A historiographic appetizer, Nina Rosenblum’s Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League’s New York is an exceptionally banal yet loving tribute to the influential photography group that blossomed during the Great Depression. Established in 1936 by a collection of photographers including Sid Grossman, the Photo League’s credo was concise: that social change could be achieved through documentary photography and an emotional connection with one’s subject. Simply taking a picture wasn’t enough; a great photographer had to capture the subtext of a deeply felt human moment on film.
This haven for budding still photographers was instrumental in educating people about the hardships plaguing the country leading up to WWII, but the Photo League was equally essential to the American armed forces during the war with fascism, filming at Iwo Jima and on the D-Day frontlines. Only in the face of extreme communist paranoia in 1951, out of fear of prosecution, did the Photo League finally shut its doors—a sad end for the group’s vibrant and essential sense of formalism, born of human interest and social justice.
Slideshow presentations rule Ordinary Miracles. Rosenblum unloads one photographic montage after another, disseminating information about the Photo League’s leftist ideologies and artistic methods with the aide of Campbell Scott’s scholarly narration. The approach is initially enticing, introducing the work of dynamic young artists that managed to capture the texture and shading of a country’s extreme economic distress. We get a grasp of Grossman’s impact as a teacher and mentorship of artists like Aaron Siskind, who went on to shepherd the Harlem Document, an instrumental collective photography project. Even more interesting is the curatorial role the Photo League took in being the first to present the work of underappreciated masters like Lewis Hine and Paul Strand.
Rosenblum briefly interrupts the black-and-white montages with grainy, shot-on-DV talking-head interviews during which the surviving members of the Photo League reminisce about their personal impressions of their time with the group. Jarring in their combination of crummy quality and resonant insight, these segments are sluggishly paced. While interesting to hear photographers like Morris Engel discuss the influence of the Photo League on documentary photography and political art, especially during a reunion in 1999 (nearly 50 years after the group’s disbandment), from a structural standpoint, the film remains almost deathly straightforward.
Ultimately, Ordinary Miracles becomes a cinematic exhibition space for the Photo League’s large collection of work, a spinning art gallery for the learned and naïve alike to enjoy obviously vital imagery of our country in transition. But as a documentary film, Rosenblum’s love letter never attains that essence of ambiguity that makes the best nonfiction films live on after the credits fade. In this particular cinematic historical timeline, everything exists at face value for easy nostalgic consumption.