looks back to the future … back to a world that will never be again … and foreshadows a world that is yet to be.
Corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, New York, 1910
Current day picture of the same corner
I sometimes go on about the best gifts and the most special moments of my life when someone gave me something that is so-me, I wonder if they did a walk-about in my brain.
That is what my dear friend, Laura Drake did when she sent me an email with eighteen one-hundred year old black and white photographs.
Today, I will feature seven of those eighteen photographs … those of my beloved city … New York. All the captions under the old photographs were written by Laura in her email.
Anyone out there who is a photography lover, knows that what your naked eye sees is nature’s kaleidoscope. But through the photographer’s eye … what I call The Third Eye … little compares to the depth of black and white photography.
View of Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn in 1909.
The Manhattan Bridge from the Brooklyn side today
Images from another time …
One of my early memories is of standing in my parent’s room in our cold flat in Sunset Park and wondering what this strange three-sided box attached to the wall might be. It was the big guy’s make-shift dark room, a tiny structure containing his chemical bins, a thin cord tacked across one wall, and two extension cords; one with a 25 wt red bulb that hung inside, and a second with a red Christmas light that hung over the door. No one dare enter when the red tree light was on.
From the age of twelve, until he was almost eighty my brother constructed various types of homemade dark rooms, the last, a darkroom he built in his basement in his Scarsdale home. He gave me my first Brownie Hawkeye when I was seven and taught photography in the high school where he was a math teacher for thirty years.
He fostered the love of photography in several of the children of the family … my daughter catching the bug when she was eight. With a point-and-click Canon I gave her when she went off to summer camp the first time, my baby girl began an odyssey that she continues today.
Purist in the field of photo-art and all photojournalists will attest that even today, with digital available, the old school needs to be taught and revered, and is still considered to be the best way to develop black and white prints.
If you don’t know … photographers never developed their chromes (color shots) … those were sent to a special lab. But all black and white photographs were developed in the seclusion of a dark room.
Fire at 55th Street, New York, 1915
On January 6, 1915, an electrical short in a manhole started a fire that filled the subway line under Broadway at West 55th Street with smoke, resulting in chaos for a quarter-million commuters. The New York Times reported that one person, Ella Grady, was killed. We note that photographer George Grantham Bain, like many of us writing checks just after January 1, was a year off in dating this photo. 5×7 glass negative, George Grantham Bain Collection.
The passion that drives us …
She rose early, brewed a small pot of espresso coffee, and closed herself in the dark room to work on some of her new negatives. Antoinette loved the colors of darkness, found comfort in their shadows. The thrill of watching an image rise, draped in red light, rising from the primordial soup, a face, a hand, life beginning, images stolen, moments frozen and forever still in her hands. (From Frozen in Black and White)
Much of what we write when first the need grabs us by the throat … when like a lioness on the kill … her teeth dig deep into the throat of her prey … she shakes it … bares down and brings her kill to its knees.
So often, those first thoughts become the hardest to write.
Antoinette became my alter-ego long before I knew I was going to write stories.
What you see with your inner eye, those images you fashion when you are in that zone are the same images that a photographer struggles with when he gazes through the lens of his camera. Patiently, often for days, a photographer will set up his equipment and wait for that perfect moment.
Fifth Avenue, New York, 1913
The New York Public Library, New York, 1915.
Didn’t realize they had 4-laners in those days.
This was the New York Public Library main building during late stage construction in 1908, the lion statues not yet installed at the entrance.
Yes, Laura … the extra lanes in those days were to accommodate the trolley tracks. Today, they accommodate the burgeoning traffic.
We all need to do our homework …
I have researched the art for years … not only because I will eventually do that one story of Antoinette …but because the look I saw on my brother’s face has remained with me all my life. I had to find a way to know what he felt, what was going on in this mind. I’ve read triple digits of books, seen a half-dozen documentaries, and read countless articles on the internet … studying the art of photography and the quest of the photojournalist.
What drives us to translate the images our inner eye sees … what need to translate into something tangible we can give … a true gift … a story … a black and white photograph?
Bay Ridge, Brooklyn … March, 1967
Toni Gallucci did not believe the old cliché about a thousand words. She knew some pictures were only worth one word she could barely whisper. She fixated on a print hanging in the red darkness, and whispered one explicative. A sound broke through her solitude. She stopped to listen. It was the phone. She ignored it. (From Frozen in Black and White)
Wall Street, New York, 1911. The 2 sidewalks together are as wide as the street in this pic.
The sidewalks were later cut so that it is impossible for three people to walk side-by-side … yet the streets of the business district are still so small, and curve in such severe angles, it is difficult to reason why they have never cut off the district to traffic period.
Not much has changed today
The inhabits of those buildings and what goes on behind their one-hundred year old bricks is quite different today. Along this famous street were the captains of industry and the giants of Wall Street. The now defunct Bache & Company, Kidder Peabody and a dozen more have vanished … like the Grand Daddy of them all … Merrily Lynch … that after a hundred years was sadly sold to Bank of America during the 2008 financial crash.
Fifth Avenue, New York, 1913.Look at those top hats!
Honor those who came before us …
Writers, musicians and poets … composers, sculptors and the pioneers in photography, reproduce our world. From etchings on cave walls to our present day, preserving history has been the quest of all artists. Photography has evolved from clunky, fat cameras with the man under the black drape … to the photo-shop and i-pod wonders of selfies. The desire to capture moments of our history in words and images has driven us for centuries.
There a over two thousand world famous photographers who are known for their extreme photo art, photo journalism, and op-art. They worked with United Press International, Associated Press, Life Magazine, Look Magazine, The New Yorker, and of course, the famous Vanity Fair photographer of our generation … Annie Lebowitz.
They have left us a legacy … an opportunity to look back on our future.
What cuts you to the bone?
What drives you to write that one story?
And what can we learn when we look back to our future?
fOIS In The City
Note: A big thank you to Laura for the inspiration of the eighteen black and white images. She called it Kismet. I agree. I do believe that her Kismet is her soon-to-be published women’s fiction story.