The Photo League

Morris Engel joined The Photo League in 1936, after he saw The Photo League mentioned in a newspaper advertisement. The league opened the door to his photographic career, and it had a lasting impact on him throughout his life. The league was a group of young photographers who wanted to learn photographic technique, and also to make images that would have a social impact. Engel worked on Feature Group projects such as Park Avenue North and South, The Bowery and most important for him was Harlem Document. Aaron Siskind led the Harlem Document group, and became his mentor. Engel worked alongside Siskind, Harold Corsini and Jack Manning who became a lifelong friend. Engel also taught classes at the Photo League, exhibited his work there, and participated in all the league’s activities.


ORDINARY MIRACLES: THE PHOTO LEAGUE’S NEW YORK is a feature-length documentary film which tells the story of the rise and politically motivated fall of the Photo League, (1936–1951) which for fifteen years served as the center of the documentary movement in American photography at a time when the camera was held to be, in James Agee’s words, “the central instrument of our time.”

The Photo League’s membership roster reads like a Who’s Who of leading American and emigree photographers including Sid Grossman, Aaron Siskind, Jerome Liebling, Dan Weiner, Morris Engel Walter Rosenblum, Weegee, Lisette Model and W. Eugene Smith. Directly inspired by Lewis Hine and the photographers of the Farm Security Administration and with expert guidance from photographers Paul Strand, Berenice Abbott and Beaumont Newhall, the Photo League’s collective portrait of urban life during these turbulent years is comparable to the indelible record of rural America created by the photographers of the Farm Security Administration. Many FSA photographers, including Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Marion Post Wolcott and John Vachon were also active members of the Photo League.

ORDINARY MIRACLES is built around a handpicked selection culled from the hundreds of images made by approximately sixty individual League photographers, fashioned into sequences designed around various subjects of League focus (Harlem, the Lower East Side, children at play, Coney Island, WWII). The previously under-reported contribution of Photo League trained war correspondents and combat cameramen who served in all branches of the armed services during WWII is rectified in an exciting sequence devoted to the Photo League’s war. The rich and evocative soundtrack is a blend of contemporary and vintage music: The Mills Brothers, The Ink Spots, Django Reinhardt, The Andrews Sisters, Fats Waller, Coleman Hawkins and Philip Glass.

ORDINARY MIRACLES, distributed by The Orchard, a pioneering independent music and video distribution company operating in more than 20 global markets, is available on iTunes.

Watch Ordinary Miracles, The Photo League’s New York on PBS. See more from Metrofocus.