Posts Tagged ‘New York in the 1940s’

A photographer captures a New York City of abstraction in the 1940s

January 10, 2022

The street photographers who point their cameras all over the city tend to focus on people in motion in recognizable places—the rush of crowds on a subway platform, barflies at a corner tavern, or the random strollers, workers, loafers, and others found at any moment in time on specific streets and sidewalks.

Brett Weston, on the other hand, used his camera to render a more abstract midcentury city. Instead of focusing on a city of people, energy, and vitality, he isolated ordinary objects and buildings and made them beautiful, haunting, even lyrical.

Weston, born in California in 1911 and the son of photographer Edward Weston, was already an established photographer before coming to Gotham in 1944. During World War II, he was drafted and sent to the Army Pictorial Center in Queens, according to the International Center of Photography (ICP). There, in a former studio owned by Paramount, filmmakers and photographers helped produce army training films. (Today it’s Kaufman Studios in Astoria.)

When he wasn’t working, Weston took to the streets of the city with his 8×10 view camera, per the ICP.

“Over the next two years, Weston took over 300 photographs, each distinguished by an attention to the formal values of linearity, depth, and contrast,” the ICP noted.

“Turning away from the documentary style that characterized much of the photography of New York in the preceding decade, notably Berenice Abbott’s project Changing New York (1939), Weston pioneered a highly subjective and abstract view of the city, often focusing on details such as the finial on an iron railing or ivy on the side of a building.”

The Danziger Gallery, which represents Weston’s work, stated that he “concentrated mostly on close-ups and abstracted details, but his prints reflected a preference for high contrast that reduced his subjects to pure form.”

Weston only spent a few years in New York, and his cityscape images are a small portion of his overall work. In the 1920s he apprenticed with his father in Mexico; most of his life he was based in California, where he had a studio and portrait business, according to The Brett Weston Archive (where his vast body of work can be viewed).

Weston died in 1993 at the age of 82. His New York images have a timelessness that brings them out of the 1940s to still resonate today. Like the work of the abstract expressionist painters of the 1940s, they reflect the quiet, solitary stillness of the modern city.

[First and second photos: artnet.com; third photo: International Center of Photography; fourth photo: artnet.com; fifth photo: International Center of Photography; sixth, seventh, and eighth photos: artnet.com]

One summer night on a New York tenement roof

June 28, 2021

Saul Kovner was a Russia-born artist who came to New York City in the 1920s. After attending the National Academy of Design and setting up a studio on Central Park West, he worked for the WPA in the 1930s and 1940s.

Kovner captured gentle yet honest scenes in all seasons of urban life, particularly of working class and poor New Yorkers. In 1946, he completed “One Summer Night,” a richly detailed depiction of tenement dwellers seeking refuge from the heat in a pre- air conditioned city.

I’m not sure what part of the city we’re in, but you can just feel the sweat, discomfort, and frustration—that sense of being trapped, as these people are, on a tarry island that offers little relief.

“One Summer Night” gives us a situation any New Yorker living in the city in a tenement can relate to. No wonder so many social realist artists have painted or illustrated similar scenes in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Here’s how John Sloan, Everett Shinn, and some wonderful unidentified illustrators captured the “fiery furnace” of a New York heat wave.

Two men, an el train, and a produce market in a 1945 mystery painting

March 1, 2021

Figuring out the location of a long-ago image depicting some part of New York City is a fun challenge. So when a reader sent me this painting—the basis for a 1945 Mack truck ad—looking for information on where the scene was set, I was intrigued.

“The caption for the ad said ‘An old AC Mack Bulldog Nose truck at the New York Fruit and Vegetable Wholesale Market,'” explained the reader.

“Peter Helck, the artist who painted this scene (also my grandfather) was born in Manhattan and lived or worked there most of his life, so he knew the city very well. I believe this represents an actual location and I am hoping you might be able to identify it.”

