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Photographic Memories: 'Ordinary Miracles' Documents a Movement

By Tom White

Filmmakers Nina Rosenblum and Daniel Allentuck are no strangers to photography and its history in America, having made IDA Documentary Award-winning films about Lewis Hine and Walter Rosenblum (Ms. Rosenblum's father). Their latest film, Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League's New York, chronicles the Photo League's history, from the Great Depression through World War II to the early days of the Cold War and the McCarthy Era The Photo League was driven by the principles of documentary photography, attracting such leading artists as the aforementioned Hine and Rosenblum, as well as Jerome Liebling, Weegee and W. Eugene Smith. Documentary filmmaking was certainly an influential aesthetic, and Paul Strand, Leo Hurwitz and Willard Van Dyke, among others, were affiliated with the League over the course of its life.

Documentary spoke with Rosenblum and Allentuck via e-mail as they were preparing for their theatrical premiere in Los Angeles on June 15; the film opens in New York on June 22.

Documentary: You have both made documentaries about photography and photographers-America and Lewis Hine, A History of Women Photographers and Walter Rosenblum: In Search of Pitt Street. Is the new film a continuation of the narrative thread that you began with the previous films?

Nina Rosenblum and Daniel Allentuck: Indeed it is. Social photography, the idea that the camera can be a means of achieving social change, was Hine's animating belief, and it was shared by Walter Rosenblum and by the photographers of the Photo League. We had known about the Photo League for many years; Nina's mom, Naomi Rosenblum, is a photographic historian who has written extensively about the League and curated exhibitions of their work. The idea that the League would be a terrific subject for a documentary took root in the late 1980s. So we had an awful lot of time to think about how we wanted to do it. We treated the Photo League very briefly in our earlier documentary film about Walter Rosenblum, and our very first film was about Lewis Hine. Having devoted an hour to Hine in that film, it was a challenge to treat his entire career in less than five minutes, as we do in Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League's New York.Ord


Girl on Swing by Walter Rosenblum. Courtesy of Daedalus Productions, Inc.


D: Your contributing producer, Mary Engel, has made films about her parents, Ruth Orkin (Ruth Orkin: Frames of Life) and Morris Engel (Morris Engel: The Independent), both seminal figures in the Photo League. So for her, Ordinary Miracles is as much a personal legacy project as it is a film about an important movement in American culture.  How did you strike a balance between these two impetuses?

NR & DA: Mary is an absolutely terrific producer, and while it was important to her that her parents' role in the Photo League was acknowledged in the film, her real concern was that none of the other photographers in the group (and she knows most of them personally) be overlooked or given short shrift. This led to a continuous dialogue between us on the relative merits of this or that photographer and helped insured the inclusion of several Photo Leaguers who would have been left out if Mary hadn't argued forcefully for putting them in. The Photo League trained and inspired hundreds of photographers and, needless to say, we couldn't include everyone (not that we wished to). But Mary's passionate advocacy did a great deal to keep the film as inclusive as we could make it.


D: What helps drive the film is the reunion of Photo League survivors in 1999. I assume that's when you began filming? What were the challenges in keeping the film going over a 12-year period?

NR & DA: It wasn't going. It was totally moribund. Or as people like to say, it got put on the back burner and most likely would have stayed there. However, a little more than a year ago we received two modest grants and decided to finish what we had started so long ago. Having tried and tried again so many times over the years, it was extremely gratifying to complete it at last. In retrospect, filming the reunion back in 1999 was an inspired masterstroke because without the many interviews we captured over a short period of time, the film would be inconceivable.


D: One thing that struck me about the Photo League is that despite its progressive leanings-and especially despite its impressive documentation of Harlem and its culture-there was no African-American representation. James Van Der Zee, Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava were all active in Harlem during the period of the Photo League. Was there an active effort to diversify its membership?

NR & DA: Allow us to correct you: none of the African-American photographers you cited were "active in Harlem during the period of the Photo League"--or, more precisely, they were not active in the neighborhood when the Harlem Document was being made. Others (including Morgan and Marvin Smith ) were. By 1940 Van Der Zee was reduced to eking out a living making passport photos and hadn't been a successful portrait photographer for many years (The Depression was not a thriving period for his GGG studio.). His heyday had really been the 1920s and very early '30s. Gordon Parks didn't arrive in New York until well after the Harlem Document was completed and eventually went to work for Roy Stryker and LIFE magazine; Roy DeCarava's career as a photographer (he had been a painter) wasn't launched until around 1950, when the Photo League was on its last legs, so it wasn't as if the League was excluding any of them. What's interesting to us is that, as the narration points out, while "several black commercial photographers were active in Harlem in the 1930s," they were primarily concerned with trying to make a living, which meant avoiding at all costs the kind of social documentation that was important to the Photo League. You'll notice that when Richard Wright published his photo book Twelve Million Black Voices in 1941 (a full three years after the completion of the Harlem Document), he didn't include Gordon Parks or Van Der Zee. So it wasn't so much a question of lack of diversity within the Photo League but rather of viewpoint and purpose. Had Parks, VanDerZee or DeCarava wanted to join the Photo League or use its darkrooms, they would have been welcomed with open arms. 


