Category Archives: Photography Collection

Benjamin J. Falk, photographer and master of light

B. J. (Benjamin J.) Falk (1853-1925). Marie Jansen in the "Merry Monarch," 1890. Museum of the City of New York. 86.184.73

B. J. (Benjamin J.) Falk (1853-1925). Marie Jansen in the “Merry Monarch,” 1890. Museum of the City of New York. 86.184.73

It’s 1881. You’re an actor in the latest smash-hit sensation. Wanting to gain a little publicity for yourself, the show, and a potential national tour, the producers send you off to get your very own cabinet card portrait.  The great photographer Napoleon Sarony can’t immediately fit you in, but you’ve heard about a studio down on Broadway and 22nd Street where this guy named Falk can deliver. He’s got the backdrops and props for action shots, he creates great light using the latest in new-fangled electricity, and he’s not afraid to show a little leg.

Benjamin J. Falk was born October 14, 1853.  A life-long New Yorker, he studied photography at the College of the City of New York, graduating in 1872.  While still in school, Falk worked for the photographer George Rockwood, but by 1877 had set up his own studio on 14th Street.  (For a more complete history of Falk visit David S. Sheilds’s excellent website Broadway Photographs from which much of the biographical information in this post comes.)

B. J. (Benjamin J.) Falk (1853-1925). Gertie Homan, 1889. Museum of the City of New York. 39.317.65.

B. J. (Benjamin J.) Falk (1853-1925). Gertie Homan, 1889. Museum of the City of New York. 39.317.65.

The center of New York City theatrical life in 1877 was Madison Square. Falk moved his studio to 949 Broadway (at 22nd Street) in 1881 to be closer to the action and his clientele. From there he steadily built his reputation as an insightful portraitist of theatrical characters. The image of child actress Gertie Homan on the left is from the play Editha’s Burglar.  Adapted from the beloved book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the play tells the story of a sensitive little girl who convinces a burglar to take her own possessions over those of her parents. Falk perfectly captures the innocence and energy of little Editha. The photograph also shows off his effective use of lighting.

Almost from the beginning, Falk’s Broadway studio featured electric arc lights. In 1883 he took his lights to Madison Square Theatre to capture a scene from A Russian Honeymoon, then running at the theatre. The resulting images were the first to capture a full theatrical production scene in  a New York playhouse.

Museum of the City of New York. 38.294.47.

B. J. (Benjamin J.) Falk (1853-1925). Scene from “A Russian Honeymoon” at the Madison Square Theatre, N.Y., 1883. Museum of the City of New York. 38.294.47.

Falk eventually ceded the work of stage photography to the Byron Company studio, but he continued to create innovative and beautiful portraits such as the one below of Ida Mülle from the opera Orpheus and Eurydice.

Museum of the City of New York. 49.330.20.

B. J. (Benjamin J.) Falk (1853-1925). Ida Mülle, as “Cupid,” ca. 1884. Museum of the City of New York. 49.330.20.

Museum of the City of New York. 50.19.63.

B. J. (Benjamin J.) Falk (1853-1925). Geraldine Ulmar as Yum Yum, 1886. Museum of the City of New York. 50.19.63.

For the Gilbert and Sullivan blockbuster operetta The Mikado, Falk positioned the main love interest, Yum Yum, inside one of her songs. Performed at the beginning of the second act, Yum Yum compares herself to the sun and moon.

“Ah, pray make no mistake,
We are not shy;
We’re very wide awake,
The moon and I!”

Not only is it a stunning photograph, but it calls to my mind images from French filmmaker Georges Méliès’s  Le Voyages dans le Lune.  Méliès’s groundbreaking work was made 16 years after this cabinet card fell into circulation.

Changes in the city skyline eventually forced Falk out of his Broadway location. The construction of more and taller buildings blocked out much of the light Falk needed.  (The site of the Falk’s Broadway studio is currently occupied by the Flatiron Building.)  In the early 1890s he moved to 24th Street just off Madison Square Park, affording better access to the light his work required.

Postcard. 5th Ave Hotel & Madison Square N.Y., ca. 1898. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.3264.

Postcard. 5th Ave Hotel & Madison Square N.Y., ca. 1898. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.3264.

From the 24th Street studio Falk continued capturing theatrical characters such as the one below from The Devil’s Deputy.  In the show, comedic actor Francis Wilson plays a country inn-keeper and bridegroom who gets caught up in the switch-a-roo schemes of an actor on the run.

B. J. (Benjamin J.) Falk (1853-1925). Frances Wilson, 1894. Museum of the City of New York. 30.15.3.

B. J. (Benjamin J.) Falk (1853-1925). Frances Wilson, 1894. Museum of the City of New York. 30.15.3.

Ever chasing the light, Falk moved again in 1900, this time to the roof-top solarium of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). Waldorf Astoria, ca. 1901. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.6762.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). Waldorf Astoria, ca. 1901. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.6762.

Making use of natural light during the day, Falk also maintained an interior studio for moodier portraits, completely outfitted with electric lights using his own set-ups complete with flash and umbrellas.

Museum of the City of New York. 41.50.715.

B. J. (Benjamin J.) Falk (1853-1925). [Bertha Galland as Isoult in “The Forest Lovers”.] 1901-1902. Museum of the City of New York. 41.50.715.

Falk continued theatrical portraiture, but the businessman in him took advantage of the hotel’s social scene. He kept the studio open late for any of the more wealthy theatre-goers wishing to have their first night evening attire captured forever on film.

Byron Company, Uncle Joe Byron, Pirie MacDonald, Colonel Marceau, Pop Core, Ben Falk-New York, 1920. Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.4.16.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). Uncle Joe Byron, Pirie MacDonald, Colonel Marceau, Pop Core, Ben Falk-New York, 1920. Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.4.16.

The man himself appears above (far right, one arm holding the camera, in what might be the world’s first selfie) with fellow photographers.  In addition to begin highly regarded as a portrait photographer, Falk was respected by his colleagues for his work to found the Photographers’ Copyright League protecting the intellectual property rights of photographers. When Falk passed away on March 19, 1925, he left a legacy of technological and artistic innovation and a simply beautiful body of work.

The Falk photographs featured in this blog are brought to you by the Museum’s Theatrical production digitization project supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

From automobile maintenance to aeronautical engineering

Sara Krucwich. [Traffic on 2nd Avenue, looking north from 50th Street], 1983. Museum of the City of New York, X2010.11.4190

Sara Krucwich. [Traffic on 2nd Avenue, looking north from 50th Street], 1983. Museum of the City of New York, X2010.11.4190

New York City traffic jams have long been the source of iconic scenes in movies and television, as well as real-life frustration, perceived near death experiences, and a whole lot of noise and engine  exhaust.  It’s difficult to image New York without its sea of yellow cabs, buses, delivery trucks, and private vehicles; though of course we all know this wasn’t always the case.  Around the time New York was transitioning from horse drawn carriage to “horseless carriage,” William Stewart started paying attention to the automobile.

