Friday, June 22, 2012

Great history, photography, nostalgia in Allentuck and Rosenblum's ORDINARY MIRACLES: THE PHOTO LEAGUE'S NY

What a treasure trove of wonderful photographs, intelligent talking heads, unearthed history and thoughtful nostalgia can be found in the new documentary opening today at New York City's Quad Cinema, titled ORDINARY MIRACLES: THE PHOTO LEAGUE'S NEW YORK. A must-see for photographers, old-time "lefties," NYC-nostalgia addicts (and, probably, another dozen categories), the movie is at once beautiful to look at, fun to listen to and eye-opening for people like me -- who have seen many of the photos shown here but had no idea of how and where (not to mention what it was) The Photo League of New York fits into the picture.

Existing for only 15 years (1936 through 1951) The Photo League nonetheless trained an army of young photographers, a few of whom are still with us and who speak to us now about those strange and wonderful days (the photo above is by Aaron Siskind). The League brought deserved attention to foreign photographers (like Eugène Atgetwhose work might have been lost to posterity were it not for The League's push), produced photography shows and scheduled lectures -- all dedicated to the idea of photography as art and seeing to it that this art became as high-level, and as much-seen and -heralded as possible. We owe The League such gratitude for showing us New York's urban life in a manner that we had not seen then -- and is now, thanks the The League's good work, part of our history.

The famous photographers involved here are legion and legendary -- from Margaret Bourke-White and Ruth Orkin (whose photo is shown above) to Lewis Hine, Weegee and Lotte Jacobi -- and the music that accompanies this tale and its enormous array many (over 350!) of photographs is from evergreens the likes of Glenn Miller and the Andrew Sisters to the Mills Brothersthe Ink Spots, and even a late-comer like Philip Glass. We also learn of the early split in the group between the filmmakers (like Paul Strand) and the still photographers -- who, so far as The League's further work went, won out.

The filmmakers here are Daniel Allentuck (at left) and Nina Rosneblum (below) and they have done a fine job of putting all this information and photography together into a documentary that, though it lasts a mere 75 minutes, still packs in a world all its own. Hearing the various photographers speak about their work then -- how it came about and how encouraging (but stern) the Leagues'
founders and teachers could often be is quite moving -- and seeing the remaining living members (and hearing them speak) proves so, too. Some have died since the movie was filmed, but all are remembered fondly and well by their peers -- and by the filmmakers, who allow their dead subjects a voice via the rich mix of photos they show us. At one point they watch as a now-ancient League photographer on a Manhattan park bench shows his work to a couple of young, present-day photographers. One hopes that their work will stand the test of time as well as does this fellow's and his peers (the photo below is by Bill Witt).

How and why the League disappeared surprised me, thought it should not have, given the year (1951) that it died, a victim of one of America's more shameful periods. If it is true that the League’s origins can be traced, as notes Wikipedia, "to a project of the Workers International Relief (WIR), which was a communist association based in Berlin," so what? The Photo League was not the WIR, but the right-wing fostered fear of Communism trumped all back at the beginning of the second half of the 20th Century. And we've still not outgrown that fear -- which is part of the reason that so many rank-and-file Americans don't have enough sense to demand decent health care. For starters.

Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League's New York opens today, June 22, at NYC's Quad Cinema after a run in Los Angeles last week.

Note: The filmmakers will be present tonight 
for a Q&A at 7pm. The photo immediately 
above is by Marvin Newman

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