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The San Francisco Film and Photo League

Historical Essay

by Carla Leshne

Excerpted from: Leshne, Carla, "The Film & Photo League of San Francisco", Film History: An International Journal - Volume 18, Number 4, 2006, pp. 361–373

Striking workers listen to an organizing speech during the 1933 Cotton Strike. From the film Century of Progress by the San Francisco Film and Photo League. Courtesy Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University


In the 1930s, San Francisco and other urban centers in the U.S. had a vibrant cultural life centered around political activism. Communists, anarchists, socialists and fellow travelers knew how to have fun, and artists created groups and collectives to support a rich, engaged creative scene. From the Blue Blouse Players theater groups to the John Reed Clubs (writing and graphics), from the Red Dancers to the Film and Photo Leagues, cultural workers were engaged in a broad based movement to support industrial and agricultural workers, the unemployed, and to struggle for social change.

The Film and Photo Leagues, building on earlier international communications activities such as the German Workers’ FilmFoto movement, film “agit-trains” associated with the Soviet revolution, and silent era U.S. labor films, attracted members who worked to support workers’ organizing efforts, as well as showcase the lives, issues and experiences of people in the Depression era.(1)

As Sam Brody put it in 1934:

Ours is a gigantic task, challenging the most institutionalized of all the bourgeois arts with its monster monopolies and gigantic network for mass distribution.(2)

The earliest U.S. chapter of the Film and Photo League in New York formed in 1930 with the help of Workers International Relief, an organization created by the German activist Willi Münzenberg with the Soviet Communist Party to support striking workers across the world as well as Soviet famine victims. The League began by holding benefit screening of films to raise money for the campaigns, but soon crossed over into shooting films of the strikes, distributing photographs to publications such as ‘’The Labor Defender’’ and the ‘’Daily Worker’’, and putting out newsreels.

It was in 1933 that members of the New York League set off on a cross country trip that would land them in San Francisco, where they would activate the west coast chapter of the League.

Lester Balog, a young editor, projectionist, and photographer, and Ed Royce, an organizer for Workers International Relief, set out from New York on their trans-continental film tour in September of 1933. Departing from New York in Ed’s car after a crowded evening screening at the New York League headquarters, they loaded a projector, a print of Vsevold Pudovkin's Mother, and some New York Film & Photo League newsreels into the car and set off north, hitting Rochester and Buffalo then driving onto Detroit, Chicago and westward. Hopping from one town to the next, they had showings in 51 locales across the country at workers' halls, ethnic clubs, community theaters, and private homes. The second half of their film tour was in California, where they traveled down the coast and back up the valley during the fall of 1933 at the time of the largest agricultural strikes in California history.(3)

Along the way, Lester Balog shot footage of strikes, demonstrations, the World's Fair in Chicago, and a trial of labor organizers in Utah. The trip served as a benefit tour for the WIR, raising money to support striking workers as well as keep the tour moving. After an adventure in Utah during which Balog's undeveloped film was confiscated by authorities while he was recording a trial of union activists, the pair gave an evening screening at a roller rink between the towns of Price and Helper. They continued west:

We arrived in Frisco on our very last gallon of gas. We didn't have one penny, and we thought we can get into California for free. The only things we didn't figure with were the Vallejo Toll Bridge and the Oakland Ferry. We solved the problem by leaving my 97 cents watch at the bridge and getting rid of Ed's sweater (worth several bucks) at the Ferry.(4)
Western Worker event ads listing the October 7 screening of Mother at the Fillmore Workers Center Courtesy: Labor Archives & Research Center of San Francisco State University

The night of their arrival in San Francisco, Balog and Royce showed the film to an audience of 1000 at the Fillmore Workers' Center, which Balog described as "very enthusiastic." They continued to Carmel for a showing the next night, where he observed that the audience in this "sort of artist colony" was not as enthusiastic as at other showings, and "although they liked the shorts, the feature didn't go over very big.”(5)

1933 was the year of the biggest wave of agricultural strikes in California history. Fruit, lettuce and cotton pickers from the Imperial Valley up through the entire Central Valley, were walking off the job, demanding living wages, and being organized by the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU). In October, during the cotton harvest in Tulare County , the situation was heating up, and deputized vigilantes attacked a group of strikers, killing two striking farmworkers in Pixley. Royce, Balog and Sam Darcy, the regional head of the Communist Party in San Francisco, traveled together to the strike area, arriving on October 10. After camping for the night outside of Tulare, they arrived at the cotton strike headquarters just in time to join 500 strikers as the assembly set off to the county seat of Visalia to protest the murders of of the previous the day. Balog remarked "They had no parade permit, so I got the camera ready.”(6)

Otto Hagel and Hansel Mieth, a young couple from Germany, had been working as pickers in the fields earlier in 1933. By the end of October of that year, Mieth was back in San Francisco, having broken up temporarily with Otto and gone off and married Avedano Motroni, a shop window decorator. Hagel and Balog began to travel together showing films, and perhaps collaborating on shooting them.