The Stewart System of Automobile Instruction, 1918, in the Stewart Technical School course bulletins and promotional material collection.  Museum of the City of New York, 99.136.3

The Stewart System of Automobile Instruction, 1918, in the Stewart Technical School course bulletins and promotional material collection. Museum of the City of New York, 99.136.3

The Stewart Automobile School was founded in 1909 by William Henry Stewart, and was originally located at 231 West 54th Street. Stewart wrote a syndicated newspaper column for the New York Globe, in which he answered readers’ questions about automobile maintenance. The Globe prided itself on its early recognition of the importance of automobiles in America and boasted of maintaining an “automobile department” since 1899 (The New York Globe, December 18, 1918). Stewart recognized the significance of the “horseless carriage” himself, and anticipated the demand for skilled mechanics.

Byron Company, Warren-Nash Motor Corp., Interior, sales room, Broadway & 58th Street, 1927. Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.442.

Byron Company, Warren-Nash Motor Corp., Interior, sales room, Broadway & 58th Street, 1927. Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.442.

By 1914 Stewart Automobile School had outgrown its original space and moved to 225 West 57th Street, where it existed for the next twelve years. Between 1900 and 1920, more than 50 automobile companies had businesses in New York City, and the school’s new location was in the heart of the automotive district, with showrooms and offices  for B. F. Goodrich, Ford, General Motors, Fiat, Lincoln, Willis St. Claire, and Smith and Mabley within blocks of each other and the school.

The Stewart System of Automobile Instruction, ca. 1923, in teh Stewart Technical School collection, 99.136.4.

The Stewart System of Automobile Instruction, ca. 1923, in the Stewart Technical School collection, 99.136.4.

A course bulletin from ca. 1923 grandly predicts “20,000,000 cars by 1930,” but this chart  shows reality far outnumbered Stewart’s predictions, with roughly 35,000,000 cars in use by 1930. It was during the 1930s that car owning households began to outnumber home ownership rates.  Stewart offered instruction in auto construction, steering systems, axles, transmissions,  and engine repair, as well as business management.  The school not only offered classes in automotive maintenance, but also driving lessons, boasting “If you can drive well in New York, you can drive well anywhere in the world,” serving as a forerunner to Frank Sinatra’s famous lyrics  “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.”

School of Aeronautics, Stewart Technical School, 1940, in the Stewart Technical School collection.  Museum of the City of New York, 1940.

School of Aeronautics, Stewart Technical School, 1940, in the Stewart Technical School collection. Museum of the City of New York, 1940.

In 1926, with space again growing tight, the school commissioned the construction of a new fire proof building with state of the art equipment at 253-257 West 64th Street, which was dedicated in 1927. Shortly following this move, the School recognized the growing interest in aeronautical engineering and began offering courses in airplane mechanics, construction, and drafting, in addition to the existing automobile courses.  To reflect the additional curriculum, the School changed its name to the Stewart Technical School. The school continued to prosper and was contracted by the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II to train mechanics to service planes engaged in combat.

Excerpt from School of Aeronautics, Stewart Technical School, 1940, in the Stewart Technical School collection.  Museum of the City of New York, 99.136.7.

Excerpt from School of Aeronautics, Stewart Technical School, 1940, in the Stewart Technical School collection. Museum of the City of New York, 99.136.7.

Edmund V. Gillion. Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, 1971.  Museum of the City of New York, 2013.3.2.1716.

Edmund V. Gillion. Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, 1971. Museum of the City of New York, 2013.3.2.1716.

In the years following the end of World War II, the school fell on hard times.  Stewart’s instructors began to organize with the goal of forming a union and, unable to financially support the prospect, the school closed. The Stewart Technical School building was rented for other purposes, until it was demolished in order to make way for the Lincoln Center urban renewal project begun in 1955.  For more information about the Stewart Technical School, you can take a look at the finding aid for the collection here.

Lunatics, Inmates, and Homeowners: The History of Roosevelt Island

The nurses plunged her into an ice-cold bath, pulled her out sopping wet, and threw a sheer flannel slip over her head. Large black letters spelled “Lunatic Asylum, B.I., H. 6.” across the garment. Nellie Brown, the now-freezing woman, was relegated to Blackwell’s Island, Hall 6.

However, all was not as it appeared. In reality, the name Nellie Brown served as a pseudonym for Nellie Bly, an investigative reporter who exposed the abuses of the Lunatic Asylum in 1887 for the New York World. She feigned insanity in order to be committed to the ward, where she stayed for ten days and nights. Her experience on Blackwell’s Island, later known as Welfare Island and currently called Roosevelt Island (in honor of Franklin D. Roosevelt), represents just one piece in the island’s storied history.

Hospital, Bellevue, Blackwell's Island (Welfare) Old & New Bldgs

Byron Company. Hospital, Bellevue, Blackwell’s Island (Welfare) Old & New Bldgs., ca. 1896. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.4876

Hospital, Bellevue, Blackwell's Island (Welfare) Old & New Bldgs

In her book, Ten Days in a Mad-House, Nellie Bly describes the “moth-eaten shawl” she was given to ward off the cold. Byron Company. Hospital, Bellevue, Blackwell’s Island (Welfare) Old & New Bldgs., ca. 1896. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.4918

The island, located in the East River, was originally referred to as Minnehanonck by local Native Americans, who eventually sold it to Wouter van Twiller, the Dutch East Indies employee who succeeded Peter Minuit as Director-General of New Amsterdam. In 1668, Captain John Manning purchased the property. His son-in-law, Robert Blackwell, then acquired the land, which he used for farming. After New York City gained ownership of the island in 1828, construction began on a series of public institutions, including a prison, an almshouse, and several hospitals. Although the penitentiary was eventually moved to Rikers Island in 1935, early inmates quarried stone to build one of the hospitals. Eventually the thin strip of land became known as “Welfare Island” because the prison and the workhouse gained a reputation for overcrowding, violence, and drug trafficking.

Hospital, Bellevue, Blackwell's Island (Welfare) Old & New Bldgs

Byron Company. Hospital, Bellevue, Blackwell’s Island (Welfare) Old & New Bldgs., ca. 1896. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.4863

Blackwell's Island. Prisoners Breaking Stone.

