100 years of New York photographs

The earliest New York City photographers of note, from the 1880s to the 1920s, lugging their heavy tripods and glass-plate negatives from site to site, focused mainly on the awesome drama of the sheer size of the city – its skyscrapers, crowded streets and institutions. Most prominent among the image-hunters were Alvin Coburn, Byron Company and Alfred Stieglitz, who, before World War I, sought to capture the “City of Ambition.”

Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine dug deeper into the lives of the teeming multitudes, that vast collection of outsiders, immigrants, country folk and the unemployed. Riis revealed the intolerable conditions of the slum tenements while Hine exposed the disparity between industrial capitalism and American democratic values by photographing child labor and hazardous work conditions.

The influx of foreign artists in the early part of the 20th century brought a fresh vision and new views of the world to the culture of traditional imagery, which looked for architectural order and for “the good old days” and often bent to the demands of the tastes of the bourgeois market. Pioneers included Stieglitz, Man Ray and Paul Strand.

At the same time, another revolution, a technological one, was taking place. The invention of the Leica camera – a small camera with a rapid film-spool and precision lens and shutter – enabled the photographer to secretly capture the subjects and record their expressions, gestures and behavior. The Leica artists, including Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, had honed their skills in the government rural projects of the 1930s Depression years. From the farmlands of the dispossessed the photographers now turned their lenses on the “fallen culture, the sudden glimpses of the stagnant hours” of city streets.

In 1936, the socially engaged New York camera artists, many of them Communists, organized the Photo League, where techniques and projects were promoted. Abstract, expressionist and surrealist print-making were also encouraged as socially useful forms of communication. League members included Strand, Arnold Eagle and Sid Grossman, among others.

Several important women photographers deserve special mention for their contributions of striking insights of the city, among them Margaret Bourke-White, Berenice Abbott, Helen Levitt, Doris Ullman and Rebecca Lepkoff.

Following the promise of the good life offered by the 1939 World’s Fair, and as the U.S. entered into World War II, new publications such as PM, Harper’s Bazaar, Magnum and Life gobbled up photographs as never before.

In 1955, what has been called the greatest photographic exhibition of all time – 500 pictures from 68 countries – “The Family of Man” was mounted at the Museum of Modern Art. That show and its catalog inspired thousands of visitors, hungry for a message of brotherhood and world peace.

In the years after World War II, alienation and hedonism could be seen in the new expressionist vein of some photographers. Others showed the “dark side” in their prints. The haunting voice of “loners, outcasts and subcultures” was the unfiltered view of Diane Arbus. Her loving concern was for those “misfits” whose only employment in earlier decades was as attractions in “freak shows.”

An exhibit running through Sept. 2 at the Jewish Museum in New York shows these changes in photography. “New York: Capital of Photography” features mostly black-and-white photos, since color photography was added to the arsenal of photographers mainly in the last couple decades of the century.

– Charles Keller (pww@pww.org)