Cabarrus

Charlotte woman’s photos show post-war America

“Children, Harlem,” portrays a group of children playing in the rubble of a vacant lot between 1946 and 1950.
“Children, Harlem,” portrays a group of children playing in the rubble of a vacant lot between 1946 and 1950. SONIA HANDELMAN MEYER

His fine eyebrows arc over wide-set, almond-shaped eyes. His hair is dark, curling over his forehead. Behind him, fabric hangs down multi-colored pieces – a tapestry background. His arms are filled with flowers.

“I love him,” Sonia Handelman Meyer says, “because he is my boy.”

The boy is likely in his 70s, if he is still living. Meyer herself is now 94 and lives in Charlotte.

She took his picture in New York, shortly after World War II. She was in her 20. He was about 6.

“He knew I was taking the picture, and he was really proud,” Meyer says. “I was, too.”

Meyer’s photography will come to Cabarrus County this August, courtesy of the Cabarrus Arts Council. Her work was most recently featured as part of a special show at Mint Museum Randolph, part of an exhibition on a nearly forgotten history – that of the New York Photo League.

The league was founded in 1936. Its members documented conditions among migrant workers, homeless persons and the unemployed. Members took pictures that explored and exposed racism, poverty and child labor, inspired, in part, by the work of photographers like Lewis Hine, whose pictures taken for the National Child Labor Committee led to the establishment of child labor laws and labor safety laws.

Meyer belonged to the league in the years after World War II. The league lasted until it was shut down by the government in 1951, labeled a subversive organization.

Undiscovered for years

Meyer raised a family, now and again showing the shots she’d taken to friends and relatives. But mostly, her pictures lay in boxes for years until her son, Joe Meyer, attended an exhibition in 1998 at The Light Factory in Charlotte. The exhibition included work of other female members of the league.

Meyer was inspired to speak to the curator, Lil Corbus, and the rediscovery of Meyer’s work began. As soon as they saw her photographs, professionals in the field wanted to put them on display.

Still, for Meyer, the attention was – and still is – a surprise. She feels unworthy of the notice she’s received.

“I always admired everyone else’s work,” she says. “I liked mine, but I didn’t see it as anything special.”

But when asked what makes a photograph worthy of notice, she thinks again.

“When you put it that way, I think they are worthy,” she decides. “They are good pictures, they are beautiful and meaningful and important socially.”

The exhibition of Meyer’s pictures will fill all the rooms the Cabarrus Arts Council has at its disposal in the Old Courthouse. This will be the first time the work of a single artist will be found in each and every area available for display. The photographs document life and times in New York between 1946 and 1950.

“We were living in a city, in a country,” she remembers, “that had come through a terrible depression and a horrible war: Supposedly we had won. But people were still hungry, looking for work, still unhoused.”

Pictures of children

Meyer documented conditions at Sydenham Hospital, the first interracial hospital in New York. She took pictures at an anti-lynching rally in 1946 after four African-American sharecroppers – one seven months pregnant – had been lynched in Georgia. Above all, she took pictures of children.

Like other league members, Meyer hoped to change the world with pictures.

“Without the intellectual motivation, I probably wouldn’t have taken these pictures. I was a radical in the ’40s – and,” she adds firmly, “not only in the ’40s.”

When she saw the work of Lou Stoumen, who had been documenting poverty in Puerto Rico, she was overwhelmed by the beauty – and by the dignity of his photographs.

On his recommendation, she joined the league. She took classes at night. She learned to get over the fear of walking around New York on her own. A couple of times, she was warned by policemen that she was not safe.

She walked anyway. Most of the time, Meyer’s subjects had no idea she was taking their picture. She was small, female and unobtrusive.

“I would shoot and shoot very fast,” she says, “one, sometimes two pictures, and go.”

Five young children play in the rubble of the projects. Nothing natural is in sight – not a tree or shrub marks the gray and gravelly desolation. Still, two small boys are looking away from the observer, their eyes awake and alive, one with his little hands at his hips.

A dirty-faced girl stands at a broken-down stoop. She, too, looks away. It is not clear if she is sad or just observing the world, thinking it over.

Immigrants sit on a bench, waiting for their turn to be interviewed. One man’s face is not to be seen; he is bent over, seemingly in exhaustion or despair.

A picture Meyer calls “Love” shows a young African-American couple standing on steps outside a building. Only their eyes touch, though he is standing in a posture of frank expectancy. She looks at him with a small, open smile.

One day, Meyer found herself being followed by three boys who wanted – more than anything – for her to take their picture. But she took pictures when people almost never knew that the shutter was clicking.

The boys followed her – block after block. Finally, she had been pestered enough. She agreed to take the picture.

One put his arms up in fighting pose. A second has his arms open wider, though still holding his hand in a soft fist.

“One was just standing there,” she remembers. “That was his way of showing me: ‘this is who I am.’”

She took many more pictures of children than other league members, she says. Children were interesting to her. They were, she says, “most vulnerable. Most beautiful.”

Changing the world

Does she still believe in the power of a picture to change the world?

“That’s what the Photo League hoped for,” Meyer says ruefully. But today’s world is, for her, a “dismal picture.” She is not sure that she could do anything now to change the injustice and unfairness she sees around her.

Still, she remembers the teenagers who wanted to talk to her at the Mint when they saw her work. She was amazed at their interest, at the way they wanted to know about the children she had so often made her subject.

Children are still a source of hope for Meyer; they continue to represent for her, what is most vulnerable and most beautiful.

If she were talking to young, aspiring photographers, she would still insist, she says, that they would need to be passionate about their work.

“Preferably,” she adds, “their work will mean something not only to themselves, but to others.”

Barbara Thiede is a freelance writer: barbara.thiede@earthlink.com.

Want to go?

The Galleries of the Cabarrus Arts Council are in the Historic Cabarrus Courthouse, 65 Union St. S., Concord. “Sonia Handelman Meyer” runs Aug. 17-Oct. 10 and is free. Free group tours are available, and activities for students are offered. Gallery hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday. For information, go to CabarrusArtsCouncil.org or call 704-920-2787.

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