Movie Review of “Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League’s New York” (2012) and Social Photography

16 August 2012

Lens:

Homage to the Photo League: Main Street in Black-and-White

1. Empty Store Front, Main Street, Nikon DSLR, August 2012;

2. Street Mural, Main Street, Nikon DSLR, August 2012;

3. Store Front, Main Street, Nikon DSLR, August 2012;

4. Restaurant, Main Street, Nikon DSLR, August 2012;

5. Store Front, Main Street, Nikon DSLR, August 2012;

Pens:

It was a long summer’s day with top-rated humidity and high temps, and the heat index climbing to intolerable levels. So instead of an evening’s walk, I took a stroll through iTunes Independent films. There snuggled among other documentaries was my entertainment. I’m a movie aficionado and my selection was aimed to please.

Those who seek art films often are rewarded with new insights into: beauty, creativity, genius, history, intrigue, and mystery. Add to the former: political leanings, social justice and urban stories, and the results are a recently-released film that completely won my heart and stirred my sensibilities.

“Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League’s New York” (directors Nina Rosenblum and Daniel Allentuck, Daedalus Productions, Inc., 2012) gives the viewer a visual record of one of the most extraordinary combinations of artistic talent and political activism. And it’s accomplishments, which were heralded through street photography, were made in one of the most volatile sequences of events: pre-World War II, the war, its aftermath, and the McCarthy hearings (1936-1951).

The film ran one hour, seventeen minutes and fifteen seconds, and I wanted much more. It chronicles a 1999 reunion of some of the original members of the League, and brings alive the essence of the organization’s history and legacy.

The faces and voices of those interviewed swayed my thoughts back and forth from the Photo League to the Farm Security Administrations’ photographers who were charged with documentation of America’s Great Depression. So it was not a surprise that some of those FSA photographers also belonged to the League.

The group was composed of novices and professionals whose personal philosophy was rooted in the power of the image. As a collective they created a photographic archive and a narrative colored by dedication and purpose. Their mission was steeped in the development of the public’s understanding of photography as fine art.

Many of the group were first-generation Americans.  The school was given its flavor and pace through the eyes of Sol Libsohn, Sid Grossman, Berenice Abbott, Paul Strand, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Aaron Siskind, Lewis Hine, Weegee and emigre members Lisette Model, Lotte Jacobi and Marion Palfi. Other well-known photographers were guest speakers (including Robert Capa, Margaret Bourke-White, Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier Bresson), which further raised the profile of the Photo League.

This camera club and photography school used classes, darkroom, exhibitions, film, lectures, publications, and salon-like social gatherings to build their base and spread their philosophy of visual culture. The outcome of the collaborations between those newbies and seasoned photographers is a repository of portraits of one our country’s most notable urban centers.

The composition and story of their photographs were a platform for change. Examples of works by Photo League Photographers:

“Harlem Scene,” New York, by Sid Grossman, 1939

“Boy Jumping into the Hudson River,” New York, Ruth Orkin, 1948

“Slums Must Go!, May Day Parade,” New York, Joe Schwartz, 1936

“Ordinary Miracles: The Photographs of Lou Stoumen” (1985)

For a video clip about “Ordinary Miracles,” click here for a quick introduction from PBS.

In the Lens section I have posted some recent photographs that I took early one morning on the street that cuts through the center of my town: Main Street. While my images are not typical street photography, they are still an archival glance at a small town in the throes of historical change. They still represent a slice of social history of my town that is driven by the 30,000+ residents in the greater Newark area as well as by employees and students at the University of Delaware.

Photo One is my favorite, because I am looking through the window of an empty store, which represents the revolving businesses that are part of a city’s decline or progress. Merchants bring their great ideas, set up shop, and the turnover continues. Since I live in a college town, it’s easy to get a slice of pizza. But what about a really good meal? Over the last decade I’ve noticed a trend that has swept my city and across the country. Now we have within a few miles a wide selection of ethnic food: American, Chinese, Indian, Italian, Mexican, Middle-Eastern, Spanish and Vietnamese. It’s a variable feast of nations. Still, stores are empty even as new construction is being built. It’s a mystery to observe. Photograph four is the site of one of the well-established restaurants that serves American fare with casual dining.

Photo two is typical of our small town. We have a beautification program, and artists’ works create a sense of place through murals, mosaics and sculptures.

Photo three typifies the constant reinvention of commercial space. This building was the original drugstore that faded as chains took the customer’s attention and wallet away from the little guy. After many variations the present business–a sort of pseudo deli–has been there for a few years. The last image is one of the mainstays. Since 1974 this familiar icon has been serving town and gown. The window displays have always told the tale: step  inside for shoe repairs.

The Photo League had a lasting influence on the photograph as a social document and its acceptance as fine art. These multi-gifted artists and pioneers forged a place in art history, and helped move the photograph further and further into the public arena.

The film, “Ordinary Miracle,” gives the viewer a clear view of the Photo League through short glimpses of original members who share their personal experiences and memories. The film is a glorious example of archival materials’ use to record how a group of passionate individuals can fulfill their dreams; how aesthetics and political turmoil wedded to serve the greater good.

A motto circulated: “Every picture should be worthy. Do it well. Do it right.” The Photo League did not survive, but a deep reverence for the photograph did.

Note: As always I welcome any comment about this post or any part of my blog.

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2 Responses to Movie Review of “Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League’s New York” (2012) and Social Photography

  1. It’s clear that you put a lot of time into this post.
    You mentioned the motto “Every picture should be worthy. Do it well. Do it right.” I’d say digital photography has led most people in a different direction, because good yet inexpensive cameras allow for the taking of many pictures and the discarding of those that didn’t come out well. I find myself taking many more photographs than I ever could have back in the days of film (only a decade ago!). I believe it’s still generally best, as it has always been, for people to show only their successes.

    Steve Schwartzman
    http://portraitsofwildflowers.wordpress.com

    • I quoted that motto to make your point. As you, often I take, for example, 100 shots, and might keep two. I am hopeful that “extreme” shooting makes for a more discerning eye. But I’m sure there is not a correlation.

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