Jacob August Riis (1849-1914). Blackwell’s Island. Prisoners Breaking Stone, ca. 1890. Museum of the City of New York. 90.13.2.4

Blackwell's Island. The Lock-step Penitentiary.

Henry Granger Piffard (1842-1910), Jacob August Riis (1849-1914). Blackwell’s Island. The Lock-step Penitentiary, ca. 1890. Museum of the City of New York. 90.13.2.3

Hospital, Bellevue, Blackwell's Island (Welfare) Old & New Bldgs

Byron Company. Hospital, Bellevue, Blackwell’s Island (Welfare) Old & New Bldgs., ca. 1896. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.4915

Despite years of neglect, the island finally began to transform. Two architects, Philip Johnson and John Burgee, envisioned a waterfront paradise inhabited by a variety of residents from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. In the 1970s, New York State initiated a plan to develop the property into a residential community, which accommodated working- and middle-class families. By the 1980s, the island’s reputation continued to improve, attracting residents to its quiet neighborhoods connected to Manhattan by an aerial tramway. When luxury apartments began to appear in the early 2000s, residents expressed concerns that affordable housing would vanish. For the most part, however, regulations have ensured that rent-regulated units remain available.

[Queensboro Bridge and Roosevelt Island Tramway.]

Edmund V. Gillon (1929-2008). [Queensboro Bridge and Roosevelt Island Tramway.], ca.1981. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.3.2.1877

 Today, preservation efforts seek to maintain the island’s historic landmarks for future generations. For instance, the  iconic octagonal tower that topped the Lunatic Asylum where Nellie Bly lived for ten days was restored in 2006. The building now houses upscale apartments. More recently, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park opened to the public in 2012. This presidential memorial serves as a tribute to the four essential human freedoms Roosevelt articulated in a 1941 speech: freedom of expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The park symbolizes the island’s historical transformation from a place inhabited by confined inmates, sick patients, and destitute indigents to a community of families and homeowners.

[Octagon Tower.]

Edmund V. Gillon (1929-2008). [Octagon Tower.], 1970-2000. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.3.1.570

 If you’re interested in New York City’s myriad mystery islands, join us Thursday, March 26, 2015 at 6:30 for The Last Unknown Place in New York City: A Conversation with Christopher Payne & Michael Miscione.

Bibliography

“A New Space for a Timeless Vision.” Creating Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park: The Persistence of an Idea. FDR 4 Freedoms, n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2015. <http://fdr4freedoms.org/franklin-d-roosevelt-four-freedoms-park/&gt;.

Bellafante, Ginia. “Affordable Island in the Sun: Roosevelt Island Maintains Its Mix.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 20 June 2014. Web. 09 Mar. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/22/nyregion/roosevelt-island-maintains-its-mix.html&gt;.

Bly, Nellie. Ten Days in a Mad-House. New York: Ian L. Munro, 1887.Undercover Reporting: Deception for Journalism’s Sake: A Database. New York University. Web. 13 Feb. 2015.

“History of the Octagon.” The Octagon. The Octagon, n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2015. <http://www.octagonnyc.com/history&gt;.

Jackson, Kenneth T., ed. The Encyclopedia of New York. Second ed. New Haven: Yale UP, 2010. Print.

Members only: Private clubs in New York City

Clubs have been a part of New York City for centuries. How else are you expected to find like-minded people in such a bustling metropolis? In the early 19th century, the Hone Club was the preeminent dinner-giving club for upper class merchants (the eponymous member was Mayor Philip Hone); James Fenimore Cooper founded the deliciously-named Bread and Cheese Club (which was sadly not devoted to food, but rather literary pursuits); The City Club was  described as an “anti-bad-city government club”; and who could forget the Thirteen Club, whose stated purpose was “to combat superstitious beliefs” by hosting dinner parties with 13 guests on the 13th of the month? My favorite is the anti-club Club. Who said Gilded Age New Yorkers didn’t have a sense of humor? For the most thorough and exhaustive list, please see the King’s Handbook of 1892: pages upon pages of descriptions of every kind of club imaginable await you  here.

Some clubs were more exclusive than others. The private gentleman’s club, based on the English model, has had a long history in the five boroughs. Men socialized, dined, and drank with other men of their social class in beautiful surroundings. Membership to these clubs was (and still is) difficult to obtain: money, power, and the right connections are all must-haves. But thanks to the City Museum’s fabulous photo collections, we can pretend that we are members of some of the most exclusive clubs in town.

On June 30th, 1836, invitations were sent to various gentlemen of good social standing – Astors, Van Cortlandts, Stuyvesants, van Rensselaers, basically a roll call of every influential Dutch New York family – to join the newly founded Union Club, the first club devoted to wealth and social standing in New York. For decades it set the tone for every other club. As you can probably guess, the Union Club became very popular, very quickly and there was soon a waitlist to join.

The two images below are of the club’s clubhouse on 51st and Fifth Avenue, which it occupied from 1903-1933. Designed by Cass Gilbert, its facade is a sober statement of the conservatism and wealth of the club.

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.) 51st Street and Fifth Avenue. The Union Club. 1928. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.2.3127

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.) 51st Street and Fifth Avenue. The Union Club. 1928. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.2.3127.

Unknown photographer. Main Stairway [Union Club, 1 East 51st Street.] 1930. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.123.9

Unknown photographer. Main Stairway [Union Club, 1 East 51st Street.] 1930. Museum of the City of New York. F2013.123.9.

Their current clubhouse on Park and 69th, designed by William Adams Delano and Chester Holmes Aldrich and pictured below, was described by Christopher Gray as, “chunky with rusticated limestone and a huge angled mansard roof so big it looks like a Fifth Avenue mansion gone wild.” With five dining rooms and humidors stocked with cigars, it’s clear that the Union Club is still catering to the wealthy and connected of New York.

88.1.1.3769

Samuel H. (Samuel Herman) Gottscho (1875-1971). The Union Club, 701 Park Avenue. General exterior. 1935. Museum of the City of New York. 88.1.1.3769

 

88.1.1.3756

Samuel H. (Samuel Herman) Gottscho (1875-1971). The Union Club, 701 Park Avenue. Foyer to entrance. 1935. Museum of the City of New York. 88.1.1.3756

88.1.1.3760

Samuel H. (Samuel Herman) Gottscho (1875-1971). The Union Club, 701 Park Avenue. Dining room, general view to portraits. 1935.Museum of the City of New York. 88.1.1.3760

New York society, however, is nothing if not fluid. After the Civil War, there was a huge influx of newly wealthy men who wanted access to the prestige of the Union Club. The older members of the Union Club were not impressed. They blocked the membership application of two men: John King and Dr. W. Seward Webb. Bad move. It turned out that John King was connected with J. P. Morgan and Dr. Webb was married to Eliza Vanderbilt (William Kissam’s Vanderbilt’s little sister). Morgan and Vanderbilt were so angered, they did the only sensible thing: they founded their own private club.

