The newly released film “Ordinary Miracles-The Photo League’s New York” produced and directed by Daniel Allentuck and Nina Rosenblum with contributing producer, Mary Engel, is a documentary film about the importance of the New York Photo League to the historical legacy and social conscience of New York starting in the late 20s. Relaunched in 1936, iconic League photographers are presented with hundreds of their most important photographs and select interviews.
What the audience quickly realizes is the effect the Photo League had on the fabric of American Life in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Margaret Bourke-White, who was already known for her industrial photography before the Photo League, was honored to be associated with the organization. She took great joy in exhibiting her own work as well as lecturing to the students of the Photo League.
The Photo League was created by two City College dropouts, Sol Libsohn and the passionate, imposing Sid Grossman. The league attracted luminaries like Dorothea Lange, Weegee and Lisette Model. Its school and exhibitions drew guests in addition to Margaret Bourke-White, Henri Cartier Bresson and Ansel Adams.
Young men, some just graduating from high school, as well as more than 100 women participated in league activities. The participating women, who numbered about one-third the number of men, served in capacities from treasurer to president. They joined because of the league’s inclusiveness and compassionate focus as well as its inexpensive darkroom privileges.
Ordinary Places discretely explains the difference between the photos from the FSA (Farm Security Administration) and those of the Photo League. The FSA photographers sought to record the devastation of the Great Depression in rural America. New York’s Photo League recorded the new urban America surrounding them. Walter Rosenblum said “..that he owed his life to the Photo League.” The League invited guests to speak to the members as well as hang their work on the Photo League walls. As was mentioned, one of these already well-know photographers was Margaret Bourke-White. She was on assignment as one of the first four photojournalists for LIFE magazine. As a guest lecturer and a Board Member of the League, she was noted for her capture of the South including “At the time of the Louisville Flood” – a stark contrast of the American class system at the that time. It’s not a surprise that Bourke-White was engaged with this group – as she straddled the boundries of the FSA, the Photo League and ultimately Magnum.
The documentary is one that collector, eductator and documentarians should spend time viewing.