Essay: The Film and Photo League by Martin Lucas
May 1, 2015
The Film and Photo League
by Martin Lucas
Images of Social Change
If asked to think of images of the 1930s Great Depression, we think typically of still photos: stark black and white shots of the misery associated with being jobless in a society where this meant starvation and homelessness. We see soup kitchens with long lines of desperate men, migrant workers fleeing the Dustbowl with hopelessness in their eyes. We might even have some kind of memory of the New Deal, perhaps FDR with his cigarette in its long holder. But there is a missing image: the image of millions of unemployed and unorganized Americans who were actively seeking ways out of desperation within months of the 1929 crash.
The 1930s in the US were a period of fervent and creative social upheaval. The country that emerged from that period some ten years later was in many ways an entirely different country, a nascent modern ‘welfare’ state instead of a laissez-faire one, and a society where people were able to conceive of themselves and their society in class terms, in national terms, and even in personal terms in ways completely different from previous periods.
One of the key new forms that helped construct an image of the American people for itself — one of what film scholar Jonathan Kahana calls ‘cultural technologies’ that arose in this period along with pollsters, government surveys, and photographic essays — was the documentary film. Although documentary has its origins in the Soviet Union and Great Britain, where government-supported non-fiction film was deployed to help define and create the modern state, in its American form the social documentary was initially conceived of as a radical tool, even revolutionary in relation to any state or government.
The Passaic Textile Strike, the Workers International Relief, and the Birth of the Film and Photo League
The work of the Film and Photo League (FPL), a small group whose short life extended from 1930 to 1937, was designed more to help make history than to record it. Their work framed many of the key features of American documentary. The FPL helped define the dynamism of the American working class through its social concern, its focus on ‘the voice of the people’, and its potential militancy. Today this work is almost lost: almost never seen, and rarely discussed at any length.
My own introduction to the FPL and its work was through one of its original members, Leo Hurwitz, whose son Tom taught at New York University in the late 1970s when I was a student in the film school. Leo showed us a series of films from both the Film and Photo League and from the Pioneer Film group that emerged from it. It was a revelation. I knew about Eisenstein, I knew about Dziga Vertov, but this was our own homegrown radical tradition, buried under the brooding legacy of the McCarthy era.
These films show the beginnings of the industrial labor movement: a society where people on the street were ready to fight brutal repression and stand for a better world; where the modern strike came into its own in Detroit, in New York, and in San Francisco. In FPL material from the mass demonstrations of that era we watch striking workers face shotguns and automatic weapons. In the case of the Bonus Marchers, we even see mounted cavalry slashing Army veterans with sabers under the command of General McArthur and within sight of the Washington Monument.
What are the origins of this small group that redefined documentary? One origin lies in the Cultural Front politics of the Communist Party (CP) in the period leading up to the Depression.
The Passaic Textile Strike of 1926 involved over 15,000 woolen workers in the Passaic area, who took part in the first Communist-led strike in the United States. In order to develop support for the striking workers, the Workers International Relief (WIR), a Communist Party front organization whose job was to support labor struggles around the world, funded the creation of a film.
The WIR had been founded in 1921 to help garner international help for Soviet famine relief; it was created by a German Communist with a flair for publicity, Willi Muenzenberg, who met with Lenin in Moscow and was given funding to set up the group. The New Economic Program of 1921 eased Soviet famine, and the WIR changed its mandate to include creating propaganda and supporting workers during strikes; it supported workers from British coal fields to Chinese factories. Significantly, the WIR also distributed Soviet films globally. In the Weimar period the German government made it illegal to show foreign films, so WIR moved the film part of its operation to Vienna. They produced Brecht’s only film, Kuhle Wampe, among other projects.
The seven-reel silent movie funded by the WIR in support of the Passaic Textile Strike was an organizing tool used extensively at meetings around the country and was a hit. Although it had a fictional storyline, audiences found the documentary footage compelling. As Phillip Foner notes, “Audiences were deeply moved by the film, especially by the scenes showing the atrocious police brutality against the strikers, including girl pickets and even the children of the strikers.” The strike was able to continue for a year to a successful conclusion. When the US economy collapsed in 1929, the WIR supported the creation of the FPL to continue this type of media support for the labor movement.