Dubbed the Millionaire’s Club by the press, the Metropolitan Club was singly focused on money. By 1892, 700 invitations were sent out and that alone was enough to ensure the club’s financial success. The next step was a clubhouse that alerted passers-by to the wealth of those inside. Morgan enlisted Stanford White, who told the New York Times: “The club house will stand unrivaled in its size, and although the style will be in the severest and simplest character of Italian Renaissance and the feeling of severity and solidity will be carried through the interior, the scale of the building and the nature of its materials will give it an appearance unlike that of any building in New York.”. Well, let it never be said that Stanford White didn’t have confidence in his abilities. The clubhouse was completed in 1893, on what was once the 8th Duke of Marlborough’s land. (As a interesting historical sidenote: William K. Vanderbilt’s daughter, Consuelo, would marry the 9th Duke of Marlborough, for more information read Lindsay’s fabulous blog post about dollar princesses here.)

Metropolitan Club, 5th Ave. & 60th St.

Irving Underhill (d. 1960). Metropolitan Club, 5th Ave. & 60th St. 1929. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.29.221

 

[Metropolitan Club, 1-11 East 60th Street.]

Edmund V. Gillon. [Metropolitan Club, 1-11 East 60th Street.]. ca. 1975. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.3.2.2006.

Another way that the Metropolitan Club was progressive was that they had an annex where wives and daughters of the members held events. You can almost feel the collective shudder of the Union Club.

90.44.4.3

James L. Breese and Carbon Studio. Interior Views of the Metropolitan Club House [Grand staircase.]. 1895. Museum of the City of New York. 90.44.4.3

90.44.4.4

James L. Breese and Carbon Studio, Interior Views of the Metropolitan Club House [Possibly the West Room.] 1895. Museum of the City of New York. 90.44.4.4

Not all clubs were based entirely on money and family lines. Here are glimpses of other privates clubs.

The University Club was began by Ivy League graduates whose goals included, “promotion of Literature and Art by establishing and maintaining a Library, Reading Room and Gallery of Art, and by such other means as shall be expedient and proper for such purposes.” Thanks to a beautiful clubhouse designed by McKim, Mead & White, you can see just how well they accomplished those goals.

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.). 1 West 54th Street. University Club. Interior, game room. ca. 1939. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.2.7948

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.). 1 West 54th Street. University Club. Interior, game room. ca. 1939. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.2.7948

MNY325860 (1)

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.). 1 West 54th Street. University Club. Interior, library. ca. 1939. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.2.7938

The Players Club is a different kind of club than the ones mentioned previously. Founded by Edwin Booth and located in a Gramercy Park South townhome remodeled by Stanford White, the private club was home to, as one contemporary quipped, “… gentlemen trying to be actors,” and its members come from the highest social groups of both the theater and business worlds. Here you can see the two most important parts of a gentleman’s club: the billiards table and  the bar (with the very attentive Connelly awaiting your order).

Josephine Barry. Player's Club, founded by Edwin Booth - 16 Gramercy Park Southern. 1947. 1947. Museum of the City of New York. 75.43.85

Josephine Barry. Player’s Club, founded by Edwin Booth – 16 Gramercy Park Southern. 1947. 1947. Museum of the City of New York. 75.43.85

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.). [Players Club. Billiard room.] ca. 1939, Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.17081

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.). [Players Club. Billiard room.] ca. 1939, Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.17081

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.). 16 Gramercy Park South. Interior, The Player's Club with Connelly, barkeeper. 1935, Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.2.6542

Wurts Bros. (New York, N.Y.). 16 Gramercy Park South. Interior, The Player’s Club with Connelly, barkeeper. 1935, Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.2.6542

And finally, we have this perfect picture of members of the Yale Club, obviously having a fabulous time at a 1904 Bachelor’s Dinner.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). Dinner - Bachelor 1904 Yale Club 30 West 44th St.  1904. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.3979.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). Dinner – Bachelor 1904 Yale Club 30 West 44th St. 1904. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.3979.

For more images of club life in Gilded Age New York, please visit out Collection Portal here.

 

 

Using the Museum’s Collections to Teach Photography

The Photography Collection at the Museum of the City of New York is an incredible resource for anyone interested in photography, architecture, social history, New York City, and any number of other topics. Over 300,000 prints and negatives make up the collection, and thousands of these images have been digitized and can be seen on our online Collections Portal. The Museum’s collection contextualizes the present within the larger picture of New York City’s past, creating a rich visual database that reflects the vastness of our metropolis and its complicated history. Children as well as adults can use this visual database to explore and interpret the past and draw inspiration in their own lives. The City Museum offers educators classroom guides to the collection, and our new photography classes put cameras into the hands of young people–inviting them to expand their own vision of the city.

Isabelle Abel, Age 11, Faces and Feelings, Rockefeller Center, 2014.

Isabelle Abel, Age 11, Faces and Feelings, Rockefeller Center, 2014.

Using the collection, students learn that photography is a visual language that can be investigated and discussed to make new connections and discoveries about the world around them. Students begin to see that their daily interactions with photography through cell phone pics, selfies, and social media only scratch the surface of the medium’s potential. Included here are sample images taken by elementary-age City Museum photographers who explored this potential by photographing the City’s built environment and its people alongside some of the images from our collection from which they took inspiration.

 Ratcliffe. Produced by Foto Seal Co., Looking South from Observation Roof of R.C.A. Building, ca. 1955. Museum of the City of New York, F2011.33.1151.

Ratcliffe. Produced by Foto Seal Co., Looking South from Observation Roof of R.C.A. Building, ca. 1955. Museum of the City of New York, F2011.33.1151.

Caroline Cole, Age 9, My Hometown, Top of the Rock, 2014.

Caroline Cole, Age 9, My Hometown, Top of the Rock, 2014.

Here a student used re-photography to create a new image of the skyline inspired by a 1930s postcard, comparing and contrasting the past and the present. The class discussed how postcards mailed all over the world contribute to the identity of a city. The Postcard Collection includes over 5,500 images dating back from the late 19th century through the present.

Maria Cerini, Tiny Skis, 2014.

Maria Cerini, Age 10, Tiny Skis, 2014.

Stanley Kubrick for LOOK Magazine. Rosemary Williams, Show Girl, 1949. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.12302.9A-F.

