of this I said, ‘OK, OK.’ I took it and they posed themselves.” (This became the photograph titled “Boys, Spanish Harlem.” )
“I was secretary [at the League] at the time we got the notice that we were on the attorney general’s list. One of the newspapers called, I don’t remember anymore which one. And they told me that the Photo League had been put on the attorney general’s subversive list. And I said, ‘Heavens to Betsy, what have we done now?’ And he [the reporter] thought that was very funny. I thought it was funny too, but I didn’t realize how serious it was.”
“When Sid Grossman was named as a Communist, everybody got really frightened. People were losing their passports, losing their jobs, and they had to leave. And that destroyed the Photo League. It was a great tragedy.”
“After the Photo League stopped, our family was changing. For one thing, my family was building a house up in the mountains in New York state. And I discovered nature. It was nice. And I started to shoot in color, I have a lot of color slides – some of them are good, not all. And I learned a lot about flowers and trees and weeds. That was a whole new kind of life that I found important and beautiful and I liked. Really part of the same thing, isn’t it?”
“I think what happened to the Photo League really destroyed some of my feeling about photography. It was so unjust, it was so cruel, so destructive. I really think that had something to do with my backing off from it.”
“I regret not having continued to shoot. I would be interested in what I did.” (She laughs). “I regret that I didn’t try to do more in the early days – showing my stuff around. It was such a surprise to me here when that first exhibit in 2007 came, ‘Into the Light.’ It really was a surprise to me. A very happy one. … That’s been one of the wonderful things in the last few years: At the exhibits, people of all ages and of all backgrounds have come over to me and talked about the pictures, and been grateful for them and liked them – loved them.”
“I wish I had known that I had this talent.”
Lisa Rab is a Charlotte-based journalist whose work has appeared in Harper’s and Politico Magazine. Reach her at lisarab.com.