Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
Many photographers have captured New York City architecture over the years, but few have been so prolific, nor have they documented the construction of so many iconic New York City landmarks as the Wurts Brothers.
In 1894 Lionel and Norman Wurts established one of the first architectural photography studios in New York City. Over the next 85 years the two brothers, and later Lionel’s son, Richard, gained recognition and many prominent clients including Cass Gilbert (The Woolworth Building), Consolidated Gas Company (now known as Con Ed) , and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (the firm now building One World Trade Center).
The Wurts Bros. worked alongside architects, engineers, and rental agents to record major New York City landmarks under construction during some of the city’s most dynamic years of expansion. Their images are widely recognizable and have been reproduced in many architectural and general interest magazines over the years. The Museum of the City of New York retains the firm’s archives of over 45,000 prints and negatives. Over the last four years our Collections team has worked on cataloging, rehousing, and digitizing this collection, supported by two generous grants from the Leon Levy Foundation.
A good example of the historic record contained within the Wurts Bros. photographs is the construction of the Woolworth Building. On April 24, 1913, nearly 100 years ago, construction was completed on the 792-foot skyscraper. The Woolworth Building was the tallest building in the world until 1930, when the Chrysler Building would overtake it.
The Wurts Bros. captured the majority of their beautiful images utilizing a large format view camera and glass plate negatives, which render the images incredibly sharp, striking, and detailed. They shot with wide angle lenses and bellows that allowed them to twist and turn the camera for spectacular views that are otherwise impossible to see. To a viewer standing at ground level looking up, buildings appear tall and skinny like a needle. To correct for this misleading perspective, Lionel Wurts crafted a technique of shooting from the upper floors of an adjacent building while skillfully working with the camera bellows and lenses to create perfectly even and square portraits of skyscrapers and buildings. The majority of the Wurts Bros. collection was captured on these large, heavily detailed glass plate negatives, but as acetate film became more ubiquitous they began to shoot with smaller format film as well.
Here are some fabulous examples of the type of documentary style the Wurts Bros. are best known for:
The Wurts Bros. were also contracted to photograph facades and interiors of luxurious New York residences like this one from 40 West 57th Street, giving viewers a glimpse inside spectacular upper class residences they could only before imagine.
The Wurts Bros. name is also synonymous with the New York World’s Fair Exhibition of 1939. Richard Wurts, the son of Lionel, documented the construction and grandeur of the fair grounds. In the winter of 1939 he had a one man show of these photos at the Museum of the City of New York called “Building the 1939 New York World’s Fair.” Here are some photos from the exhibition:
Operating as a commercial studio through several generations of New York City history, the Wurts Bros. had a broad spectrum of clientele. They chronicled everything from skyscrapers to houses; office buildings to schools; tools to artwork. They documented so much of New York City that it’s hard to find something they didn’t photograph.
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