Stanley Kubrick. Rosemary Williams, Show Girl, 1949. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.12302.9A-F.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Students also staged environmental and studio portraits, collaborating with their subject to tell a story and express a range of emotions. Using contact sheets such as this one by Stanley Kubrick for LOOK Magazine, they learned that it takes many shots to get the perfect picture.

Samuel H. Gottscho, New York City views. RCA Building floodlighted, 1933. Museum of the City of New York, 88.1.2.2267.

Samuel H. Gottscho, New York City views. RCA Building floodlighted, 1933. Museum of the City of New York, 88.1.2.2267.

Marin Wells, Age 9, Entering the G.E. Building, Rockefeller Center, 2014.

Marin Wells, Age 9, Entering the G.E. Building, Rockefeller Center, 2014.

By using close-ups, zooming out, and shooting from ‘bird’s-eye’ and ‘worm’s-eye’ views students saw a single subject transformed through a range of perspectives, learning the impact point-of-view can have on a subject. Here the student displays how impressive a landmark can be made by shooting it from below.

I Spy Exhibition

I Spy NY Exhibition, Museum of the City of New York

The City Museum’s Frederick A.O. Schwarz Children’s Center is now hosting an ongoing exhibition of youth photography. Students worked with museum professionals to curate, edit, mat, frame, and label their pieces.

Educators can download guides to the collections portal. Over 165,000 images can be used to inspire stimulating conversations about photography.

Exciting new photography classes (cameras provided) include:
Field Trip- Capturing the City Through the Camera for Grades 5-8
I Spy New York: Capturing the City Through the Camera for Grades 2-3
Portrait of a City: Photographing Landmarks for Grades 9-12

Buffalo Bill’s New York

Running up and down Brooklyn’s Seventh Avenue in 1894, little boys snatched their mothers’ clotheslines, fashioning them into lassoes to rope their younger sisters [1]. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show was in town, and the young boys were eager to imitate the show’s star performer.

31_130_14_BB in buckskin suit

William F. Cody, Stacy, 5th Ave and 9th St, Brooklyn, ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. 31.130.14

By the time William F. Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill, reached Brooklyn, he had already achieved prominence as a cultural icon of the American West. He began his show in 1883 and toured extensively throughout the United States and Europe for over 30 consecutive years. While the show took various forms over the years, it generally portrayed the triumph of civilization over savagery in unique acts that simultaneously showcased skills like horseback riding and sharp shooting. In honor of his passing in January 1917, we dedicate this blog post to his show’s success in New York City.

45_271_96_BB with Native American

Sitting Bull and William F. Cody, photographyer unknown, ca. 1885. Museum of the City of New York. 45.271.96

In the summer of 1886, Cody brought his show to Erastina, an amusement ground on Staten Island [2]. The festivities began with an elaborate parade through the streets of Manhattan on June 26th [3]. Quickly, the entertainers’ camp became as popular as the scheduled performances. Families from Manhattan and Queens chatted with cowboys and marveled at Native Americans who sat in hammocks and roasted hotdogs for supper [4]. The show closed in September, yet promptly found a new home at Madison Square Garden, where the company premiered Drama of Civilization for the 1886 winter season. A souvenir booklet from the Museum of the City of New York’s collection offers a few detailed glimpses of that season. For instance, the book records the death of sixteen buffalo due to “lung trouble” during the show’s Garden run. Despite this setback, the season was successful. As Louis S. Warren notes in his book, Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show, Cody’s performances at Madison Square Garden signaled “the ascension of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West to middle-class entertainment and respected cultural institution” [5].

In 1894, Cody and his managing partner, Nate Salsbury, returned to New York with the hope of capitalizing on the show’s success in Chicago during the previous summer [6]. Collaborating with the Thirty-ninth Street Ferry company, they leased a twenty-four-acre parcel of land in Ambrose Park, Brooklyn. Hordes of Manhattanites and other New Yorkers crossed the Brooklyn Bridge or rode the ferry directly to the show ground. The souvenir booklet indicates that only one show was cancelled due to heavy rains, resulting in a total of 126 performances.

IMG_6189

Official Souvenir: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World, 1896. Museum of the City of New York. F2014.45.1

F2014_45_1_BB Book_page 276

Official Souvenir: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World, 1896. Museum of the City of New York. F2014.45.1

F2014_45_1_BB Book_page 277

Official Souvenir: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World, 1896. Museum of the City of New York. F2014.45.1

Cody’s rise to fame at Madison Square Garden also coincided with technological innovations aptly suited for the urban environment. For instance, the Statue of Liberty was illuminated in the same year that stage lights electrified Cody’s Drama of Civilization at Madison Square Garden [7]. Similarly, an illustration called “The Little Tented City” from an 1898 program emphasizes the relationship between nature and technology in the Wild West show [8]. It depicts the buffalo pen next to the electric generator needed to power the large camp. Likewise, the chief engineer’s tent sits across from the Indians’ tepees. The large urban population and infrastructure of New York City allowed Cody’s show to grow into an elaborate spectacle.

41_50_714_BB and crew

[Buffalo Bill’s Wild West], photographer unknown, ca. 1895. Museum of the City of New York. 41.50.714


 

45_271_156_BB in buckskin suit

[Buffalo Bill on horseback], photographer unknown, ca. 1895. Museum of the City of New York. 45.271.156

Buffalo Bill’s legacy often blurs the line between fact and fiction; yet he truly did establish himself as a talented marksman and scout on the frontier before he transformed into a charming showman. His Wild West show subsequently relied on his knowledge of the West to gain popularity, but he also depended on urban environments, like New York, which allowed his spectacle to flourish. In the end, he was a man at ease in the saddle or in a suit.

37_298_12_BB on Horse

William F. Cody on Horseback, photographer unknown, ca. 1895. Museum of the City of New York. 37.298.12

45_271_151_BB in suit

William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill), Marceau, ca. 1915. Museum of the City of New York. 45.271.151

[1] Warren, Louis S., Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 441.

[2] Ibid., 254

[3] PBS, Wild West in New Yorkhttp://www.nps.gov/thri/theodorerooseveltbio.htm (December 31, 2014)

[4]  Warren, Louis S., Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 255.

[5] Ibid., 256

[6] Ibid., 437

[7] Ibid., 443

[8] Ibid., 439

Urban Woodsman: Theodore Roosevelt and his Buckskin Suit

Traversing the Dakota back country atop his horse, a young Theodore Roosevelt arrived at a “desolate, little mud-roofed hut” belonging to Mrs. Maddox [1]. She “had acquired some fame in the region . . . by her skill in making buckskin shirts,” and the future president had arrived at her home to obtain a shirt of his very own [2].

In memory of Theodore Roosevelt’s birth (October 27, 1858), this post offers a glimpse, not at the future New York Police Commissioner or the Rough Rider, nor the New York Governor or future President, but at the young man who strove to model himself as a rugged frontiersman.