Woman in Hat by Jack Manning. Courtesy of Daedalus Producitons, Inc.


D: The cross-pollination between documentary photography and documentary filmmaking was quite fluid and organic during the Photo League's lifespan, with such artists as Paul Strand, Leo Hurwitz, Herbert Klein, Willard Van Dyke, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ralph Steiner plying their trade in both disciplines. Given that the aforementioned figures all played some role in the Photo League, how much did documentary filmmaking figure in the training, pedagogy and mission at the League? Did other members move between photography and filmmaking?

NR & DA: It so happens that a surprising number of the League's still photographers not only dabbled in film, but went on to become important filmmakers after the demise of the league. This was an angle we did not pursue in the film, which ends with the death of the organization in 1951. There is no question that the ethos of filmmakers such as Paul Strand, Ralph Steiner, Willard Van Dyke, Pare Lorenz and others helped shape the League's philosophy and approach and that a number of Photo League photographers were also active for various periods of time in cinema. Marion Post Wolcott worked on Strand's film People of the Cumberland; Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin collaborated on three independent films in the 1950s; Lou Stoumen made three documentaries and won an Academy Award for The Hungry Eye; Weegee made a couple of shorts in the '50s; Jerome Liebling made several documentaries in collaboration with Allen Downs [and went on to found the Film, Photography and Video program at Hampshire College] ; Sid Kerner worked briefly in films; Arnold Eagle was the cameraman on two of Hans Richter's experimental films; and Rudy Burkhardt, who made over 20 experimental films, taught filmaking and painting at the University of Pennsylvania. Rolf Tietgens, a German émigré Photo Leaguer, was said to have worked as a cameraman on Leni Riefenstal's Olympia, but his name does not appear in the credits so this may be a canard. In any event, one could certainly say that the organization never strayed very far from its original incarnation as the Film and Photo League.    


Butterfly Boy by Jerome Liebling. Courtesy of Daedalus Producitons, Inc.



D: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

NR & DA: Dwight Eisenhower, who knew a thing or two about the subject, famously said that before the battle the plan is everything, but that once it begins, the plan instantly becomes obsolete. It's much the same when making this kind of documentary. Naturally, one starts with a carload of brave ideas and flying banners, but inside the editing room the rubber hits the road. It is not unheard of for every blessed one of those brave ideas, some of them years in the making, to march straight into the garbage can on day one in the editing room. One learns to be flexible, not to say humble, because there is no other choice. Sometimes Plan A succeeds right off the bat, but more often you have to a lot of  tinkering to make things work. You'd be surprised how many times a sequence was "clinched" by the simple expedient of exchanging image A for image B (we called this "flipping"). Another way of putting it would be that our overall vision didn't change, but the means we resorted to in order to achieve it did. In our final half-hour of work with our editors Angelo Corrao and Russell Greene, we stumbled upon a fantastic segment of interview footage (mistakenly labeled "outtakes") we had forgotten about and were able to add it to the film literally at the last minute. Not to minimize the amount of sheer hard work and planning that are necessary for success, but serendipity and blind luck sometimes play a greater role in these enterprises than we like to admit. In the immortal words of [composer] Hector Berlioz, "The luck of having talent is not enough; one must also have a talent for luck." Amen.

D: This month, you're screening Ordinary Miracles at the Laemmle NoHo in Los Angeles and The Quad in New York. Are there future plans for broadcast and VOD? 


NR & DA: We are absolutely thrilled that Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League's New York will have a theatrical run in Los Angeles opening at the Laemmle Noho 7 on June 15, and in New York City at the Quad Cinema starting June 22. In July it will be shown in Naples as part of a festival of our documentaries sponsored by the University of Naples. In September, Ordinary Miracles will compete in festival CINECOA in Portugal. We've made a deal for distributing this film and seven others with The Orchard for VOD, and will launch the VOD after the end of the theatrical run.


Thomas White is editor of Documentary magazine.