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Name: Sonia Handelman Meyer
Major: English
Graduation Year: 1941
Just being able to see with a camera opened up new worlds for me.
Sonia Handelman Meyer
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Photo: Children, Harlem, © 2016 Sonia Handelman Meyer. See more of Sonia’s photography at

Equipped with a second-hand, twin-lens Rolleicord, Sonia Handelman Meyer developed a keen eye for the candid as she photographed postwar New York’s neighborhoods. A waif huddled in a Spanish Harlem doorway. A benchful of moms nestling their frilly-frocked offspring. Grade-schoolers hunkered at play in a Harlem dirt lot. Between 1945 and 1950 Meyer captured the history and humanity of daily life in the city. Now 96, she finds it “such a happy surprise” that late in her life these b&w photographs are being recognized as art and are now part of the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and many other museums.

“Just being able to see with a camera opened up new worlds for me,” recalls Meyer, who took up photography through New York’s Photo League, two years after graduating with 197 classmates in Queens College’s first class. “What I was thinking in my mind came alive when I walked through the streets. I saw a picture and it registered along with my thinking, my feeling—instinctively, intuitively, instantly.” In documenting scenes such as an anti-lynching rally or a Jehovah’s Witness convention, she framed the feelings about social justice that had been evident as well when she was a student at QC. “Interested in social issues,” the English major became active in the American Student Union.

Meyer first heard of the Photo League while with the U.S. Army Signal Corps in Puerto Rico following graduation. Returning to New York in 1943, she began taking classes in the League’s school and using its darkroom—“for 25 cents.” The League’s photographers advocated not only for their medium as fine art but also for enlisting it to bring about social change. In 1951 the League, a victim of McCarthyism, “had to go out of business,” Meyer laments. She then married, did medical and publicity photography, moved to New Jersey, was a crossword and college textbook editor, and raised two children.

For decades Meyer’s 1940s negatives and prints remained packed away. “Every now and again, I’d take something out” to show to friends, she says. “I never had much confidence in showing my work to other people. It was always very personal.”

In 2002 Meyer moved to an independent living facility in Charlotte, NC, nearer family. The story of how her photographs came to grace the walls of galleries and major museums doesn’t really begin until she was 87. She and her son, architect Joe Meyer, in an independent bookstore saw an image of the Weavers, credited as “Photographer Unknown.” Not quite: It was Meyer’s, taken without compensation to help folk-singing friends who later became famous. Together, mother and son began a journey to ensure that the “mission and history of the Photo League be remembered,” he notes.

Since then, she has been traveling the country giving talks and attending exhibit openings of her work. Her 2007 exhibition at Hodges Taylor Gallery in Charlotte, Into the Light: Sonia Handelman Meyer: The Photo League Years, proved to be “an absolute blockbuster,” Joe Meyer exclaims. In 2012 she went by herself to an opening of her work at the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio, where “They treated her like a rock star,” her son notes.

Book everyone should read: Anything by Dr. Seuss

Favorite Music: Mostly Mozart

Surprising Fact: “I dance when no one is looking.”


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