The Photo League was famous for their Photo Hunts—popular competitions in which both budding photographers and professionals competed in photographic scavenger hunts for prizes. Once a year, contestants flocked to the League to receive their assignments which ranged from the obscure to the ridiculous: “Tired Feet,” “Chase a Blonde,” “The Law,” “Bring Me Wine.” Participants had just a few hours to run around town with their cameras and rush back to the League with their film by deadline.
While darkroom volunteers processed the contestants’ negatives and printed the best pictures taken that day, Photo Hunters were treated to spaghetti suppers, drinks, music and dancing. “Swell entertainment” for the evening might include the calypso dancer Belle Rosette, a young comedian named Zero Mostel, or folk singer Pete Seeger.
Around midnight a “bang-up” slideshow of photo entries was put on. Winning prints were then selected by a panel of expert judges featuring celebrities such as Life reporter W. Eugene Smith and crime photographer Weegee. Modest prizes of photographic equipment, such as a case of flash bulbs, meant the world to photographers struggling to make ends meet during the Depression and World War II.
Winners were named in the League’s acclaimed bulletin Photo Notes; sometimes they even had their photos published in the popular magazine U.S. Camera. Even those who didn’t win could go home happy knowing that the price of their admission ticket would go to supporting the League. As one satisfied photographer put it, “The only question in our minds was how the Photo League could give us so much fun and entertainment for only a dollar fifty!”
Photo Hunt is a new blog series that will run in conjunction with our exhibition The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951. From now until the show closes on March 25, 2012, I’ll be selecting highlights from our exhibition and treating them as Photo Hunt assignments. I’ll be hunting down where the Photo Leaguers’ pictures were taken and photographing them again today, to show you what New York City looked like then, and what it looks like now. Stay tuned for our next installment, when the Photo Hunt takes us to Mulberry Street.
Curatorial Assistant, The Jewish Museum, New York