Pach Brothers. Theodore Roosevelt, ca. 1898. Museum of the City of New York. 32.152.4

Pach Brothers. Theodore Roosevelt, ca. 1898. Museum of the City of New York. 32.152.4

Born on East 20th Street in Manhattan, Roosevelt grew up as a sickly, yet privileged boy. Following his graduation from Harvard in 1880, he promptly married Alice Hathaway Lee, his first wife. Three years later, he made his first venture West to the Dakota badlands. Sadly, tragedy struck the following year when his wife and mother, Mittie, both died on Valentine’s Day 1884. Devastated, the young widower recorded his sorrow that night: “The light has gone out of my life,” he wrote in his diary [3]. In search of solace, he returned West to dedicate himself to ranching, while leaving his newly born daughter in the care of relatives.

East 20th Street. Theodore Roosevelt residence, restored.

Theodore Roosevelt’s birthplace on East 20th Street in Manhattan. Wurts Bros. East 20th Street. Theodore Roosevelt residence, restored, 1941. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.8170

 

Strohmeye and Wyman. Col. Theodore Roosevelt of the "Rough Riders" after his return from Cuba, 1898. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1078

Strohmeyer & Wyman. Col. Theodore Roosevelt of the “Rough Riders” after his return from Cuba, 1898. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1078

 

For Governor - Theodore Roosevelt, ca. 1899, in the Button Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 96.184.146

For Governor – Theodore Roosevelt, ca. 1899, in the Button Collection. Museum of the City of New York. 96.184.146

Jacob August Riis (1849-1914). Theodore Roosevelt when Governor of New York, 1898-1900, ca. 1899. Museum of the City of New York. 90.13.2.141

Jacob August Riis (1849-1914). Theodore Roosevelt when Governor of New York, 1898-1900, ca. 1899. Museum of the City of New York. 90.13.2.141

 

From an early age, Roosevelt wished to transform his body into a model of strength. As a frail and asthmatic child, Roosevelt worked diligently to follow his father’s advice to “make your body” [4].  Nevertheless, his slight build continued to attract attention when he traveled West. One reporter from the Pittsburgh Dispatch described him in April 1885 as a “pale, slim young man with a thin piping voice and a general look of dyspepsia about him . . .boyish looking . . . with a slight lisp, a short red mustache and eye glasses, [who] looks the typical New York dude” [5]. Given his comfortable upbringing and refined decorum, Roosevelt stood in contrast to the rough cowboys and hardened trappers of the West. Thus, he wished to prove himself as evinced in a letter dated June 1884 to his older sister: “I have been fulfilling a boyish ambition of mine, playing at frontier hunter in good earnest” [6]. Eventually, he would transform: from the tender greenhorn to the tough frontiersman capable of knocking out a drunken gunslinger who made the mistake of addressing him as “four-eyes”; but before that could happen, he needed to dress the part.

For Roosevelt, the buckskin shirt represented a uniquely American form of dress that symbolized the masculine virtues of those legendary figures, such as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, who donned the outfit before him. And so, with every stitch, Mrs. Maddox tailored a garment imbued with great personal significance for Roosevelt. It makes sense, then, that he decided to take a photograph while wearing his buckskin shirt.

Print issued by N. Currier. The Prairie Hunter. Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, 1852. Museum of the City of New York. 56.300.143

This print demonstrates the depiction of buckskin suits in 19th century popular media. Print issued by N. Currier. The Prairie Hunter. Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, 1852. Museum of the City of New York. 56.300.143

Print issued by Currier & Ives. Life on the Prairie. Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, 1862. Museum of the City of New York. 56.300.142

In this 19th century print, the hunter’s buckskin suit features prominently and reinforces his ruggedness. Print issued by Currier & Ives. Life on the Prairie. Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, 1862. Museum of the City of New York. 56.300.142

For the Christmas season of 1884, Roosevelt traveled east to his sister’s New York house at 422 Madison Avenue. Back in the city, he donned the suit and posed for photographer George Grantham Bain at his studio near Union Square. Clad in his buckskin attire, Roosevelt gazed stoically at the camera with a rifle perched on his lap and a hunting knife tucked in his ammunition belt. His rigid posture, bent foot, and index finger, resting on the trigger, suggest he is ready for action. The painted background, theatrical rocks, and imitation grass, which barely conceal the rug, dramatize Roosevelt’s performance to consciously cast himself as an “authentic” westerner who possessed manly characteristics. The circumstances surrounding this single photograph capture the nuance of who Roosevelt was, who he wanted to be, and who he was becoming: an urban woodsman.

George Grantham Bain (1865 - 1944). Theo. Roosevelt as hunter, 1909. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1093B

George Grantham Bain (1865-1944). Theo. Roosevelt as hunter, 1909. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.1093B

 

 

Works Cited

[1] Hagedorn, Hermann, Roosevelt in the Bad Lands (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1921), 95.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Felsenthal, Carol, Princess Alice: The Life and Times of Alice Roosevelt Longworth (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988), 31.

[4] National Park Service, The Life of Theodore Roosevelt, http://www.nps.gov/thri/theodorerooseveltbio.htm (Oct. 14, 2014)

[5] White, Edward, G. The Eastern Establishment and the Western Experience: The West of Frederic Remington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Owen Wister (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989), 83.

[6] Ibid.

Image

Painting the Town Black

In the 1970s, graffiti emerged as a powerful form of self-expression on New York City streets. Our recent exhibition City as Canvas offered a window into the origins of this movement, and its evolution as graffiti artists like Lee Quinones and Lady Pink moved from the streets to canvases and gallery walls – and gained prominence in the art community.

These young ‘writers’ were not the only artists shaping the city’s visual landscape at the time. Trained artists also began to take their practice to New York’s streets, many with themes of social consciousness in their work. John Fekner stenciled messages of urgency and despair (“Decay” and “Broken Promises”) in the South Bronx, Jenny Holzer wheat-pasted Truisms – one-liner phrases such as “A little knowledge can go a long way” – on walls around the city, and Richard Hambleton created a shocking series of fictional murder scenes on the city’s pavement.

Shadowman by Richard Hambleton, New York Photo by Hank O'Neill

Shadowman by Richard Hambleton, New York
Photo by Hank O’Neal

Born in Vancouver, Canada, Richard Hambleton began working in New York’s streets in 1976 with body outlines in chalk dashed with red paint along the city’s sidewalks. He quickly moved on to wheat-pasting life sized photographic self-portraits and eventually settled on a series of street paintings of silhouetted figures called shadowmen. Painting more than 450 kinetic works on the streets in the early 1980s, which verged on abstract expressionist, Hambleton was quoted saying, “I painted the town black.”

