Sonia Handelman Meyer
By Daniel Coston

Sonia Handelman Meyer worked alongside the greats of photography during the 1940s, creating quiet masterpieces. As the lone employee of the Photo League, Meyer was on the front lines for the cultural upheaval sweeping through America during the late 1940s. When the Photo League closed, Meyer married and started a family, not knowing that nearly three decades would pass before the world discovered her photographic work.

Born in Lakewood, NJ in 1920, Sonia’s interest in photography began when one of her sisters gave her a Kodak camera as a college graduation present. She sailed to Puerto Rico just days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to work for the Signal Corps. After the Signal Corps, Meyer worked for the Office of War Information, and as a squeegee operator for a photo news agency, where she met Weegee (Arthur Fellig), a pioneering photojournalist. While in Puerto Rico, Sonia heard about the Photo League, based in New York City and, by 1944, she was the League’s secretary and also part of the Lewis Hine Committee, under Marynn Ausubel. One of Meyer’s photos was shown in The New York Times as part of a Photo League exhibition. The League also gave Meyer the chance to document the poor and immigrant neighborhoods around New York.

During this time, Meyer also became close with The Weavers, a popular folk group performing in the Catskills where Meyer was working. Her photos of the quartet were the first promotional photos of the legendary folk group, which introduced Pete Seeger to a wider audience. Many of those photos are reprinted today in books, postcards and magazines, although too often without credit to Meyer.

In 1947, U.S. Attorney General Tom Clark listed the New York Photo League as subversive and placed it on a blacklist, along with a number of cultural and social organizations. The League discovered they were blacklisted when Meyer took the phone call from The New York Times inquiring about their situation. The League fought the blacklist for a number of years, and Meyer continued working on her photography. Among her work during this time were photos of Sydenham Hospital in Harlem, which were used by the hospital, and were featured in a 1947 issue of U.S. Camera.

By 1951, the League had disbanded, and Meyer married. Over the next two decades, Meter continued photographing and gave birth to two children. In 1978, Meyer was interviewed, and had three of her photos used in the International Center Of Photography’s exhibition, This Was The Photo League.

Meyer came to Charlotte in 2002 to be closer to her son, Joe, and his family. Earlier, Joe had met Lili Geer, a Professor of Art History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Geer knew the work of the Photo League and began scanning and cleaning Meyer’s work from her days there.

With the help of Carolyn Demerritt and Carl Bergman, Meyer’s photos were featured at Hodges Taylor Gallery and word of the exhibit quickly spread. Since then, numerous museums have purchased her photos, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Jewish Museum, and the National Museum of Women In The Arts.Bearing Witness: The New York Photo League opened at the Charlotte Mint Museum Randolph in 2013, becoming Meyer’s first major exhibition. At the age of 94, Meyer and her work are more popular than ever, proof that great work will rise if given the time and place to be seen.

Sources:

Meyer, Sonia Handelman. Sonia Handelman Meyer. 2016. www.soniahandelmanmeyer.com

Mint Museum. Bearing Witness: The New York Photo League and Sonia Handelman Meyer. 2014.http://www.mintmuseum.org/art/exhibitions/detail/bearing-witness-the-new-york-photo-league-and-sonia-handelman-meyer

Sonia Handelman Meyer