The Film & Photo League set up shop in San Francisco at the Workers’ Cultural Center at 121 Haight Street. Also known as the Ruthenberg House, the building functioned much like Workers’ Centers in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other towns. Usually housing the Communist Party Headquarters as well as Workers’ Schools, John Reed Clubs, bookstores, libraries, soup kitchens, Labor Sports Unions, workers’ theatre groups, and Film & Photo Leagues, Workers’ Centers were prominent in left cultural life of the period.(7)

A December 1933 issue of the Western Worker announced the opening of the center on Haight Street. A library, showers and a restaurant were on the first floor, a ballroom was on the third, and on the second floor, adjacent to the school classrooms, “the Film & Foto League will conduct their classes in conjunction with the school, and they have, as well, a darkroom in the basement.” By February 1934, the WIR had also set up a "permanent strike relief apparatus" in the building, (9) and a stage was built by the Workers' Theatre to put on plays. Lester Balog is listed in the Spring, 1934 San Francisco Workers' School Catalog as a "Cinematography" instructor, along with "P. Otto," (likely a pseudonym for Otto Hagel, who hadn’t immigrated legally to the U.S.) The class was to be a training ground for "Criticism of bourgeois practices, analysis of Soviet newsreels, documentary and acted films, Montage, film production and projection of working class newsreels and films."(8)

While teaching at the Worker's School, Balog and Hagel continued to put on screenings of Soviet films and their own newsreels around the state. Like other Film and Photo League groups around the country, they shot still photographs and film footage that would display social contradictions and the uneven distribution of wealth in Depression-era America. Although Mieth, by her own account, was not involved in shooting of moving film, she was involved with post-production on the group’s one extant film, “Century of Progress.” It is not clear where the editing took place, but for some of the time, according to Mieth, it was in an apartment she rented with Otto Hagel, where Lester Balog sometimes slept in the bath tub. This information is complicated by the fact that in later life, Mieth never mentioned her marriage in that period to Motroni.(9)

The film footage of the Cotton Strike and other scenes that Otto Hagel and the League shot in the early 1930s was considered missing for many years. Hansel Mieth told various interviewers in the 1980s and 1990s that she thought the film and their movie camera had been stolen by the police. Indeed, the San Francisco Chronicle finds Edward Royce arrested in September 1934 at the police station for being a Communist when he went in looking for articles (very likely films) that had been confiscated during the San Francisco General Strike in the summer of 1934. Somehow Balog had possession or regained possession of a copy of Century of Progress and screened it over the years in various venues, including organizing events for the United Farm Workers in the 1960s.(10)

As part of their Film and Photo League activities, Hagel and Balog toured California, exhibiting Russian films that Royce had procured from a New York distributor associated with the W.I.R.(11) In May 1934, returning north from a screening in Los Angeles, they passed again through Tulare County, the site of the Cotton Strike and the Pixley murders theprevious year. Balog recounts that

Some of the farm workers, they caught us, saw us, and they said, hey, what about the pictures you took? So all right, I said, let me show you. So that night they closed the pool hall for business and had a movie. And Pat Chambers was there... And while we were running it - no charge, of course, there was no admission fee or anything, and the business was closed - no pool. So while I was projecting, about four troopers came in, big son-of-a-guns, you know? I am not tall, but they were about 6 1/2 feet, and they stood around me - I didn't know what to do, I finished the film. I understand Pat meanwhile sneaked out, and when it was over they practically picked me up and took me to jail... they charged me with running a business without a license...they kept me 13 days in the police station, and then I got 45 days.(12)


The arrest was reported in the Visalia Times Delta, which characterized the screening as a presentation by Chambers, who was notorious in the area for his organizing efforts with the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU) the year before:

Pat Chambers, strike agitator, and communist candidate for United States senator, lost motion picture equipment, a ten-reel soviet picture and an operator last night when he ventured to appear as a showman in exhibiting the communist propaganda picture, "The Road to Life" in a Mexican pool hall in Tulare..... Between 75 and 100 persons, most of them Mexicans 20 years old or younger, attended the four hour performance. Members of the Tulare police department sat through the entire show.(13)

Neither the equipment nor the films belonged to Pat Chambers. While Pat Chambers eluded arrest, Lester Balog and Lillian Dinkin, an organizer for the Communist Party and the speaker that evening, were taken in to the Visalia jailhouse. (The Visalia Times-Delta reported that Dinkin was a waitress residing in Tulare.) The Western Worker of June 18 reported the results of their short court trial on June 5th.