Shadowman by Richard Hambleton, New York Photo by Hank O'Neill

Shadowman by Richard Hambleton, New York
Photo by Hank O’Neal

Hambleton went on to explain the open-ended nature of his work. “I’m not trying to make a specific statement with them,” he said. “They could represent watchmen or danger or the shadows of a human body after a nuclear holocaust, or even my own shadow. But what makes them exciting is the power of the viewer’s imagination. It’s that split-second experience when you see the figure that matters.” (Read more on Hambleton in People.)

Shadowman by Richard Hambleton, New York Photo by Hank O'Neill

Shadowman by Richard Hambleton, New York
Photo by Hank O’Neal

Noted image makers Andreas Feininger and Hank O’Neal meticulously documented Hambleton’s street paintings in the context of the urban landscape. For Feininger, a LIFE magazine photographer who had spent more than 40 years working in New York City, photographing Hambleton’s art served as a means to depict the idiosyncrasies of the modern city in the 1980s. For Hank O’Neal, a portraitist and jazz photographer, Hambleton’s paintings fueled his budding interest in street art. O’Neal pursued what became an obsession for him for 40 years. It resulted in the publication XCIA’s Street Art Project, which depicted imagery of public art made around the world.

Andreas Feninger (1906-1999) Graffiti - Shadowman, 1983 Museum of the City of New York, 90.40.86

Andreas Feninger (1906-1999)
Graffiti – Shadowman, 1983
Museum of the City of New York, 90.40.86

Hambleton experienced a rush of interest from galleries seeking to show his street work, but promptly disappeared from the art world by 1985. Only in recent years has he resurfaced. Currently, the Dorian Grey Gallery in the East Village is showing paintings by Hambelton, on view until November 9th.

–Sean Corcoran, Curator of Prints and Photographs, Museum of the City of New York

Clowns!

Clowns inspire laughter and happiness in some people, and fear or aversion in many others. They have been around for more than 4,000 years and in nearly as many places and cultures, entertaining or frightening Egyptian pharaohs, Chinese imperial courts, ancient Greek and Roman audiences, and Aztec rulers, to name just a few. In this blog post, we take a look at clowns of the circus and stage as represented in the City Museum’s collections.

James T. Powers began performing in 1880 at the age of 18. His stage career lasted over 55 years, owing to his versatility as an actor, comedian and light-opera singer. He played the character Biggs in the musical comedy The Circus Girl, and donned a variety of roles for the part: barber, wrestler and clown. The New York Times complained that the production was unoriginal in a review published on April 27, 1897: “Even its lively circus scene, that is so happily treated that one really feels he is at the circus while it is in progress, has been done over and over again, in one way or another.”

Sarony. James T. Powers. 1898. Museum of the City of New York. 46.246.238

Sarony. James T. Powers. 1898. Museum of the City of New York. 46.246.238

Powers returned to the role of Biggs in the revival staged the following year, which received more favorable reviews from the press.

Rotograph Co. (New York, N.Y.). Jas. T. Powers "Clown". 1904-1911. Museum of the City of New York. 57.46.24

Rotograph Co. (New York, N.Y.). Jas. T. Powers “Clown”. 1904-1911. Museum of the City of New York. 57.46.24

While Powers performed regularly as Biggs the clown on the New York stage, other clowns traveled on railroads across the United States with circus companies like Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, in an effort to bring the show to as many Americans as possible.

Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Magazine and Daily Review. 1926. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Magazine and Daily Review. 1926. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Circuses proved to be lucrative, and businessmen seeking a higher return on investment began to expand the shows. Circus venues grew in size, rendering individual dialog inaudible. Clowns adapted by modifying their roles in the ring. The 1926 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Magazine and Daily Review noted: “The one, the only, the inimitable clown that used to be, a character of such importance that his name was heralded in lithographic splendor, is gone, but a horde of just as clever and more vigilant cut-ups has replaced him… The reason is quite obvious. The arena is so large that no one clown can be the cynosure of all eyes…”

Talking clown has gone - replaced by comic horde. Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Magazine and Daily Review. 1926. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Talking clown has gone – replaced by comical horde. Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Magazine and Daily Review. 1926. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

In spite of the magazine’s claim that the circus “has forced personal appeal to yield to organization and ensemble,” it chose a single, standout clown each year for a feature story. On of these, Paul Jerome, shown below in the 1936 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus magazine and program, performed with the circus company for more than 25 years.

Paul Jerome returns to Clown Alley. 1936. Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Magazine. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Paul Jerome. 1936. Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus Magazine. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Felix Adler took up clowning as a teenager and worked for Ringling Bros. He served in World War I and often entertained fellow military personnel. After the war he returned to Ringling Bros. and never missed a performance, from 1919 to 1946.

Felix Adler. 1937. Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Magazine. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Felix Adler. 1937. Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus Magazine. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

The actor Dennis King played the role of Funny in the 1946 revival of Leonid Andreyev’s play, He Who Gets Slapped. (The character’s name was He in the original 1922 production.) Funny begins as a nameless man, betrayed by his wife and his best friend, who runs away to join a circus and become a clown. His role in the circus is to have his face slapped for the amusement of the audience, hence the title of the play.

United Press International. Dennis King as Funny in "He Who Gets Slapped". 1946. Museum of the City of New York. 81.54.2396

United Press International. [Dennis King as Funny in “He Who Gets Slapped”.] 1946. Museum of the City of New York. 81.54.2396

The entertainer Bobby Barry performed with King in He Who Gets Slapped. The same year he also played the part of Bozo in Burlesque, and was described by The Billboard as the “diminutive comic husband” of “beefy gal” Gail Garber.

Photo Ideas Inc. Bobby Barry as Bozo and Gail Garber as Gussie in "Burlesque". 1946-1948. Museum of the City of New York. 49.98.10

Photo Ideas Inc. [Bobby Barry as Bozo and Gail Garber as Gussie in “Burlesque”.] 1946-1948. Museum of the City of New York. 49.98.10

Lou Jacobs was born Johann Ludwig Jacob in 1903 in Germany. He immigrated to the United States in 1923 and initially found work as a contortionist. He joined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in 1925 and worked as a clown until declining health forced him to retire in 1985. During the 60 years he performed, Jacobs was arguably the most famous, instantly recognizable clown in the world and even appeared on a United States Postal Service stamp in 1966. He died in 1992 at the age of 89 but is still remembered today for his contributions to clowning.

