Monthly Archives: April 2012

Riding the Subway with Stanley Kubrick

As most New Yorkers know, the subway system is the lifeline of New York City.   In 1946 Stanley Kubrick set out as a staff photographer for LOOK Magazine to capture the story of New York City’s subway commuters.

Kubrick was not the first photographer to depict the New York City subway.  In 1938 Walker Evans shot many amazing portraits of unknowing riders with a camera hidden in his coat. This may have influenced Kubrick’s work. This Kubrick  image is a very “shot from the hip,” Walker Evans-style portrait.

Stanley Kubrick. Life and Love on the New York City Subway. Passengers in a subway car. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10292.26C

As you can see below, with the exception of iPods and smart phones, activities on the train haven’t changed much in the last 66 years, including shoving one’s newspaper in everyone else’s faces.

Stanley Kubrick. Life and Love on the New York City Subway. Passengers reading in a subway car. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10292.30D

Stanley Kubrick. Life and Love on the New York City Subway. Passengers in a subway car. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10292.55E

Stanley Kubrick. Life and Love on the New York City Subway. Passengers in a subway car. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10292.52B

Stanley Kubrick. Life and Love on the New York City Subway. Woman knitting on a subway. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11107.16

Stanley Kubrick. Life and Love on the New York City Subway. People on escalators in a subway station. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10292.61C

Stanley Kubrick. Life and Love on the New York City Subway. Woman waiting on a subway platform. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10292.81B

Stanley Kubrick. Life and Love on the New York City Subway. Women in a subway car. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10292.11E

Stanley Kubrick. Life and Love on the New York City Subway. Men sleeping in a subway car. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10292.73C

Although it is now claimed that chivalry is dead, it was definitely waning in 1946.

Stanley Kubrick. Life and Love on the New York City Subway. Passengers in a subway car. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10292.56E

BUT romance still thrived on some trains.

Stanley Kubrick. Life and Love on the New York City Subway. Couple playing footsies on a subway. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10292.90E

Stanley Kubrick. Life and Love on the New York City Subway. Man carrying flowers on a crowded subway. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10292.37C

Here is an explanation from Kubrick about how he took these photographs:

“I wanted to retain the mood of the subway, so I used natural light,” he said. People who ride the subway late at night are less inhibited than those who ride by day. Couples make love openly, drunks sleep on the floor and other unusual activities take place late at night. To make pictures in the off-guard manner he wanted to, Kubrick rode the subway for two weeks. Half of his riding was done between midnight and six a.m. Regardless of what he saw he couldn’t shoot until the car stopped in a station because of the motion and vibration of the moving train. Often, just as he was ready to shoot, someone walked in front of the camera, or his subject left the train.

Kubrick finally did get his pictures, and no one but a subway guard seemed to mind. The guard demanded to know what was going on. Kubrick told him.

“Have you got permission?” the guard asked.

“I’m from LOOK,” Kubrick answered.

“Yeah, sonny,” was the guard’s reply, “and I’m the society editor of the Daily Worker.”

For this series Kubrick used a Contax and took the pictures at 1/8 second. The lack of light tripled the time necessary for development.

— “Camera Quiz Kid: Stan Kubrick,” The Camera, October 1948

Lincoln’s last play; or, the continuing fascination with “Our American Cousin”

A distant cousin stands to inherit a large British estate on the brink of financial ruin. Sound familiar?  The main storyline from the phenomenally popular British series “Downton Abbey” shares its roots with the 19th century play, Our American Cousin, in which an American travels to England to survey his British cousins and his inheritance.  This past Sunday marked the 100-year anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, the event that jump starts intrigues at Downton; and Saturday was the 147th anniversary of the most famous performance of Our American Cousin:  the night of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, April 14, 1865.

"Our American Cousin", August 11, 1860. Broadway Production Files, Museum of the City of New York. F2012.41.18

Written by English playwright Tom Taylor, Our American Cousin premiered in New York in the fall of 1858.  It starred Joseph Jefferson as the rough and rustic American Asa Trenchard who arrives at the British Trenchard estate as the last named heir.  Servants gossip, villains emerge from the shadows, and true love conquers in the end. A comedy with a melodramatic structure, much of the show’s humor was originally intended to spring from Asa’s crude and uncouth manners as an American in England. However, the ad-libs of Jefferson’s friend, E. A. Sothern as the foppish and silly Lord Dundreary, soon eclipsed the American cousin.