Taking only five minutes to arrive at a verdict they were already sure of, the jury yesterday found Lillian Dinkin and Lester Balog "guilty" of showing a picture without a license, and Judge Cross lost no time in slapping on a sentence of 45 days and $100 fine for each... Deliberate mis-statement by prosecution witnesses of the talk Comrade Dinkin gave between the Bonus March film and the "Road to Life" formed a large part of the "evidence" the jury used to justify their helping the frame-up.

When they arrested Balog, the police confiscated the projector, some sound equipment and Victrola records, the films he had been screening, and some money. After his release, he was picked up by Joe Wilson of International Labor Defense, and driven directly out of Tulare and back to San Francisco, for there was a rumor that he would be picked up again for “vagrancy” if he were found walking in town. The following year, Balog was still trying to get the films and other items returned. A letter from Hirsch & Kaye of 239 Grant Avenue, the company from which he had leased the projector and screen, and who had sent an employee to Visalia to reclaim the equipment while Balog was in jail, read:

Dear Mr. Balog: The only equipment that we received from the police department in Tulare is that equipment which we have delivered to you through Mr. Reynolds. The chief of police in Tulare may truthfully feel that he delivered “everything” but that could also be a general term.(14)

Finally, the chief of Police issued a letter on February 26, 1935 certifying that “the entire equipment, including films, taken from Lester Balog in Tulare at the time of his arrest was turned over to Mr. H. L. Bush of the Hirsch & Kaye Company of San Francisco.” The letter continues on however, “The Films were later turned over to this Dept. and were returned to the Garrison Film Distributors Company of New York on February 12th 1935.”(15)

The Western Worker offices after the Raid, Courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library
While Lester Balog was in jail in Tulare County, the 1934 San Francisco General Strike was getting underway. Balog got out of the Tulare jail and was driven to San Francisco just in time to be present for the vigilante raids on July 17th, the second day of the official General Strike. Many sites of political/cultural activity that had flourished were destroyed, including The Workers Cultural Center at the Ruthenberg House on Haight Street, the Western Worker editorial offices and the printing plant that the paper contracted with, the longshoreman's strike kitchen, the Mission Workers' Neighborhood House, and the Workers' Open Forum at 1223 Fillmore––where Balog and Royce had presented a film program upon their arrival to San Francisco in October, 1933. Unknown men, hired by the employer groups, and closely followed by police, broke in and demolished as much as possible of the workers' cultural movement as the General Strike began to affect the city.(16)
The Workers Cultural Center after the Raid, Courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

The vigilante raids of the 1934 General Strike in San Francisco were not an isolated incident, but rather the culmination of a pattern of political repression in Depression-era California. In the summer of 1932, the Western Worker reported that police had raided the John Reed Club of Los Angeles just as they were organizing a statewide conference. According to the Western Worker, "The attack on the JRC is part of the campaign of terror which has been launched by the "Red Squad" within the last few weeks, and which has resulted in the breaking up of many workers' meetings and daily raids on workers' headquarters."(17)

Artists, writers, theatre groups, filmmakers, and photographers whose cultural and media work strengthened the left became establishment targets. The mainstream mass media was accustomed to arousing public sentiment against those who threatened the capitalist system during the Depression. The John Reed Club headquarters in Los Angeles was hit again in February of 1933. Newsboys were arrested for selling the Western Worker, bookstores selling radical publications were shut down and their owners thrown in jail, street theatre players were beaten up. In July 1934, while Balog languished in jail, San Diego police arrested Louis Siminow of the Los Angeles Film & Photo League for showing a film.(18)

With San Francisco in disarray, and the local Film & Photo League darkroom and meeting space destroyed, the people who created the short-lived Film & Photo League movement in San Francisco dispersed. It is doubtful whether the Film and Photo League ever re-established itself as a group in San Francisco after the destruction at the Ruthenberg House. Lester Balog and photographer Consuelo Kanaga snuck into the raided Western Worker office and took photos of the destruction. Ed Royce was arrested a couple of months later, apparently for being a “Red,” when he went to the police station to claim property (which probably included films) that police had taken during the July raids.(19)