The 1932 rise of Hitler caused the WIR to relocate to Paris, where it mainly worked to support the Spanish revolution. By 1935 it was disbanded. Reading between the lines it seems that Stalin was uninterested in having an independent organization create Communist propaganda. Muenzenberg was found dead in a field in France, killed either by the Gestapo or the KGB. Shortly after this the FPL disbanded, its members going on to form new groups such as Nykino and Pioneer films.
The Work and Workers of the Film and Photo League
The FPL spent its short life showing footage of workers to other workers: workers out of work, workers on strike, workers fighting scabs. I say “footage” because these were often compilations rather than films shown as full stories, and in fact there was little focus on films as discreet products. With titles like “Unemployment Special, 1931”, “Detroit Workers News Special – Ford Massacre”, and “The National Hunger March 1931”, they were an important information source for workers who lived in a media vacuum.
The National Hunger March 1931
As FPL member Tom Brandon put it, “In the early 30s the media were distorting, blurring, or avoiding the problems of unemployment and hunger. Not only the media but the US government and the American Federation of Labor, until 1932, issued no statistics on unemployment, but in 1929, 1930, and early 1931, there were no official statistics given out on how many were unemployed.”
In contradistinction to this paucity of information from the mainstream media, and in a country with 16 million unemployed in 1931, the reality was evident to all even without evidence in mass media. The Left offered an outpouring of cultural production: magazines such as Masses, New Masses, New Theater, etc. As Tom Brandon put it:
“It was part of the big upsurge in the early Thirties when the middle-class professionals, artists, writers and other intellectuals, task forces, flying squadrons. The Theodore Dreiser Committee went to the Pennsylvania coal mines, Waldo Frank went to Kentucky with a delegation, Malcolm Cowley I think was arrested in West Virginia, Sherwood Anderson, Charles R. Wallser and many others were there, right in it. Film and Photo League people were part of these committees and were called in because there was always a possibility of sending camera crews along.”
The end results of these efforts added up to impressive output from what never seemed to be a very large group: about 16 issues of the Workers Newsreel, one longer documentary, and about 20 short documentary reports. But for a group whose goals were as much political as filmic, the distribution stands out as much as the production. Although one or two sympathetic cinemas in New York would screen these films, “distribution” generally meant a couple of FPL members going to a strike headquarters with a projector. The films in fact were silent, which meant the equipment was relatively simple. They were also typically shown paired up with a Soviet film such as Potemkin, or else with locally shot material that was often taken back to New York and incorporated into the next film.
FPL member Leo Seltzer emphasized the relation between subject and audience: “We showed our films in meeting halls and at strike headquarters, often to the same people we had photographed at demonstrations and on picket lines.” Steve Krinsky characterizes how the effort took FPL members nationwide.
“Tom Brandon, who coordinated much of the League’s distribution efforts, reported that in 1934 they had established about 90 towns in the Dakotas alone where FPL newsreels were shown along with films like ‘Potemkin’ and other radical classics. ‘The farmers eat it up,’ he wrote. ‘They flock in from miles around, and see the pictures in barns, schools, town halls; once even a big funeral parlor loaned by a friendly mortician.”
As Krinsky also notes the documentarians of the FPL were not operating in a vacuum, but rather in a rich environment of radical culture where people were deeply concerned with the relationship of culture to the struggle of workers, and also very concerned about their own roles as intellectuals.
“These debates were an important part of the development of the medium, particularly the evolution of the social documentary. The starting point of these debates, many of which were carried on in the pages of Experimental cinema (edited by FPL members Dave Platt and Lewis Jacobs), in New Theater and Film, and later in Filmfront, the League’s own publication, was the challenge of the Hollywood film.”
Who were the League members? They varied a lot. Some were progressive intellectuals: Sam Brody was the film critic for the Daily Worker. Leo Hurwitz was a young New York would-be filmmaker who had gone to Harvard on a scholarship. Lester Balog, who shot the Passaic film, dropped out of Cooper Union. Joseph Hudyma was an unemployed autoworker in Detroit before joining the FPL. Others were employees (or former employees) of the companies that produced the commercial newsreels shown before features in movie houses.