With expansive sideburns and dandified attire, Sothern transformed Lord Dundreary’s role from a bit part into a top billing character.  Sothern became almost synonymous with the role and was able to perform it in several sequels and spin-offs.  “Dundrearies” entered the popular lexicon as a term to describe the facial hair Sothern chose for the character.  Not a hundred years after throwing off British rule, it is perhaps no surprise that the idiotic sayings of a ridiculous Englishman were thought humorous by American audiences.

Sheet music cover for "The Laura Keene Schottish", 1856. Theater Collection, Museum of the City of New York. 40.160.1064

Neither Jefferson nor Sothern performed for Lincoln the night of April 14th, but Laura Keene, who played the show’s original heroine, Florence Trenchard,  was on the stage.

In fact, it was Keene’s company that premiered the show in New York at the theater she managed on Broadway.  A single mother with two young daughters, Keene came to the United States from England in 1852 with an invitation to perform with James William Wallack’s New York based stock company. By 1857 she had formed her own company, leased theaters in Baltimore, San Francisco and New York,  and built  her own theater at 622 Broadway.   One of her theater’s biggest hits was Our American Cousin.  Below is an a page from the Laura Keene’s Theatre’s ledger for a performance of the play two years after its debut.

Account book for Laura Keene's Theatre, p. 186, August 11, 1860. Theater Collection, Museum of the City of New York. 39.500.153

Notes in the upper left corner provide information on the weather the night of the performance.  It was threatening rain on the evening of August 11, 1860, but that didn’t stop the audiences.

Our American Cousin wasn’t just the last play President Lincoln saw.  It  was one of the great commercial successes of its day.  It made a star our of E. A. Sothern and cemented the reputation of Laura Keene, America’s first successful theatrical businesswoman.   And 150 years later, the plot line still is still capable of capturing the imagination of a wide audience.  The images and information I was able to fit into this short blog post really are, if you’ll permit the allusion, just the tip of the iceberg.

Saving the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse

April 16, 1912 was supposed to have been a joyous day for Seamen’s Church Institute.  That evening, they were scheduled to celebrate laying the cornerstone of their new building at 25 South Street.  Earlier that day, however, news arrived of the sinking of Titanic, and excitement over the new building was overshadowed by a nation mourning the loss of over 1,500 people.  The group in attendance at the ceremony made a plan to build a lighthouse on top of the building to commemorate the heroism displayed by many in the tragedy, as well as remember those who lost their lives.

New York Herald, 1912. Surviving Crew Receives Clothing, 1912. Courtesy of The Seamen's Church Institute Archives.

Building this lighthouse turned into a nationwide effort as people banded together in solidarity after the tragedy; it seemed that everyone donated to the cause.  Wealthy socialites like Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt wrote checks and schoolchildren donated pennies and nickels .  One year to the day after the sinking, the lighthouse was dedicated in front of a crowd of over 300.

Invitation to the Dedication of the TitanicMemorial Lighthouse, 1913. Courtesy of Seamen's Church Institute Archives.

Dedication of the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse, 1913. Courtesy of Seamen's Church Institute Archives.

Although it served as a memorial, the lighthouse had a practical use as well.  Designed by Warren & Wetmore (the architects of Grand Central Station), its signature green light (the only lighthouse in the country to use that color) could be seen by vessels 10 miles out in the Narrows, helping guide ships into port.  A time ball was dropped every day at 12 noon, which ships in the harbor, as well as local residents and workers in Lower Manhattan, could use to set their watches.

Samuel H. Gottscho (1875-1971). New York City Views. Detail of the Titanic Memorial on Seamen’s Church Institute, 1932. Museum of the City of New York, 88.1.1.2369.