References to the ‘New York Fruit and Vegetable Wholesale Market’ turned up vague information. But considering that Manhattan’s main produce market in 1945 was the sprawling Washington Market (above, in 1962), centered on Washington Street and spilling over from Fulton to Chambers Streets and beyond in today’s Tribeca, I figured that was the location of the painting.

The confusing thing, though, was the elevated train—which appears to be a true el, not the High Line, which ran a mostly straight line in and out of warehouses. The closest elevated train to Washington Market would have been the Ninth Avenue Elevated. which ran a block over on Greenwich Street. Unfortunately, I didn’t uncover any images of the Ninth Avenue El on the Lower West Side with such a pronounced curve in it.

But could that curved track run farther up Ninth Avenue beside what’s still known as the Meatpacking District (above in 1938)—a 19th century wholesale market that by the 1940s primarily handled meat and poultry? The Belgian block street certainly look like today’s Little West 12th or Gansevoort Street.

Turns out at Ninth Avenue and 14th Street (below, in 1940), the el does make a curve similar to the curve in the painting. Problem is, the Ninth Avenue el was dismantled in 1940.

Could the artist have added an el train per artistic license? Is the date of the painting earlier than thought? A little more detective work needs to be done.

[Painting: courtesy Tim Helck; first photo: LOC; second photo: MCNY 43.131.6.152; third photo: MCNY X2010.26.171]

The painter who captured the soul of New York

May 4, 2020

New York right now feels like it’s at a crossroads. People are fearful of walking the streets with the threat of a virus literally in the air. Subway problems, homelessness…the city doesn’t always seem to be working.

To restore your faith in Gotham, take a look at these paintings by Alfred S. Mira, whose vivid street scenes of the 1930s and 1940s city capture the life, passion, and activity inherent in New York’s soul.

Mira wasn’t a native New Yorker. Born in Italy in 1900, he came to New York as a boy with an “insatiable desire to draw,” as he put it.

Despite his parents’ misgivings, he embarked on a long career as an artist, painting cityscapes (many of his own neighborhood, Greenwich Village) depicting the day-to-day street life New Yorkers relate to and thrive on.

His style is sometimes Impressionist, but his vision of New York was one of realism. He painted the city “the way busy people see it…None of those breathtaking shots cameramen contrive of towers and infinity, which no New Yorker sees in actuality,” he said.

Mira’s paintings capture something real and remarkable about city life—the stunning palette of colors from buildings and roads, the hidden views from el trains and windows, the ordinary exchanges New Yorkers have on sidewalks with one another.

“The lure of the outdoors always attracted me, especially the city streets with their movements, color and depth—they were the things that inspired me and which I painted as they looked and as I felt them,” he said.

This site has featured Mira’s work before, and it’s the right time to present him again. Let his work remind you of what makes New York great and why you don’t ever want to leave.

The solemn story of Park Avenue’s holiday trees

December 30, 2019

Uptown Park Avenue is an almost unbroken line of stately, impeccable apartment buildings. And every December, it’s also a miles-long line of sparkling holiday trees.

Each year since the end of World War II, the fir trees on Park Avenue’s traffic islands are strung with lights that glow like white or amber jewels in the crisp winter night, a “glittering necklace,” as one 1987 article called it, bathing this stretch of Park in a soft winter glow.

The story behind the trees (and the annual tree-lighting ceremony) is less celebratory and more solemn: “The tradition of lighting trees on Park Avenue began in 1945 when several Park Avenue families wanted a special way to honor those men and women who had died in World War II,” states the website for the nonprofit Fund for Park Avenue, which administers the event.

These families paid for the cost of bringing in fir trees, buying lights, putting together a crew of electricians, and holding the annual ceremony that always included a bugler playing “Taps,” according to a 2005 New York Times article.

It’s since continued every year with the help of other donors. Lovely as the trees are, it’s not an easy venture to organize. Some changes have been made since the early days, when Boy Scouts manually turned on all the lights.

For starters, the holiday lights used to be red, white, green, and blue, but that made it hard for drivers to see traffic lights, so only white remained, stated the Times.

