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Review: An extraordinary era documented in 'Ordinary Miracles'

'Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League's New York' is a provocative portrait of social photography.

June 15, 2012|By Gary Goldstein
  • A scene from "Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League's New York."
A scene from "Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League's New York." (Daedalus Productions,…)

From 1936 to 1951, some of America's most evocative and vital social photography was created by a pioneering cooperative of artists known as the Photo League. This Manhattan-based group's vital history and stunning output are examined in Daniel Allentuck and Nina Rosenblum's fine documentary "Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League's New York."

The film utilizes a rich array of stirring black-and-white stills from such Photo League members as Sid Grossman (co-founder and League school director), Aaron Siskind, Jerome Liebling, Dorothea Lange, Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, along with archival and more recent interviews with many of the organization's renowned alumni. It all makes for a superb snapshot of 1930s and '40s America, with a special eye on New York City.

In documenting Depression-era struggles, the World War II effort and, later, Cold War anxiety (which led to the left-leaning League's seemingly baseless DOJ blacklisting), the League worked to achieve societal change through photography while forging emotional connections between their subjects. That approach is perhaps best epitomized in a story here about photojournalist Arthur Fellig (a.k.a. Weegee) who, while shooting an apartment fire, deemed the faces of its distraught observers more crucial to capture than the burning building itself.

Campbell Scott's strong narration (well-written by Allentuck) and fun vintage musical selections effectively round out this provocative portrait.

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"Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League's New York." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 17 minutes. At Laemmle's NoHo 7, North Hollywood.

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