Revealing subjects – Sonia Handelman Meyer, 2016 ASC Honors

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Why this matters: ASC recognizes that creative individuals and teachers enrich the cultural lives of everyone in our region and beyond through their work.

Sonia Handleman Meyer, a former New York Photo League photographer whose images of social injustice in the 1940s and ’50s were rediscovered in Charlotte, is honored with the 2016 ASC Honors award for lifetime achievement in visual art. Photo by Nancy Pierce.
Sonia Handleman Meyer, a former New York Photo League photographer whose images of social injustice in the 1940s and ’50s were rediscovered in Charlotte, is honored with the 2016 ASC Honors award for lifetime achievement in visual art. Photo by Nancy Pierce.

By Michael Solender

Sonia Handelman Meyer’s passion for photography grew from a chance encounter she had in 1942 while working as a civilian for the U.S. Army Signal Corp at Ft. Buchanan in Puerto Rico.

“I met a young man working for the National Youth Administration taking pictures of the conditions,” recalled Meyer. “His photographs were beautiful and exposed things that needed to be changed. I knew immediately this was something I wanted to do.”

In photography, Meyer saw an opportunity to satisfy an unfulfilled longing to create art and seize upon a vehicle to influence change.

“The power of social change and the need for social justice was something very deep in me,” said Meyer.

Upon her return to New York, Meyer joined the New York Photo League, the historic photographers’ cooperative of pioneering change agents addressing social causes such as poverty, racism and civil rights.

From 1943 to 1951, Meyer’s studio was the streets of New York City. As she traversed through Harlem, Spanish Harlem and many of the city’s impoverished neighborhoods, she captured poignant reflections of everyday life during this turbulent time in American history.

Some of her most enduring images are of the children at Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital, the first racially integrated hospital in the city, where she volunteered her time. Personal, immediate and honest, her photographs unveil deeply intimate character studies.

“As I walked the streets my eyes opened to what was there,” said Meyer. “Instead of passing things by, I looked at them and I saw them for what they were.”

Meyer’s work gained prominent national attention as part of the 1949 major exhibition, “This is the Photo League.”

When the Photo League ended in 1951, Meyer lost much of her enthusiasm for her work setting it aside to raise a family.

Since relocating to Charlotte in 2002, Meyer’s work has been rediscovered and found a new following. Hodges Taylor Art Consultancy, her representative, held a solo exhibition of her work in 2007. In 2013, 90 of Meyer’s photos were brought to life in the Mint Museum’s extensive exhibition, “Bearing Witness: The New York Photo League and Sonia Handelman Meyer.”

“What’s been most gratifying,” Meyer said of the renewed interest in her work, “is that people today see what I saw then and share the understanding.”

Her work is held in many prestigious collections including, the Metropolitan Museum, the Columbus Museum of Art, the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, New York City’s Jewish Museum, Charlotte’s Mint Museum and Bank of America’s Corporate Collection. “I never thought I was taking something away from the people,” she said of her subjects. “I felt I was revealing them.”

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