Sonia Handelman Meyer’s career spans significant developments in mid-century American art and history. Born in 1920 to Eastern European immigrants in Lakewood, NJ, and raised in New York City, one of her four sisters gave her a Kodak camera for a college graduation present. But before focusing on photography Meyer held many jobs; she sailed to Puerto Rico just days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor to work for the U.S. Signal Corps. After that, she worked for the Office of War Information. She also worked as a squeegee operator at a photo news agency, where she met intrepid photojournalist Weegee. It was during this time, in the mid-1940s, that she became an active member in the Photo League in New York City. The League offered its members a lively forum in serious photography, with exhibitions, publications, darkrooms, lectures, and other events. Meyer took classes there with John Ebstel and Sid Grossman, and later with David Vestal, using a Rolleicord. She also served in their only paid position (secretary) and on the Lewis Hine Committee, among others. But foremost, she dedicated herself to social documentary, taking photographs of local neighborhoods and their citizens with a keen and sympathetic eye for the human condition.
Meyer encountered the work of extraordinary and influential photographers at the League, such as Paul Strand, Berenice Abbott, Ansel Adams, among many others. After the League folded in the early 1950s, a Cold War casualty of the McCarthy-led witch hunts, she worked for a publishing company, in medical photography, and in public relations with Ralph Steiner. Married in 1950, she turned her attention increasingly toward nature photography and her family. Eventually, it was her son (and greatest advocate) Joe and his family that brought her to Charlotte. New York’s loss is now our gain, and a celebration of her work is long overdue.
Meyer’s work and life offer useful models for neglected women artists’ careers as well as mid-century social documentary. Although she exhibited her work at the Photo League during the 1940s and was included in a survey of League photographers at the International Center of Photography in 1978, she is virtually unknown; her work has been too rarely seen to have had any great influence on others. Even today her work is often unacknowledged (as is the case with her photos of The Weavers, often reproduced without any credit). If one used an outdated and facile model of art historical analysis, her career could most easily be “justified” by virtue of the more famous male photographers she associated with, rather than on its own terms; but that approach could never do justice to Meyer’s life.
Many of Meyer’s photographs and street scenes of immigrants, minorities, and children, whether in Harlem, the Village, or Brooklyn, accent the humanity and dignity of those facing economic adversity. Subjects without means endure, persevere, and survive, despite the odds. Poor children play and laugh; they find spaces of joy. Her children exist on their own terms (much like Helen Levitt’s, a photographer Meyer admired). They are free and lively, not merely “cute,” as they eke out their lives in the midst of towering tenements and poverty.
Like other social documentarians, Meyer was inspired by hero Lewis Hine (whose archive the League inherited). Her work seeks maximum visual legibility through strong black and white imagery that accents social content rather than abstract or introspective concerns. Meyer hoped that her images might inspire and move viewers to care, act, and support those in need (mere pity achieves little). And it becomes difficult – if not impossible – to ignore or discount the poor, oppressed, and disadvantaged when one is confronted by their humanity.
In the mid-1940s Meyer exhibited her work picturing Sydenham Hospital in Harlem. Her photos were also used in the hospital’s promotional materials to help fund this progressive hospital that was fully integrated and treated 60% of its patients without charge. Such projects were common in the League – she and another League photographer, Morris Huberland, worked cooperatively to produce a wide-ranging “document” of hospital images encompassing human stories of both triumph and adversity. One image, of a boy in a crib (whom she calls “my beautiful little boy”), was featured in “The Power of Pictures,” U.S. Camera (April 1947).
Other projects demonstrate Meyer’s breadth of vision, including her photographs of an anti-lynching rally in Madison Square Park, aimed at enacting stronger laws to end mob violence. She also documented a new progressive group of folksingers, The Weavers (whose members, including Pete Seeger, she met during a summer job in the Catskills). Another perennial subject for Meyer was the city itself, its streets teeming with motion, action, and life.
Meyer’s humanitarian concerns cross naturally from her art into her life. After “finding” one another (and what a surprise – a Photo League historian and a Photo Leaguer, both in Charlotte), I assigned a student of mine, Amanda Connolly, to archive Meyer’s work for her. Connolly was a natural; she developed a genuine delight in making coherent piles of magazines, clippings, negatives, and photographs. Meyer, initially rather incredulous at our attention, cooperated with interlopers digging through her personal files. What none of us expected was the development of an extraordinary three-generational kinship. As objective and detached as I’d try to be, our interview sessions always derailed; we would end up talking about our families, careers, religion, politics, women’s health. But this process of deepening interaction makes complete sense to me now. Meyer, as both artist and person, has a profound inquiry of and engagement with humanity, wherever or however she finds it.
Lili Corbus Geer, Phd., for catalogue produced in 2007 by Hodges Taylor Gallery in conjunction with the exhibition: Into the Light: Sonia Handelman Meyer, The Photo League Years
Artist: Sonia Handelman Meyer