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NPR Arts & Life

After 70 Years In Boxes, Photos By Charlotte Woman Find Place At Mint, Met

Briana Duggan

In 1940s New York City there was a group of young idealistic photographers that called themselves the New York Photo League. They took to the streets to document the city’s inequality with the hope of changing it. Photos from the League are now on display at the Mint Museum Randolph through June 29.

Photographs taken by Charlotte resident Sonia Handelman Meyer are the focus of the exhibit, but the real story is how they got there.

There was a saying within the New York Photo League: a photographer should be changed as much through taking a photo as a viewer should be by looking at it.

Sonia Handelman Meyer is 93 and lives in a retirement home in south Charlotte. In her twenties she was a member of the New York Photo League. Back then, she’d roam the city, often taking photos of things that bothered her, especially children playing in the city’s slums.

“I guess the way its put now a days is this one percent 99 percent is wrong- is basically the whole thing,” Handelman said. “That people shouldn’t have to live in poverty while some people have more than anyone needs.”

But that mentality became too much for the US government of the time. In 1947 the Attorney General blacklisted the group calling it a ‘subversive’ organization, basically a front for the communist party. By the early 1950s the group had completely dissolved.

Meyer moved on. She got married and replaced street photography with family portraits. Sonia rarely talked about her time with the League – it’s end had been so painful. She stuffed all her Photo League negatives into boxes in her closet. Then 60 years later, stuffed them in a car and moved to Charlotte to be close to her family.

Credit Briana Duggan
"The people were, well, people I had seen all my life but looked different," said Meyer of her time taking photos with the New York Photo League. "I discovered a New York I had never seen before until I started to walk with a camera."

And that could have been it. If it weren’t for that trip to the stationery store in 2007 with her son, Joe.

“What happened was we were in Paper Skyscraper on East Boulevard and she was thumbing through the postcards,” Joe said.

And his mom walks up to him grinning, holding a postcard. It was a photo of Pete Seeger’s old band, the Weavers. She’d taken the photo as a favor for one of the band members years ago.

“I instantly recognized it as one of hers,” he said.  “And it said 'photographer unknown' on the back.”

Sonia still had the photo negative. Joe went home and called a friend of his that owns a gallery in town.

Credit Briana Duggan
Sonia Handelman Meyer has moved many times over the years, always taking her photos and negatives with her. Last year the Metropolitan Museum of Art bought one of her photos for $5,000. "So the same piece they bought was in a box 5 years ago," said Meyers' son, Joe.

“And I said, ‘um, my mom was a photographer and maybe you could look at this stuff and just tell mewhat you think,’” Mr. Meyer said.  “And they’re like, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, sure, whatever Joe’. And I take these now – these pieces that are in museums today - and I just run them through the fax machine or something and she called me immediately and said get your mother in here we want to talk to her this is great stuff.”

It was from there - at 86 years old - that that Handelman Meyers’ photography career really began. Last year the Metropolitan Museum of Art bought one of her photos for $5,000 and this exhibit at the Mint Museum Randolph is her first major exhibition.

“I kept them in boxes all those years,” said Handelman Meyer. “I never tried to do anything with them - even in the years I was shooting them. I had an entry into Life Magazine I knew somebody who knew somebody at Life and I took my pictures up there and she liked them very much and she said, ‘Come back with more work,’ and I never went back.”

And why not? She was shy, she said, “Didn’t have much confidence. And in a year, my life had changed too.”

So 70 years delayed, Sonia finally gets to feel the pride that comes with showing her art.

“All the publicity it still seems very strange to me and I really don’t care about it," Handelman Meyer said. “But I love the feeling that people are looking at these photographs and enjoying them and understanding them, believing in them. That’s what this whole thing means to me.”

Bearing Witness: The New York Photo League and Sonia Handelman Meyer is on display at the Mint Museum Randolph through June 29.

Sonia Handelman Meyer will speak about her work at a panel discussion at the Mint Museum on March 16.


This story is produced through the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to covering the arts.