Charlottean Sonia Handelman Meyer, who’s nearly 94, didn’t learn about the McCarthy era in history books. She lived it. The New York Photo League, of which she was a member, was labeled as a subversive organization during the McCarthy witch hunt. Some of its members were blacklisted. The resulting dissolution of the group forced some members to leave photography entirely.
It was not until 2002, after Meyer moved to Charlotte to be closer to family, that her work was rediscovered. “When I moved to Charlotte, miracles began to happen,” Meyer says.
Now, 62 years after the Photo League broke up, Meyer is getting her due. The Nov. 23 opening of Bearing Witness: The New York Photo League and Sonia Handelman Meyer at the Mint Museum on Randolph is the first major museum show dedicated to her work.
The Mint’s Amber Smith, who curated she show, says, “Within a period of only five years – from 1945 to 1950 – Sonia created an incredible body of work. The quality and breadth is astonishing.” The exhibition started with three 1947 prints by Meyer the Mint acquired last year and grew to include 100 photographs by 20 Photo League members. Smith discovered many of those in the Mint’s collection.
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The Photo League was established in New York City in 1936 by a group of young, socially conscious “street” photographers. In addition to ideals, the group shared a school, darkroom and gallery. Meyer recalls those early days: “I was discovering New York City and its people in a way that was new – and wonderful – with my camera. I began to see what the Depression meant in the lives of people in the city. I began to appreciate and love the people and places I was photographing. I realized that understanding them might also bring about changes for the better.”
While Meyer and the other members of the group were interested in artistry, there was always a higher purpose to their work. Smith says the Photo League members were “ultimately concerned with social justice issues and advancing photography not only as an art, but more importantly, as a platform to affect change.”
“Sonia was out walking the streets of New York City with her camera literally every day, photographing what she saw — the adversity and the beauty — and doing it in a way that was dignified and compassionate,” says Smith.
Her subjects often included Jewish immigrants and refugees at the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society and patients at the Sydenham Hospital, the first integrated hospital in the country, life in Harlem and Spanish Harlem and children. Meyer and the other Photo League photographers captured the lives of ordinary – often marginalized – people in a way that showed their humanity.
“She worked instinctually, usually only taking one of two shots of any subject,” Smith says. “She has an amazing eye for composition and an innate ability to capture a moment without interfering with it. This approach goes hand-in-hand with her quiet, unassuming nature.”
Meyer aimed for realism and sought to enlighten. “Exposure to reality will educate and inform and, one hopes, promote change,” says Meyer. “The Photo League was focused on fine photography and on [documenting] the real world in all its beauty and problems and joy and suffering.”
The Photo League was revolutionary during its time, but its work has proved timeless. Photo League members created art in response to the struggles of the era in which they lived, yet Smith says, “They were dealing with many of the same issues we still grapple with — poverty, social inequalities, crime, unemployment — and so this work remains incredibly relevant to our lives today.”