Quiet glimpses of the turn of the century city through an amateur’s camera

On the surface, Robert Bracklow probably appeared to his customers and neighbors to be a typical New Yorker.

Canal Street Between Laight and Varick Streets, 1897

Born in 1849, he immigrated to Gotham with his family when he was a child. He grew up during the Civil War and early Gilded Age, then made his living as a stationer and printer—owning his own legal stationary shop in Lower Manhattan, according to the New-York Historical Society.

He lived in Brooklyn, and though he never married, he seemed devoted to his lady friend of many years, a schoolteacher.

14th Street West of Fifth Avenue

But beneath the ordinariness of his life, Bracklow had a special passion for photography, which he discovered in his early 30s.

During early morning outings around Manhattan and sometimes to outer boroughs like Brooklyn, Bracklow, nicknamed “Daylight Bob” because he was afraid of the dark (and darkrooms too), “created a picture history of New York’s growth at the turn of the century,” according to a 1984 article in Photography.

Brighton Beach, 1895

Contemporaries like Alfred Stieglitz (a fellow member of the Camera Club of New York in the 1890s) were pushing the boundaries of photography as a fine art form.

Yet Bracklow “never embraced Stieglitz’s more abstract artistic vision, nor did he use his photography to expose social ills or make a clear political statement, like his contemporary Jacob Riis,” wrote the New-York Historical Society.

Corner saloon, 163rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue

Instead, most of the thousands of photos Bracklow took were documentary-style, unsentimental glimpses of New York.

His camera captured horse-pulled wagons meandering along rundown streets, new skyscrapers reaching toward the heavens, shantytowns and shacks, corner saloons, beachgoers at Coney Island, and other scenes in a changing city.

Dutch Street

The fascinating part about Bracklow’s photography is how all the images he took of a 19th century city shifting into the modern era made it into the hands of museum curators.

It didn’t happen until decades after he passed away. Bracklow died in 1920, and his possessions went to his lady friend, including “3,000 glass plates and 715 platinum prints in 28 scrapbooks,” states Photography.

Church of the Messiah, 34th Street and Park Avenue

“After the house she lived in was sold 30 years later, the collection came to the attention of Alexander Alland, Sr., who bought the negatives from a second-hand furniture dealer and made silver prints from them,” per Photography.

“In 1982, the scrapbooks were given to the New-York Historical Society by a descendant of the photographer’s sweetheart.”

Boy using a water pump on Edgar Street

In 2015, the New-York Historical Society and Metropolitan New York Library Council digitized the entire collection.

Here are some of Bracklow’s images: They aren’t romantic or necessarily artistic, but they perfectly document with composition and clarity the New York he lived in, which was in flux.

Robert Bracklow’s last known photograph of himself

[All photos New-York Historical Society Robert L. Bracklow Photograph Collection]

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13 Responses to “Quiet glimpses of the turn of the century city through an amateur’s camera”

  1. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    How many years did it take for the greenery to grow on the side of the Church of the Messiah? Amazing!

  2. mitzanna Says:

    Thank you for this post. I saw a fantastic exhibit of his Ninth Avenue El stations and stops along Greenwich Street many years ago. Nothing amateur about them at all. We are so fortunate that his work was saved.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I should have mentioned that “amateur” came from his belonging to the Society of Amateur Photographers of New York, an early group of photography enthusiasts. The word carries no judgement about his talent, which was immense!

      • mitzanna Says:

        Yes of course. And your link to the NY Historical Society has most of the collection I think. They are the full negatives uncropped. When you crop them they are even more beautiful. Such an incredible view of NYC, mostly unposed.

  3. marshanewman11 Says:

    I love this collection! And also that silver prints were made from existing negatives. What a wonder! I liken myself to him also, tho photography today is digital…I have been photographing all my life, both NYC and even, fortunately, a good portion of the outside world. My family and friends value me for being this person too, so it feeds the soul.

  4. Beth Says:

    Just wonderful peeks into a bygone time in the city!

  5. countrypaul Says:

    Astonishing collection, and good choices from it. I can tell that the Historical Society pages are going to be ensnaring my attention a lot for several days!

  6. Anthony Cerniglia Says:

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

  7. Anthony Cerniglia Says:


    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

  8. DAVID EVANS/upriverdavid Says:

    Howdy!..I’ve been following your site for quite a while and decided to have your site sent to me every time you post..I was from Seattle but visited N.Y. in 1969 when I was in the Army in Virginia and again when my sis and our mom were visiting where she grew up.Waterbury Conn. I really enjoy what you share, thanks!..David Evans

  9. Heavenabovehorse Says:

    Great photos! 😍

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