'Ordinary Miracles' records a growing city
LENOX -- In 1948, Rebecca Lepkoff, a member of the Photo League, snapped a photo of a broken window. With the smashed glass in the foreground, and the skyline of New York City in the background, the gelatin silver print evokes both the hope and despair of the city.
"There was almost a sense of desperation in the desire to convey messages of sociological import," Beaumont Newhall wrote of the Photo League in 1948. For the 15 vibrant years of its existence, the Photo League paved the way for the photographers and journalists of today, using their cameras as tools to expose injustice and kindle social change.
The film "Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League's New York" which will screen on Monday, July 29, at the Berkshire Jewish Film Festival, explores the extraordinary work of this group of photographers.
Founded in 1936 by Sol Libsohn and Sid Grossman, the Photo League did for New York's urban poor what the Farm Security Administration photographers had done for Dust Bowl America.
Nina Rosenblum, co-director of the film and daughter of Photo League member Walter Rosenblum, explained, "They were able to step out of the shoes of their own small world and understand the huge problems that were going on. They spent a lot of time in the community, with the people that they photographed. They had the compassion and the humanism that it takes to have a broader point of view."
Rosenblum experienced the Photo League firsthand, through her father's work. Walter Rosenblum was a documentary photographer and a highly decorated photographer during World War II, during which he was stationed aboard the U.S.S. Omaha. He is especially known for documenting D-Day and the liberation of Dachau.
"I was always helping him while I grew up," Rosenblum said. "He really supported what I did. He never saw the film, because he passed away in 2006, but I wish he had."
Rosenblum and her husband, co-director Daniel Allentuck, worked on the documentary intermittently from 1999 to 2012.
"We've been making films together for 30 years and married for 25," Allentuck said. "This was the first time we co-directed a documentary. It worked out very well."
Allentuck and Rosenblum interviewed the surviving Photo League members for the film; they also devoted a great deal of time to research and tracking down the Photo League's work.
Because the film mainly consists of interviews interspersed with shots of the photographs, the background music plays a significant role in setting the tone.
"Danny should really get credit for the music," Rosenblum said. "We tried to create the mood of the period through music -- it's as much a part of the film as the visuals. It gives context to the photographs."
"I grew up with a lot of that period's music," Allentuck said. "I love it too. Nina picked the contemporary selections, composed by Philip Glass, which I feel helped enormously."
The Photo League was disbanded in 1951, after they were accused of Communist activity and placed on the Department of Justice blacklist. But Rosenblum and Allentuck both emphasized the monumental legacy of the Photo League. Photography began to appear prominently in newspapers during the 1930s, and the Photo League was at the forefront of a medium that combined science and art.
"The power of the photograph is undeniable," Rosenblum said. "The fact that they could communicate this way, through a medium in which they were pioneers, was amazing. They understood its power and its meaning."
The Photo League's legacy was also visible in a more concrete way: After the end of the League, many of its members became teachers, passing their gifts onto the next generation of photographers. Photo League member Lou Stouman taught at the UCLA film school, and Lisette Model is known for having trained Diane Arbus.
It is likely that the Photo League would be astonished by the response their photographs have received in the artistic community.
"I don't know that they would have even thought of themselves as artists at the time," Allentuck said. "But Paul Strand, for example -- there's no question that he saw photography as a fine art. He encouraged photographers to not just snap away at social injustice, but to make art."
The title of the film, Rosenblum explained, came from a book by Photo League member Lou Stoumen, also called Ordinary Miracles.
"We thought it was perfect for our film, because he took photos of the most ordinary moments of everyday life," Rosenblum said. "It's not a religious miracle. It's a miracle that the everyday, the mundane, could be turned into great works of art."
If you go ...
What: "Ordinary Miracles,'
with guests Nina Rosenblum and Daniel Allentuck
When: July 29 at 4 p.m.
Where: Duffin Theater, at the Lenox Memorial High School. 197 East Street, Lenox.
Information: (413) 637-5560
Also at the Festival...
What: Screening of ‘Sonny Boy'
When: Monday at 8 p.m.
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