The FPL members didn’t see themselves as observers, and this perhaps is what gives the material they shot such immediacy even today. They were activists, and were identified as such by the police and arrested along with demonstrators as was Leo Seltzer who appears briefly being hauled off to the paddy wagon in “Unemployment Special’. The footage is dynamic for this reason as well. The long shot is rare, but we see instead a closeup of a black striker taking the stick he’s being hit with by a scab and whacking back, or the union spokeswoman being hustled into a paddy wagon. It cannot be stressed too much how these images of workers in struggle stood out in the American media landscape of the Depression.
Starting with the unemployed marches and Bonus Marches of the early 1930s, basic goals of unemployment insurance and a federal jobs program were achieved with the election of Roosevelt. And by the mid-thirties the American working class was effectively organizing a labor movement in the industrial sectors ignored by older craft unionism. 1934 alone saw General Strikes in Minneapolis and San Francisco, and a Textile Workers strike across most of the south involving some 400,000 workers. Those workers were brutally repressed, often by National Guard units. Strikers were shot down with machine guns in Woonsocket, RI, and put into leftover WWI POW camps in Georgia. But very often the labor organizations they fought to create survived.
The San Francisco FPL covered the San Francisco General Strike, and the headquarters of the FPL were subsequently burned. Lester Balog, a New York FPL member who had moved to the West Coast to set up a branch there, was jailed and fined. The films were identified as subversive material and destroyed.
The Legacy of the Film and Photo League
Today, it is very difficult to find films created by the Film and Photo League. Tom Brandon and Leo Seltzer put one compilation together. Copies of that film can be found at a few places, including the Museum of Modern Art. The single production of the San Francisco FPL is at the Walter Reuther Library. In print, the FPL is similarly hard to find. Several articles were written in the 1970s when there was a resurgence of interest in radical documentary, and a few since. This is all that remains of the FPL.
However, the members themselves went on to leave a legacy. Spinoffs from the FPL — Nykino and Pioneer films — continued to produce into the mid-1940s. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) era offered a new form of state-sponsored documentary, and FPL members provided the crew for Pare Lorenz’s classic “The Plow that Broke the Plains.” They also provided inspiration for others. The famous documentary photographer Dorothea Lange got her start when she abandoned portrait photography to document the SF General Strike in 1934.
A committed cultural movement that helps create resistance by framing it is still an important notion. As Jonathan Kahana notes, “the idea of a cultural technology whose public was also its product can compare with the advent of print where the text, e.g. Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, literally constitute the people.” And that is perhaps one of the most intriguing conundrums. Philosophers of representation will ask whether it is possible to be what you are representing. For the members of the Film and Photo League, their vision of the working class was both very real and highly visionary, and it very much helped to create the movement it showed to itself.
Russell Campbell “The Film and Photo League: Radical Cinema in the 1930s”
Jump Cut, no. 14, 1977, pp. 23-25
Russell Campbell “Film and Photo League Bibliography”
Jump Cut, no. 14, 1977, pp. 32-33
Brad Chisholm “Film and Photo League: Exhibition Strategies”
Jump Cut, no. 37, July 1992, pp. 110-114
Jonathan Kahana Intelligence Work: The Politics of American Documentary (New York, Columbia University Press, 2008.)
Steve Krinsky “Camera as Weapon” unpublished Ph.D. thesis
Carla Leshne “The Film and Photo League of San Francisco” Film History: An International Journal – Volume 18, Number 4, 2006, pp. 361–373
Fred Sweet, Eugene Rosow, Allan Francovich and Tom Brandon “Pioneers: An Interview with Tom Brandon” Film Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Autumn, 1973), pp. 12-24
George Stoney, Judith Helfand and Susanne Rostock The Uprising of ’34 (1995)
Martin speaks regularly in the US and abroad on topics including media education, public art, video as a tool for social change, and documentary film. He has organized conferences on locative and other emerging media forms and development and has created digital media training programs in locales from Siberia to Southern Africa. Most recently Martin has worked with Story Workshop in Malawi, Southern Africa, helping to develop production around gender violence, food security, and AIDS awareness, production that included the full-length feature film Okoma Atani, a look at the impact of AIDS on the life of a Malawian village.
Martin teaches video and new media production and theory in the Integrated Media Arts MFA Program of the Film and Media Studies Department at Hunter College, City University of New York. He has a BFA in film from New York University, and an MFA in Visual Art from the Vermont College of Fine Art.