Meet Fellow Gal Beckerman
Gal Beckerman, an author and journalist, was the opinion editor at The Forward. He was also a longtime editor and staff writer at the Columbia Journalism Review and has written for the New York Times, Boston Globe, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. He was a Fellow at the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Berlin and the recipient of a Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. His first book, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in September 2010. It was named was one of the best books of the year by The New Yorker and the Washington Post, and received both the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.
I’m in the beginning stages of working on a book about the New York Photo League. This was a group of young photographers — almost all the children of Jewish immigrants who grew up poor on the Lower East Side — who in the 1930s took up their cameras as a form of social protest. They began photographing the Depression-era America they saw around them, both in their native city and out in the rest of the United States. The book will focus on Sid Grossman, who was the main teacher and guide of the Photo League, a charismatic figure and a politically engaged artist. In the late 1940s as America moved from World War II to the Cold War, the Photo League and Grossman in particular became a target of the anti-Communist campaigns that would lead to McCarthyism. Eventually this would bring down the Photo League in 1952, lead to Grossman’s premature death three years later, and bring to an end this era of photography in the service of socialist ideals.
One of the central debates among the members of the Photo League, and the subject of the chapter I will be working on during my fellowship year, deals with the question of beauty. What kind of art can inspire outrage and change? Could that art also be beautiful or does its aesthetics undermine its political impact? Is a photo of a beggar in which the light is falling perfectly — even beautifully — on his face still politically powerful? Sid Grossman started off as a purist when it came to these questions, rejecting the notion that beauty should even be a measurement for judging his photographs. He saw his work as social documentary. But over the life of the Photo League — ironically, as he became more saddled with his political past — he came to see how beauty could play a role in his work, an ouevre that ended with his series of decidedly unpolitical and quite beautiful photos of birds.
When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: an excerpt
What drew you to apply to LABA?
I have always wanted to study Jewish texts but never seen an opportunity to do so within a non-religious context, as a literary experience. LABA allows you to do that, and to be part of a community of artists each approaching these texts from different perspectives. This seemed a fascinating chance to study collectively and try and actively influence my creative process by exposing myself to the richness of the tradition.
Why do you want to study beauty?
Beauty has always seemed one of the prime values for those of us toiling without religion. You seek to create to bring about beauty and break through all that is otherwise profane about life. But what exactly does beauty mean? How do we understand this quality that seems so subjective and yet is universal and a constant vantage point for all of us?