Interestingly, people have tried to steal the trees…which is why each one is now attached to the ground with cables, the Times wrote.

The number of trees and the exact streets they span appears to change as well. And in recent years, service members who fought in other wars haven’t been left out. A Daily News article (above center) from 1963 mentions that soldiers who served in Korea were honored.

“Today the illuminated trees—which appear on the malls between 54th and 97th Streets—remain a symbol of peace and a reminder of the sacrifices made to attain it,” states the Fund. The playing of “Taps” before the trees are lit continues.

[Last photo: Park Avenue in 1964, MCNY X2010.11.14131]

The magical “blue hour” in rainy 1940 New York

December 9, 2019

It’s the blue hour in “Rainy Day, New York,” a 1940 painting by Leon Dolice—a Vienna-born artist who came to Manhattan in the 1920s.

The sun has sunk below the horizon, and sidewalks and buildings are cast in a blueish glow, illuminated by streetlamps, car headlights, and the reflection of rain-slicked streets.

I’m not sure where Dolice painted this moody, magical scene. But perhaps it doesn’t matter. It’s the feel of the city at twilight he’s captured here—an enchanting, slightly eerie few moments whether in the middle of Times Square or on a lonely side street.

The “fear and anxiety” of approaching the city

July 30, 2018

Edward Hopper painted “Approaching a City” in 1946, making it one of his later works.

But it’s no less effective in depicting the isolation and stasis of the modern city—which visitors reach by traveling on a train, something usually associated with excitement and adventure.

Not here. A potential threat lies ahead for travelers to this city (which is presumably New York, based on the tenements flanking the railroad tunnel).

When asked about the painting in 1959, he answered tersely. “Well, I’ve always been interested in approaching a big city in a train, and I can’t exactly describe the sensations, but they’re entirely human and perhaps have nothing to do with aesthetics,” Hopper replied.

“There is a certain fear and anxiety and a great visual interest in the things that one sees coming into a great city. I think that’s about all I can say about it.”

Shadows and light under the El in Yorkville, 1947

May 7, 2018

No one depicts New York’s shadows and light like Martin Lewis, who made numerous drypoint etchings of city streets and the people inhabiting them from the 1920s to the 1940s.

“Yorkville Night” reveals a corner under an unnamed elevated train in the postwar city. There’s darkness, but the streetcar tracks, pavement, produce stand, and station stairwells are brightly illuminated, giving us a peek into a fleeting moment in this Upper East Side neighborhood.

The only thing we can’t see are the faces of the people.

See more of Martin Lewis’ work here.

The woman in Edward Hopper’s “Summertime”

July 7, 2017

She’s young and attractive, wearing a summer straw hat and see-through dress that doesn’t blow quite as much as the curtains in the window to her left do.

Stepping out of her tenement entrance and standing at the sidewalk during the summer of 1943, she appears to be waiting—for what?

The writer behind Edwardhopper.net has this take on her, one of the many isolated souls Hopper depicted in New York in the first half of the 20th century. “The outfit, obviously new, refers to the increased prosperity of the nation, which at last had been able to put aside many of the difficulties of the Depression,” states the site.

“She is part of the large group of young American females who had to survive the war years as best they could, years marked by a dearth of eligible young men and an abundance of money accrued from the jobs the war effort engendered.” Perhaps she’s waiting for the war to end, and the life she wants to begin.

Would you do laundry in the Central Park lake?

May 22, 2017

Would you wash your clothes by hand in the lake in Central Park? These three women did it, and they had a reason.

December 16, 1949—the day the photo was taken—was “dry Friday” in New York City. Thanks to a severe drought that left upstate reservoirs at 34 percent capacity, city residents were forbidden to shave, bathe, or do any other activity that day if it required water.

These three women—Copacabana girls, part of the East Side nightclub’s famous chorus girl lineup, per the caption on the photo—are demonstrating their patriotic duty to do laundry without any running water.