Another collective effort, the Photo-Commentors, a short-lived group that included Balog, Hagel, Mieth, Dorothea Lange, Consuelo Kanaga, Willard Van Dyke and Ansel Adams, among others, organized a large photo show at the Gelber-Lilienthal Gallery and Bookstore sometime in 1934, bringing together one hundred "photographs of social significance". According to Balog,

The pictures went up and they were up one day, two days maybe. There was criticism by the American Legion and they ordered a couple, two or three pictures, taken out. First, the Tom Mooney picture. Dorothea Lange had a beautiful picture of a pair of legs: a girl sitting on a bar - not a bar, a drug-store stool, legs crossed, a beautiful pair of legs, with an enormous run in her stocking. And she called it "USA, 1934." It was very clever, and I liked it. It was beautiful. That was objected to... and there may have been one other...Anyhow, the group was very indignant and they said we either have all or none, so they took it out.(20)

Balog's description of reaction to Lange's "USA, 1934” reflects a common theme of censorship during the thirties. Though the expression of sexuality was the more publicized complaint of censoring boards, political censorship was rampant. The gallery exhibition was shut down; the Film & Photo League space at the Ruthenberg House was destroyed. Two of the most active left filmmakers in California had been arrested and jailed for projecting films. In the chaos of either the vigilante raids in the city or the rural repression of union organizing, Hagel and Mieth lost their films and camera. The collective was fragmented, not by internal divisions, but by external circumstance and militantly repressive authority.(21)

The New Deal was also coming into being. Hansel Mieth got a job, not in the WPA Art project - they told her that her portfolio work was not "Art," but propaganda. (22) She joined the women's sewing project until she convinced the administrators of the WPA Youth Project to let her run a photography project in San Francisco's Mission District. From there, she went to work for Life magazine. Otto Hagel produced a pictorial book on waterfront workers in 1937 for the International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union,(23) and also published photographs in Life. They moved to New York for a few years, and then returned west to buy a chicken farm in Santa Rosa, and raised chickens between their photo assignments. (24)

Lester Balog went to work for the California Conservation Corps in Plumas County, photographing forest service projects. In 1941, he took perhaps his best know photograph, of Woody Guthrie holding a guitar with letters painted on the front: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Balog served in the military during WWII as a photographer and film editor. In the late forties, he, like Hagel a few years before, worked for the International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union, as a photographer for their newspaper, "The Dispatcher.” (25) In the fifties, he moved to Cambria with his wife, Francis, and ran a movie theatre, though the audiences for the radical fare that he most liked to program were sparse. In his later years, Balog was known around the state for his continued commitment to radical film.(26)

In 1953, former Communist leader Louis Rosser, a party member from 1932 to 1944, read from the 1934 catalog of the San Francisco Workers School and named Lester Balog at the state Un-American Activities Hearings. When Tom Brandon asked Balog in the seventies what had happened to the films, he answered:

Burned them! Believe it or not. I must have had 7 or 8 400-foot reels, silent, 16mm. And what happens is, there were many people on it, some of whom were Lefts, Communists, Socialists, who were in demonstrations that may have had signs... in '52, we had some "visitors" and that worried me, and my wife too... I didn't want to incriminate people who may have changed since then... after three or four days, I burned the stuff. Yeah, I know, it broke my heart.(27)

References

1. Most early research about the Film and Photo League centered on the chapter in New York:

Russell Campbell, Cinema Strikes Back: Radical Filmmaking in the United States 1930-1942 (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982); William Alexander, Film on the Left: American Documentary Film From 1931 to 1942 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981); Tom Brandon, "Survival List: Films of the Great Depression" in David Platt, ed. Celluloid Power: Social Film Criticism from "The Birth of a Nation" to "Judgment at Nuremberg." (Metuchen, N.J: Scarecrow Press, 1992); Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (London, New York: Verso, 1997); Leslie Fishbein, "A Lost Legacy of Labor Films" Film and History, 9:2 (1979), 33; Leo Seltzer, "Documenting the Depression of the 1930s: The Work of the Film and Photo League" in Platt, ed. Celluloid Power, xx-xx; Russell Campbell, "Leo Seltzer Interview: ‘A Total and Realistic Experience’," and Tony Stafford, "Samuel Brody interview: The Camera as a Weapon in the Class Struggle," Jump Cut no. 14 (March 1977), 25-30; Fred Sweet, Eugene Rosow and Allan Francovich, "Pioneers: An Interview with Tom Brandon." Film Quarterly 27: 1 (Fall, 1973), 12.

