Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
Like a patient waiting for a miracle cure, New York City embraced the arrival of photography as the perfect elixir. It was the missing ingredient for the modern city, a tool that could record the rapidly expanding metropolis, a technology that was immediate enough to keep up with the ‘now’. The Photographer quickly became a permanent fixture within the cityscape. Entrepreneurial practitioners promptly inhabited studios and streets as brave explorers of the uncharted territories of recorded vision.
The photographer was the illustrator of society, the scientist, the investigator, the surveyor, the celebrity maker, the genealogist, and the chronicler of memory. Demand for images opened up the floodgates to practitioners and this competition fueled ingenuity. Occupational self-portraits proclaim a new profession independent from tradition. Images of photographers taken by photographers illustrate a developing self-awareness, an inventiveness and an introspection at once calculating and as casual as the experience of noticing one’s reflection in a shop window.
The Byron Company portrait (below) taken from the roof of Marceau’s photography studio exudes industrial optimism. There is a sense that these men have found the magic looking glass, a portal to the Mythic City, the tool that connected them to the stars of the theater, to the godlike architects, to the highest society dinners, to political parades, and then down the damp gas-lit streets to the immigrant laundresses, the street peddlers, and opium den dealings. Studios such as Byron offered their hand to every imaginable commission; it is unknown if they foresaw the historical value that their images would hold in the future. There are over 23,000 Byron Co. prints digitized on the Museum of the City of New York’s Collection Portal.
Photography had weight: the weight of the glass plates, the tripod, and the view camera with all of its girth. Commercial photographers continued to use view cameras throughout the 20th century, because of the unparalleled detail of a large format negative (imaging formats 4×5 inches or larger). When the dark cloth is over one’s head, it becomes an extension of the body, merging man and machine, the tripod adding three extra legs.
By the 1900s photographers sought out every angle; there was no height too dangerous to defeat the temptation of a perfect view. William Davis Hassler’s self portrait (below), shows Hassler confidently balancing on the steel bars of a two-story high cable car crossbeam. The following image is a view taken by Hassler atop the Manhattan Bridge from a similarly precarious point of view (remember: these are 11×14 inch glass negatives!). The image of his home studio shows eight heavy carrying cases for cameras and equipment.
John Albok captures himself in a mirror. To the left is a work suit that is professional and unassuming, a uniform fitting for a man who blends like a fly on the wall of brick and mortar avenues (Albok was also a tailor). His photographs hang askew on the studio walls; casual images of a young girl and the skyline at sunset can be made out. His gaze is looking slightly up toward the reflection of his room as if there is a deep sense of affinity with his work and devotion to his City. The studio, with its heavy hot lights and cables, is an appendage of his vision.
These later images of Arthur Rothstein (taken in 1957) and Andreas Feininger (taken in 1975) recall the Byron and Co. self-portrait. The safety-mirror ball creates a lens-like distortion similar the shape of the human eye.
Above, a photographer climbs the bulldozer in the desperate last attempt to record a structure before demolition in Arthur Rothstein’s expose for LOOK magazine, titled Changing New York.
After the invention of flexible roll film and smaller format cameras, the amateur photographer became a ubiquitous figure in the City. By the 1940s, the camera-laden hobbyist and the tourist became a common New York caricature. Sightseers perplexed by the vertigo of skyscrapers stopped dead still in pedestrian traffic to get a trophy image of the Empire State or Chrysler Buildings. The image above, from a tongue-in-cheek LOOK story, Everyone is Taking Pictures, depicts a professional photographer’s impression of these new image-takers.
The profession would undergo many changes over the coming decades as the immediacy of photography and the increase of human intimacy with the camera would assimilate the photographic impulse in society. Throughout the 20th century, the role of the photographer expanded from the scientist-inventor to artist and social worker and then that of the citizen reporter. Over the years cameras would shrink in size, enabling mobility and making them increasingly personal objects, decreasing the specialized role of professional photographers and making the photograph a more intimate reflection of human lives. Now everyone has become a recorder of city life and the bold objective photographic visions from the past are presently the multiple subjective viewpoints of a ubiquitous technology.