In 1967, Seamen’s Church Institute moved to new headquarters at 15 State Street and their original building, along with the lighthouse, was set to be demolished.  A group of concerned preservationists led by Frederick Fried, Friends of South Street Seaport, and the South Street Seaport Museum, banded together to persuade the demolition company to donate the lighthouse to the Museum.  It now anchors a small park at the intersection of Fulton St. and Water St., at the entrance of the Historic Seaport District.  Not only does it serve as a reminder of Titanic’s tragic story, it also documents the role of an important institution in the port’s history, provides a visible welcome to the Seaport, and reminds us of the need to preserve landmarks and artifacts.

Titanic Memorial Lighthouse where it stands today; unbeknownst to this woman, she's sitting under history!

Plaque on the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse.

For more information about Seamen’s Church Institute and their work helping the surviving crew from Titanic, check out the SCI Archive’s digital exhibition.

If you’d like to learn more about Titanic or to see the lighthouse in person, visit the South Street Seaport Museum, where today, April 10, 2012, the one hundredth anniversary of RMS Titanic’s launch on her maiden – and only – voyage, the Museum opens Titanic at 100: Myth and Memory, an exhibition that examines both the disaster and a century’s worth of fascination with the ship’s dramatic story.

The Abolitionist Riots of 1834

Not too long ago, I was looking through our map collection with Andrea Renner, one of the Museum’s Andrew W. Mellon Post-Doctoral Curatorial Fellows, who assisted curator Hilary Ballon on the The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011, on view at the Museum through July 15.  We came across the map below. I’d seen it before, but been puzzled by the what it was meant to depict.

Map of Intersection of Spring Street and Varick Street, ca.1850, in the J. Clarence Davies Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.2984.

The map shows the intersection of Spring and Varick Streets. A barricade of sorts has been erected at the west side of the intersection, running across Spring Street, and two figures are fighting in the middle with what appear to be swords.

Map of

Inset, Map of Intersection of Spring Street and Varick Street, ca.1850, in the J. Clarence Davies Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.2984.

On closer inspection, it becomes apparent the barricade is made of carts, and in addition to the two figures fighting in the center of the streets, the intersection is completely surrounded by armed figures.  Andrea viewed hundreds of maps throughout New York City’s repositories during the several months leading up to The Grid, and was equally perplexed by this map.  Not too long after she’d completed her research for the exhibition, she sent me an excerpt from a book she’d found online, describing a “riot” in 1834, in which a mob attacked the homes and property of known abolitionists. The 27th Regiment was called in to disperse the mob, which had assembled in large numbers in the vicinity of Reverend Ludlow’s Church on Spring Street, between Varick and MacDougal, where they had amassed a barricade of carts, barrels, and ladders.  If you refer to the inset below, you’ll see the only structure identified on the whole map is an unnamed “Church,” which sits in the upper left quadrant on the image.  (We think the tiny black dots are meant to represent individual rioters.)   Andrea had identified our mystifying map.

Inset, Map of Intersection of Spring Street and Varick Street, ca.1850, in the J. Clarence Davies Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.2984.

I consulted the ever helpful Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, to learn more about this event.   In July of 1834, several riots broke out, primarily incited by those -  such as James Watson Webb, editor of the Courier and Enquirer;  and William Leete Stone, secretary of the New York Colonization Society and editor of the Commerical Advertiser – opposed to the abolitionist activities of Arthur and Lewis Tappan, brothers involved with the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Association.

In the days leading up to July 11th, the events of which are depicted in the map above, anti-abolitionist activities erupted throughout the city.  On July 7th, anti-abolitionists descended on the Chatham Street Chapel, where a celebration in honor of the seventh anniversary of the emancipation of New York’s Slaves was planned.  Three separate riots broke out on July 9th:  The Chatham Street Chapel was once again a target; Lewis Tappan’s Rose Street Home was demolished; and four thousand people stormed the Bowery Theater, where a benefit was underway for George Farren, the playhouse’s British stage manager, a man known for his anti-Yankee sentiments. Over the next two days Arthur Tappan’s Pearl Street Store was pelted with stones; rioters stormed the Laight Street Church, where the Reverend, Dr. Cox had preached in favor of church integration; and later a group broke into Cox’s home on Charlton Street.  Numerous other episodes of violence occurred, culminating in the swearing in by Mayor Lawrence of 1,000 volunteer constables, the deployment of the New York First Division, and all-night patrols by Calvary Squadrons. By Tuesday, July 15th, the riots had been suppressed.