‘Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League’s New York’: History and Legacy

The camera is an instrument of detection. We photograph not only what we know, but also what we don’t know.

Lisette Model

“I learned a lot of things,” says Joe Schwartz, “not only how to take a photograph, but they seemed to have the same kind of a social feeling that I had about people and what’s needed in a community and all that sort of thing.” As he speaks, this “social feeling” is illustrated by one of Schwartz’s photos, “Slums Must Go! May Day Parade” (1936), in which a small group of demonstrators hold up homemade placards proclaiming that “Crime,” “Disease,” “Death,” and “Poverty” are “Products of the Slums.” This last sign is held by a small girl, maybe seven years old, her coat buttoned up to her neck and her hair held back by a barrette. Her look directly into the camera suggests not only that she has her own “social feeling,” but also that she has a sense of what good a photograph might do.

This connection between photos and real-world effects shapes Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League’s New York, Nina Rosenblum and Daniel Allentuck’s terrific documentary about the League’s history and legacy. From 1936-1951, narrator Campbell Scott recounts, the organization promoted and expanded the documentary movement in American photography, offering instruction, access to facilities and exhibition space, and lots of discussion. “It was the most exciting thing I could imagine at the time,” says Arthur Leipzig, who joined the Photo League in 1942 and remembers days spent shooting pictures and nights in the dark room, as well as ongoing debates over a basic questions, like, “Is photography an art?” He smiles: “And I still haven’t solved that problem.”

In the film — which is screening at Stranger Than Fiction on 29 March, followed by a Q&A with the directors and Mary Engel (daughter of the Photo League members Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin) — defining photography is less a “problem” than the start of a great story. For as Photo League members debated what they were doing, they also kept doing it, with ingenuity and passion. They took photos and showed them, and also celebrated and preserved “a usable past,” in the work of such masters as Eugène Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Alfred Stieglitz.

Early Photo League member Paul Strand wanted to change assumptions and practices of documentary photography. As Scott puts it, Strand saw its “basic weakness…. [as] its tendency to rely entirely on human interest, ignoring fundamental aesthetic problems.” Some members advocated the Photo League’s mission through individual projects (Berenice Abbott’s 1939 book Changing New York) and others — including Sid Grossman, Dan Weiner, Sol Libsohn — offered lectures and classes for aspiring photographers.

Among these teachers, Ordinary Miracles points out, Arthur Fellig (better known as Weegee) and Lou Stoumen were photojournalists who advanced the political work of documenting daily life. Weegee, the film reports, offered “colorful lectures and classes,” and became known as the League’s “quirkiest and least hygienic member,” owing to his habits of smoking “20 cheap cigars a day” and sleeping in his clothes, a bedside police band radio “always turned on.” As Scott narrates, “His business was murder and mayhem,” the film shows his remarkable shots of crime scenes and experiences in tenements.

Everyday life was also a crucial focus for Grossman, whom everyone in the film remembers fondly. “One class with Sid Grossman affected me ever since,” asserts Sidney Kerner. “He taught me that you have to get close to people, not just physically, but in terms of a human being. That stayed with me until today, and tomorrow.” During World War II, League members went to war, their images helping to fight fascism and support for the Allies’ cause.

As the film points out, while Photo League membership included professional and amateur artists and men and women of all classes, the members here are white. Ordinary Miracles doesn’t look into the race politics that shaped Photo League membership, but it does underline that several white members trained their cameras on underrepresented communities of color, hoping to reveal and even transform their conditions. In an archived interview, Weegee says of one of his most famous photos, 1939’s “I Cried When I Took This Picture”, that the women’s look of hopelessness “symbolized the lousy tenements and everything else that went with it.” Rosalie Gwathmey, who here describes her belief that “Every picture should always be worth something, don’t take it lightly,” became best known for her photos of “Southern blacks.” And Rebecca Lepkoff remembers the shift in population that occurred after When World War and the Photo League’s efforts to record the changes: “There was a great exodus of the Jewish people,” she says, “They moved to the suburbs of New Jersey, they went to Westchester, and those empty buildings were occupied then by the Southern blacks and the Puerto Rican people and the children’s faces changed.”

These changes were accompanied by others affected the dimensions of US poverty and fear. As Communism — so-called — became a target, the Photo League was blacklisted and finally shut down. Ordinary Miracles reminds us that the members maintained focus on its mission, to share ordinary people’s experiences. Its credo, Scott says, “held that the camera was more than means of recording reality. It was a device with the potential to change the world.” By revealing how workers lived, how poverty and loss affected individuals and communities, the Photo League members hoped to affect not only how others saw their subjects but also how these subjects might be understood in multiple political and social spheres. Extending that project, the film showcases the Photo League’s art and activism.

RATING 8 / 10