For an eye-opening treatment of silent era labor films in the U.S.: Steven J. Ross, Working Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998).

2. Sam Brody writing in the Daily Worker quoted in William Alexander, Film on the Left: American Documentary Film From 1931 to 1942 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 30

3. A description of the tour can be found in a partial letter from Lester Balog, Tom Brandon Collection, Museum of Modern Art Film Studies Center NY

4. Letter from Lester Balog, Tom Brandon Collection, Museum of Modern Art Film Studies Center NY

5. Ibid

6. Ibid

7. For treatment of other cultural groups in the thirties, see Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. (London: Verso, 1997).

8. Western Worker, 11 December 1933. 3.; Western Worker, 12 February, 12, 1934, 5; New Theatre, July 1934, xx.; San Francisco Workers' School Announcement of Courses. National Republic papers, Hoover Institute, Stanford University.

9. Hansel Mieth interview with Steve Zeltzer, 1987: Mieth mentions that Otto Hagel did all the moving picture filming in the short time that they owned a film camera. Hagel and Mieth later collaborated on many still photography projects.; Leshne Interview with Georgia Brown, 2002

10. Alleged Red Leader Seized,” San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 2, 1934; A mention of one of Balog's later screenings can be found in John Gregory Dunne, Delano (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971), 163 (thanks to Richard Steven Street for noting this). Balog continued to be dedicated to using film for political organizing, running a one-man film exhibition service throughout the sixties and seventies, until his death in 1976.

11. Interview with Hansel Mieth by Steve Zeltzer, 1987; letters between Edward Royce and Garrison Films in the Files of the Communist Party USA in the Comintern Archives, Fond 515, Library of Congress

12. Brandon, Tom. Interview with Lester Balog, Tom Brandon Collection , MOMA NY

13. Communist Film Seized at Tulare: Pat Chambers Escapes After Presenting Show," Visalia Time- Delta, 25 May 1934, 6.

14. Hirsch & Kaye to Lester Balog, 2 February, 1935, TBC.

15. Tulare Chief of Police to Lester Balog, 26 February 1935, TBC

16. David F. Selvin, A Terrible Anger: The 1934 Waterfront and General Strikes in San Francisco (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1996), 194-196;

17. California convention mentioned: Western Worker, 15 May 1932, 5; Western Worker, 1 July 1932, 2.

18. Western Worker 20 February, 1933, 1; "Red Squad Smashes JRC Headquarters in L.A," Western Worker, 20 February 1933, 1; "Arrest of Newsboy in Attempt to Halt Communist Papers," Western Worker, 15 February 1932, 4; "Arrest of Tulare Workers' Book Shop Agent," Western Worker, 15 January 1934, 2; "San Diego Police Raid Anti-Fascist Movie Showing", Western Worker July 16, 1934 (first edition), 1; "The Living Theatre," New Theatre, July 1934, 16-17.

19.Alleged Red Leader Seized,” San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 2, 1934.

20.Balog interview, March 18, 1974, TBC.

21. Movies also underwent political censorship during this period. Many of the writers of the New York and Hollywood Film and Photo Leagues turned their attention to film censorship. The first article in the premier edition of the NY Film and Photo League's publication, Filmfront, discussed the "Decency Campaign" in Hollywood, which the FPL writer saw as more of a campaign of political repression then being about sexuality and the church

22.Hansel Mieth, “On the Life and Work of Otto Hagel and Hansel Mieth,” Left Curve, no. 13, 12

23. Maritime Federation of the Pacific Coast, Men and Ships: A Pictorial of the Maritime Industry (San Francisco: Wobbers Inc., 1937).

24.See Kenneth Kann, Comrades and Chicken Farmers: The Story of a California Jewish Community (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993) on the radical chicken farming coops in Sonoma County.

25. Although Otto Hagel's work is remembered and prominently displayed in the lobby of the ILWU in San Francisco, Balog's photographic work was all but forgotten. His name never appeared in any photo credits in the Dispatcher and no one knew of his work, until it became clear that a box of his negatives left at the Dispatcher offices corresponded to almost every published photograph in the Dispatcher between 1946 and 1948.

26. Interview with Francis Balog, 2002; Leslie Balog, "Lester Balog," in Left Curve/, no. 7, 1978

27. Balog interview, March 18, 1974, TBC.