Stanley Kubrick for Look magazine. Circus Story: Clown. 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11376.1

Stanley Kubrick for Look magazine. Circus Story: Clown. 1948. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.11376.1

Emmett Kelly, Jr. was the son of famous clown Emmett Kelly, who created the endearing character “Weary Willie.” When Emmett Kelly, Jr. adopted his father’s character and debuted at the Kodak Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, he was dogged by comments like “He’ll never be as good as his father.” But he took those criticisms in stride and continued to perform until his death in 2006.

Draw me. Emmett Kelly Jr. Star Spangled Circus program. 1974. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Draw me. Emmett Kelly Jr. Star Spangled Circus program. 1974. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Avner Eisenberg opened his one-man show Avner the Eccentric at the Lamb’s Theatre in 1984. The show received a glowing review from the New York Times: “He never says a word – he makes some sounds, mostly on a kazoo – but we read his face as if it were a cartoon balloon. Balancing a chair on his chin, he hears the applause and says, ‘If you think this is hard, let me do something bigger,’ and replaces the chair with a teetering 10- foot ladder.”

Photographer unknown. Avner the Eccentric. 1984. Museum of the City of New York. 95.139.157

Photographer unknown. Avner the Eccentric. 1984. Museum of the City of New York. 95.139.157

Avner the Eccentric still writes, directs, and performs his own material, in addition to teaching master classes in clowning and developing workshops for students and professionals in healthcare, education, and counseling.

Simo Neri. Avner the Eccentric. 1984. Museum of the City of New York. 95.139.158

Simo Neri. [Avner the Eccentric.] 1984. Museum of the City of New York. 95.139.158

So many people are frightened of clowns, there is a word to describe it: coulrophobia. Even though the term is thought to have been coined in the 1980s, fear of clowns has probably existed as long as clowns themselves. But clowns also captivate and fascinate people, a fact not lost on showman Irvin Feld, who created the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Clown College in 1968 to foster new talent. To date nearly 1,300 people have graduated to become clowns.

Such a Foolish Wish by Dudley T. Fisher, Jr. 1937. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Magazine. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

Such a Foolish Wish by Dudley T. Fisher, Jr. 1937. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Magazine. Museum of the City of New York Theater archives.

 

Carl Van Vechten and Modern New York

A guest post this week from the City Museum’s Curator of Architecture and Design, Donald Albrecht.

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964). Fania Marinoff, July 8, 1936. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.350

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964). Fania Marinoff, July 8, 1936. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.350

Earlier this year, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Edward White’s book The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America. Little known today, Van Vechten was a prolific novelist, critic, photographer, and promoter of all things modern, most actively engaged in the city’s cultural life during the 1920s and ‘30s. The City Museum is rich in Van Vechten materials; its collections include about 2,200 photographs taken by him and 3,000 Christmas cards sent to him and his wife, film and theater actress Fania Marinoff. Taken together, they chronicle Van Vechten’s influential circles of friends and colleagues—a hybrid mash-up that defines the modern America at the heart of White’s new book. Images and correspondence in the City Museum’s collection range from Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes to writer Zelda Fitzgerald (wife of F. Scott), and playwright Eugene O’Neill.

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964). Langston Hughes, June 11, 1942. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.309

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964). Langston Hughes, June 11, 1942. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.309

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964). Gertrude Stein, November 4, 1934. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.405

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964). Gertrude Stein, November 4, 1934. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.405

Carl Van Vechten was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1880. After graduating from the University of Chicago in 1903, Van Vechten worked as a newspaper journalist, moving on to loftier cultural horizons—New York—in 1906. His journalism career in the city involved important stints at the city’s newspapers, including the New York Times. He served as a music and dance critic who promoted cutting-edge personalities and trends, as well as a correspondent in Paris, where he met Gertrude Stein. (In the 1930s Van Vechten would help realize the American premiere of the opera Four Saints in Three Acts, written by Stein with music by Virgil Thomson.) Through his job at the Times, Van Vechten also met Mabel Dodge, whose fashionable Greenwich Village gatherings of leading artists and writers Van Vechten soon joined. Inspired by Dodge, Van Vechten created his own salon of luminaries at his and Marinoff’s Upper West Side apartment. Though they competed for the title of “most avant-garde trailblazer” over the years, Dodge and Van Vechten remained friends, even after Dodge relocated from New York to Taos, New Mexico, after World War I.

Around 1920 Van Vechten gave up journalism for fiction and over the next decade wrote hotly debated novels about Jazz Age Manhattan. His 1923 book The Blind Bow-Boy, for example, is a classic of gay camp and a public expression of Van Vechten’s sexual orientation; while he and Marinoff were married from 1914 until Van Vechten’s death in 1964, he had numerous homosexual relationships. In 1926, Van Vechten wrote his most controversial novel, the provocatively titled Nigger Heaven, which grew out of his experiences as a promoter of many African-American artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Van Vechten’s role in the Harlem Renaissance remains a controversial topic. To some he’s a valuable bridge between white and black New Yorkers, to others he’s an outsider who patronized and exploited his African-American subjects. Parties, Van Vechten’s last novel, was published in 1930, a year after the Stock Market Crash. His literary swansong, it is a paean to his time, according to a New Yorker profile, at the epicenter of the city’s “unbuttoned bohemian life.”

Carl Van Vechten (1884-1964). Billie Holiday, March 23, 1949. Museum of the City of New York. 58.38.24

Carl Van Vechten (1884-1964). Billie Holiday, March 23, 1949. Museum of the City of New York. 58.38.24

Carl Van Vechten abandoned writing altogether in the early 1930s and embraced photography, a field he would pursue until his death. All told, it is estimated that Van Vechten took some 15,000 photographs. Because his inherited wealth offered him financial independence, Van Vechten took pictures for his own pleasure, usually inviting local and visiting celebrities to a studio he set up in his own apartment. While Van Vechten was aware of the stylistic artifice of such contemporary commercial photographers as Edward Steichen and Cecil Beaton, he stood apart from them. He used a small-format camera, and his aesthetic, which included deep and dramatic shadows that sometimes obscured his subjects’ faces, resulted in picture-making that was far more immediate and spontaneous than that of his contemporaries. Using this technique, Van Vechten photographed musicians Billie Holiday and George Gershwin, Hollywood actors Laurence Olivier and Anna May Wong, and writers Sinclair Lewis and Clifford Odets, to name only a few. The sum of Van Vechten’s work, according to photography historian Keith F. Davis, “constitutes the single most integrated vision of American arts and letters produced in his era.”

Carl Van Vechten. George Gershwin, March 28, 1933. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.296

Carl Van Vechten. George Gershwin, March 28, 1933. Museum of the City of New York. 42.316.296

All images used with permission from the Van Vechten Trust.