Bearing Witness: The New York Photo League and Sonia Handelman Meyer to open November 23 at Mint Museum Randolph

The New York Photo League was established in 1936, and centered on the exploration of the power of photography to effect social change and capture the lives of ordinary people as they had never before been depicted. And now, the work of this era – focusing in particular on the remarkable photography of Sonia Handelman Meyer of Charlotte – will soon go on view in a special exhibition at Mint Museum Randolph. Bearing Witness: The New York Photo League and Sonia Handelman Meyer, comprising approximately 100 photographs from Photo League members, will be on view November 23, 2013 through June 29, 2014.


“Although Sonia’s work and the work of others at the Photo League were created in response to the struggles of this very specific time period, these photographers were dealing with many of the same issues that we still grapple with—poverty, social inequalities, crime, unemployment—and so this work remains incredibly relevant to our lives today,” said Amber Smith, who curated the exhibition for the Mint and is writing a catalogue to accompany the exhibition which will be published this spring.


The idea for the exhibition began last year when the Mint received a gift of three vintage 1947 prints by Meyer. The Mint’s collection includes nearly 100 other photographs by Photo League members, so building an exhibition around this trove, with a particular spotlight on Meyer’s work, strategically leveraged a core strength of the museum. Hodges Taylor Art Consultancy devoted a solo show to Meyer’s work in 2007, but this is the first major museum exhibition to focus on Meyer.


Born in Lakewood, New Jersey in 1920, Meyer spent most of her life in New York City. She was introduced to the Photo League in 1943 and remained a member until its closure in 1951. The photographs presented in this exhibition underscore Meyer’s concern with social justice and her humanist approach to documenting her subjects, including her work with the Sydenham Hospital, the first integrated hospital in the country; the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society; her extensive documentation of life in Harlem and Spanish Harlem; and her moving, dignified portraits of children.


“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 [Great] 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,” said Meyer. “I’m very grateful for this opportunity to show Photo League work along with my own photographs to Charlotte.”


Other photographers from the Photo League featured in the exhibition include Berenice Abbott, Margaret Bourke-White, Vivian Cherry, Morris Engel, Lewis Hine, Sid Grossman, Rosalie Gwathmey, N. Jay Jaffee, Arthur Leipzig, Rebecca Lepkoff, Barbara Morgan, Arnold Newman, Ruth Orkin, Walter Rosenblum, W. Eugene Smith, Lou Stoumen, Todd Webb, and Ida Wyman, among others.


The Photo League came under FBI suspicion during the McCarthy era and was accused of being a Communist front. Membership declined and the League was ultimately forced to disband. After the painful dissolution, some former League members chose to move away from photography. “Sonia was one of those photographers who faded from the public eye to a large degree. It has only been in the last decade that her work has been ‘rediscovered,’ so to speak,” said Smith. “Sonia is a kind and generous person, not only a true humanist, but an immensely talented photographer. It has been the greatest pleasure working so closely with her on this project.”


Bearing Witness: The New York Photo League and Sonia Handelman Meyer is made possible through generous support from MetLife Foundation, the charitable arm of MetLife, which recently relocated its U.S. Retail division in Charlotte. Additional support is provided by Young Affiliates of the Mint.


Members of the media are invited to a special media-only preview of the exhibition at 11 a.m. on Thursday, November 21 at Mint Museum Randolph, 2730 Randolph Road. Sonia Handelman Meyer will be present and available for interviews, and Amber Smith will lead a gallery tour. RSVP to

Above photo credit:

Jerry Siegel. American, 1958–

Sonia Handelman Meyer  2009

© Jerry Siegel