was a time when New York City was entirely in black-and-white. At least that is the impression we get from
classic photos, many of which were taken by artists and journalists associated
with the Photo League. Members like Ruth
“American Girl in Italy” Orkin and Ansel “Yosemite National Park” Adams were
brought together in part by politics, but politics would also be the group’s
downfall. Their early to mid Twentieth Century
climb to prominence and subsequent dissolution are documented in Daniel
Allentuck & Nina Rosenblum’s Ordinary
Miracles: The Photo League’s New York (trailer here), which opens this
Friday in New York.
Photo League was a direct offshoot of the Film and Photo League, a syndication
service providing images to radical leftist press outlets, including the Daily Worker. Co-founders Sol Libsohn and Sid Grossman
shared a grand vision combining Popular Front ideology with naturalistic
documentary photo aesthetics. A school,
gallery, and support system for photographers of all skill levels, the League
ironically acted something like a private WPA for its New Yorker members.
one of the League’s most celebrated endeavors was the Harlem Document, a five
photographer project capturing the vitality and iniquities of the famous upper
Manhattan neighborhood. The League also
played an active role preserving and publicizing the work of nearly forgotten elder
statesmen, such as Lewis Hine, now best remembered for his photos of the Empire
State Building construction workers toiling high above the City.
1951, the party ended rather precipitously.
An apostolic descendant of explicitly Marxist organizations, the League
was suddenly on the wrong side of the national zeitgeist. Naturally, plenty of scorn is heaped upon a
certain alcoholic two-term senator from Wisconsin in the film. Yet, none of the surviving League members are
reflective enough to question why the League never explicitly followed the lead
of intellectuals like Arthur Koestler and Stephen Spender, who formally
repudiated Communism after the Stalinist Show Trials and the Molotov-Ribbentrop
non-aggression treaty came to light. Not
only would it have been a more principle position, it would have saved the
League great heartache during the post-war years.
nobody should look to a photography documentary for lessons in geo-political
history or economics. What Miracles has in gracious supply are
wonderfully evocative photos of New York in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Arguably, the most striking visuals are the
crime photos taken by newspaperman Athur Feelig, a.k.a. Weegee, perhaps because
of his own hardboiled archival commentary.
Not surprisingly, such images are the heart and
soul of the film. Ordinary Miracles also sounds great, featuring licensed musical
selections from Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller, and Django Reinhardt with Stéphane
Grappelli (actually the latter two do not exactly scream 1940’s New York, but
they are always cool, nonetheless).
However, the remember-when segments with League veterans do not add much
insight. Glossing over a lot of
ideologically messy developments, Ordinary
Miracles is recommended for narrowly focused Weegee-like photo enthusiasts,
when it opens this Friday (6/22) in New York at the Quad Cinema.
Labels: Documentary, New York Cinema, Photo League, Weegee