Monday, July 9, 2012

Radical Camera and Red, White and Blue-washing

This winter the Jewish Museum mounted a terrific exhibit about the Photo League called Radical Camera. The Photo League (1936-1951) was a group of amateur and professional photographers who joined together to teach and exhibit cutting edge photography with a socially conscious point of view.

As the name of the exhibit hints, the Photo League, its members and the work it produced, reflected the progressive/Socialist/Communist currents of the day. Mason Klein's essay in the exhibit catalog argues that viewers should resist easy categorization of the League, and, he says, to generalize about the radical politics of the League is to make the same totalizing mistake of the blacklisting madmen who eventually destroyed it (along with many similar organizations.) He writes:  "To reduce such a vitally boisterous and dynamic association to its earliest iteration [which was more explicitly Marxist] is to echo the mindset of the general's office, which falsely condemned and ultimately destroyed the Photo League as a subversive organization in 1947."

Fair enough. Art is a messy business and an artists' collective bears little resemblance to a political party. However, there is no question that the League and its members were "informed by a socialist sensibility and advocacy..." [catalog, p. 13].  This made the League no different than any number of magazines, clubs,  and fraternal organizations of this period, all with an over-representation of young Jews, most the sons and daughters of poor Eastern European immigrants.

As you can imagine, I loved the Radical Camera exhibit. The radical history and art of Eastern European Jews (and their children and grandchildren) is an important part of American Jewish history, one that can be appreciated without subscribing to its politics. (Indeed, to presume that investigating, discussing and appreciating the history of Jewish Communists should be taboo, and somehow implies an endorsement of Communism or, kholile, Stalinism, is a childish and willfully malicious manipulation of history for ones own political purposes. But that's another discussion.)

A new documentary has just arrived on the scene, also about the Photo League. The movie is called 'Ordinary Miracles' and I was excited to check it out recently at Quad Cinema here in New York. My excitement quickly turned to rank dismay. For one thing, the word 'Jewish' was mentioned once in the movie, as far as I could tell. How could a subject so richly Jewish as to be featured at the Jewish Museum be portrayed without addressing the Jewishness of its members? The mind boggles.

But that was only the beginning. The politics of the Photo League students and teachers isn't just toned down in Ordinary Miracles, it's almost entirely erased, only to emerge, toward the end of the film, out of nowhere, as a catalyst for the Photo League's prosecution and and ultimate dissolution. A viewer who knew nothing about the history of the Photo League would be baffled as to why the League would be targeted at all.

Instead of exploring the politics of the Photo League (an integral part of the League's approach to documentary photography), director Nina Rosenblum chose to spend large chunks of the narrative (in an already brief movie) on subjects only tangentially related to the story of the League, namely the visit of Lewis Hine to the League's New York headquarters and the military service of various League members during World War II. But why?

It seems to me there are two, complementary explanations, neither of which reflects very well on the film's maker. If you look at Nina Rosenblum's filmography, her previous documentaries include films on, you guessed it, Lewis Hine and soldiers fighting in World War II. Rather than tackle the tough subject of politics, Rosenblum does a cut and paste from her previous work, something we should all be wary of these days.

But there's something else going on in Ordinary Miracles. The director is clearly uncomfortable with the politics of the League, going so far as to erase it almost completely from the film. She focuses on the war time service of League members, and their implied patriotism, as well as using clips of interviews with a few League members who play down the role of politics in the League, decades later.  The effect of these narrative choices is to present a sanitized Photo League bearing little resemblance to the one portrayed in the Jewish Museum's Radical Camera exhibit.

Ordinary Miracles's is so brazen in its distortions as to inspire a genre all its own: Red, White, and Blue-washing.  It's a disingenuous, baffling dishonor to the work of the Photo League and, ironically, a betrayal of the very ideals of truth and documentary integrity at the heart of the Photo League mission.

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